17 July 1999

The Piper's Price: India and the US after Kargil

17 July 1999
The Times of India

The Piper's Price

India and the US after Kargil

By Siddharth Varadarajan

Mountains are always associated with subterranean stirrings and the rocky heights of Kargil have proved to be no less tectonic. It took only six weeks of near war between India and Pakistan to bring into the open a geopolitical fault line that had so far remained latent. The US -- which has been tiring of its `special relationship' with Pakistan ever since the Cold War ended -- finally played its hand. In what proved to be a terrible strategic miscalculation, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dashed to Washington hoping for some succour. Far from comforting Mr Sharif, President Bill Clinton read him the riot act. Later that day, he imposed sanctions on the Taliban, putting on notice all "persons or entities...that provide financial, material or technical support'' to the Afghan militia. That must surely have caused a few medalled chests in Islamabad to beat a little faster.

Larger Matrix

The Vajpayee government's detractors have been quick to cite the Washington document as proof that the US has arrogated to itself the role of mediator. Nevertheless, the mediation issue is largely a red herring. Mr Clinton has only expressed his personal interest in encouraging existing bilateral efforts. And since -- at least at the present juncture -- it is Islamabad which is seen to have disrupted the bilateral process, the US president's "personal interest'' is most likely to be concentrated on Pakistani noncooperation than on anything India does.

In fact, the true significance of Blair House lies not so much in the threat of US intervention as in the imprimatur it puts on Washington's policy of seeking to accommodate India's regional strategic concerns within the larger matrix of its own global security interests.

During the Cold War, there was always an underlying tension in Washington's South Asia policy between the direct importance of the region to US interests and the manner in which the subcontinent could be mobilised to retard or advance US interests elsewhere. The first formal US policy paper on South Asia was produced by the State-Army-Navy-Air force Coordinating Committee (SANACC) in May 1949 and reflected this dualism. Entitled `Appraisal of U.S. National Interests in South Asia', it noted that "the geographical position of South Asia is such that, if the economic and military potentials of the area were more fully developed, it could dominate the region of the Indian Ocean and exert a strong influence also on the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Far East.''

In strategic terms, however, South Asia was ranked fourth in importance -- after Europe, the Far East and the Middle East -- and US policies towards South Asia became largely derivative. The decisive defeat of the Kuomintang in China further cemented this approach. On the eve of Nehru's visit to the US in 1949, the Truman administration's assessment was that only India could prevent China from emerging as the dominant force in South-East Asia. But Nehru had other ideas. After the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, it became clear to Washington that New Delhi would not join the containment crusade. That is when the famous tilt towards Pakistan started.

Now that the Cold War has ended, there is a growing consensus in the US that its alliance with Pakistan was, in the words of Robert J McMahon, "a monumental strategic blunder''. "It contributed little to Western defence efforts in the Middle East...and added almost nothing to the overall global strength of the US...Further, it drained US resources...(and) bound the US to the fate of one of the Third World's most troubled and least stable nations.'' (The Cold War on the Periphery, New York, 1994). Most importantly, it alienated India.

US Goals

The demise of the USSR and the rise of new potential challenges to US interests worldwide has led Washington to reassess the importance of India --but again with an eye to the wider world. In exchange for tacit support in Kargil-type situations, Washington wants New Delhi's cooperation for three policy goals that are absolutely central to US interests in the 21st century. The first is the strengthening of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The second is the containment of China. The third, the creation of OSCE-type regional security structures built around US leadership to deal with `rogue states' and other sources of `instability'.

In assessing the implications of what National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra calls the "paradigm shift'' in Washington's attitude towards South Asia, India needs to consider how these US goals affect its own security interests.

As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, the US would like India to assist in countering any further horizontal proliferation. It would like New Delhi to sign the CTBT immediately and help swiftly negotiate the FMCT. However, it is unwilling to take seriously India's demands on disarmament. Washington considered Pokhran II to be destabilising but since it only brought out a capability that everybody knew existed, the Clinton administration was quick to make the best of the situation. An openly nuclear India which signs the CTBT and pledges to uphold the US-led nuclear order is not as inimical to US interests as an undeclared nuclear power which refuses to be co-opted. If there was any hope that the Vajpayee government would resist US pressures on the CTBT front, the `paradigm shift' that has now occurred as a result of its Kargil diplomacy makes it difficult for India to hold out.

India's Interest

Though there are sections in this country which would like to look upon China as an enemy, most Indians are not comfortable with the idea of getting sucked into the vortex of Sino-US tension. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the US insistence on building a missile defence system involving Japan and Taiwan, President Lee Teng-hui's statements on Taiwanese sovereignty, and Washington's attempts to block China's entry into the WTO -- are all suggestive of a negative trajectory in Sino-US relations. India should refrain from getting involved in these issues and should base its China policy solely on what is in its own enlightened national interest.

Finally, New Delhi should not lose sight of the kind of global order the US is fashioning. NATO's policies towards Yugoslavia and the US-led military alliance's new Strategic Concept are based on the degradation of international law and a more muscular approach to intervention. Such a trend is certainly not in India's interest. It will be a big tragedy if Washington's support over Kargil leads to India's concurrence -- or even silence -- whenever the US mounts Kargil-type aggressions elsewhere.

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