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Condi Rice visit to Delhi: Landmark in India-US Ties

Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd) is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 24, 2005

    The just concluded visit to India (March 16) by Ms. Condi Rice, the US Secretary of State may be deemed a landmark pointing to a deeper strategic underpinning between the two countries notwithstanding the divergences that were expressed over issues such as Iran and the sale of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan – which inadvertently received greater focus in the immediate aftermath of the Rice visit. While there is considerable symbolism in the fact that Ms. Rice chose to make Delhi the first stop in her whistle stop tour of Asia, her responses to the broad range of issues discussed with her Indian interlocutors indicate that the Bush 2 team is determined to take forward the content in the bi-lateral relationship that had been hinted at in the first term of the Bush administration.

    This is amply reflected in three areas that are of strategic importance to India and which till recently were in various stages of delay or procedural deadlock. While Ms. Rice conveyed Washington's concerns over the proposed Indian (and Pakistani) co-operation with Iran over the energy pipeline, she made an important observation by way of acknowledging India's growing energy requirements if it is to sustain its economic growth. She alluded to the need for an India-U.S 'energy dialogue' that would inter alia look at other options – the inference being that of nuclear energy. The US had suspended its support and co-operation in this field after the Indian peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) of 1974 and while this area has been identified in the NSSP (next steps in strategic partnership) agreed to between Mr. Bush and Mr. Vajpayee in January 2004, there has been little actual progress to-date. Ms. Rice indicated that phase two of the NSSP would now be embarked upon and the salience and strategic import of the US assisting India in the nuclear energy domain would by itself make this visit a landmark one. This initiative would call for considerable innovative interpretation of existing US non-proliferation norms and its multilateral commitments in this area but while these may be complex, they are not insurmountable if the White House is determined to stay the course.

    However there are other areas that are of equal relevance and these include the reference to greater US defence supplies that would also encompass technological and joint-production possibilities which is of long term significance for the Indian military establishment. Notwithstanding the standard reference to Indian and the US being the world's largest and oldest democracies, the Indian military inventory has little or no significant platform of US origin. While there have been historical reasons for such an occurrence, it is an existential reality that today the US is the most credible and technologically advanced military supplier in the world and the other suppliers relevant to India are Russia and Europe. The Indian defence establishment has to make a strategic choice regarding the manner in which its inventory profile will be nurtured for the next 30 years (the life cycle of major platforms such as aircraft, ships and artillery) keeping the nature of the RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs) in mind and the US is a logical and viable supplier. However Indian anxieties about the dependability index of the US will have to be assuaged and the deliberations during the Rice visit suggest that this aspect of the bi-lateral relationship will be taken forward by the professionals on both sides and that some major decisions will have to be taken in this regard.

    The third area that is of deep import is the acknowledgement of India's regional and global relevance as a node that contributes positively to stability and prosperity. India's economic growth rate, macro-fiscal indicators and the empathy with information technology and the new economy are familiar and have been noted but Ms. Rice also dwelt on India's noteworthy ability – particularly the Indian Navy - to respond to the December tsunami tragedy as an indicator of Delhi's increasing ability to contribute meaningfully to regional security and stability. This positive affirmation about India is in sharp contrast to the shrill response that was associated with Ms. Madeline Albright, a former US Secretary of State in the immediate aftermath of the May 1998 nuclear tests - and a pointer to the ground that has been covered in the India-US relationship.

    Thus the Rice visit to India is to be objectively assessed for its potential to advance those areas that may be deemed strategic from Delhi's point of view and each of them independently and together will have a direct co-relation with India's profile in the post 9-11 systemic. Managing major power bi-lateral relations calls for consistent prudence and the ability to distinguish what is immediate or tactical and those which have deeper resonances for the national interest. While divergences over Iran, F-16s and visa issues are more visible just now, they should not be allowed to deflect the potential of the Rice visit to strengthen the strategic convergences between the two nations.

    In identifying areas that are of deeper relevance to India, mention must also be made of Ms. Rice's assertion in Islamabad which she visited after Delhi. Predictably she praised General Musharraf for his role in supporting the US war against terrorism but also added a caveat when she noted: "We look forward to the evolution of a democratic path towards elections in 2007." India is not in position to either encourage or advise Pakistan's military rulers to return to the barracks even though this would be in the larger interests of the Pakistani people and regional stability and Ms. Rice's unambiguous comments have aroused considerable ferment in Pakistan's civil society and military establishment. And finally the AQ Khan issue also found mention in a manner that reflects the mood of the international community when Ms. Rice reiterated that "it is a network that we want to make certain that its tentacles are broken up as well."

    Whether it is the fundamental support to equitable democracy as a principle or the need to manage the emerging nuclear challenges and find a modus vivendi to the energy domain, there is a shared interest that binds India and the USA and the Rice visit served to illuminate these areas. The challenge in the next three will be to ensure that the Bush team remains focused on these issues. Confirmation of a visit by the US President to India within the year will give further impetus to the promising foundation laid by Ms. Rice in her first visit to the sub-continent and will make it truly 'landmark'.