US-Indian Relations: A New Agenda for a New Era

When President Bush signed the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement on December 18, 2006, a new era began in the US relationship with India. It marked the end of a quarter century during which the nuclear proliferation issue dominated the bilateral relationship. Now the two largest democracies in the world can develop a new agenda freed from the burden of the proliferation issue. The Administration can count on broad bipartisan support for doing so. The overwhelming Senate approval (85-12) reflects the consensus of American foreign policy strategists in both parties that India will be one of America’s most crucial partners in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the rapprochement with India began under President Clinton and is one of the few areas of continuity in foreign policy between the Clinton and Bush teams.

The deal has been criticized in India by some as “humiliating” and a surrender to US interests. By and large, however, the Indian nuclear establishment has been positive about the deal, pointing out the benefits for India of gaining access to more advanced civilian nuclear technology while retaining a substantial number of unregulated reactors to produce weapons. Most Indian pundits agree the deal is a good one for New Delhi. Polls show Indians have favorable views of the US: the Pew Poll in 2002 showed a 54 percent favorable view of America; by 2005 it had risen to 71 percent-highly unusual during the Bush presidency; before falling back to 56 percent in 2006.

Senior administration officials say the new era after the deal will be marked by action in three areas: bilateral relations, global issues, and regional issues in South Asia. The bilateral agenda will focus on increasing trade and economic relations. With growth rates around 8 percent annually, the Indian economy is expanding rapidly. Sales of nuclear energy plants will be only one facet of the increasingly complex US-India economic relationship. The strong India lobby in the Congress is likely to find a receptive audience on both sides of the aisle for more trade with India. Presidential candidates Senators Clinton, McCain, and Obama all voted for the nuclear deal, although many Democrats also voted for amendments to put more constraints on India, which were later defeated. The new Democratic majority could make the outsourcing of information technology jobs to India a political issue down the road, especially if unemployment grows in the US.

Bilateral military relations should also strengthen. The removal of the proliferation constraints and the departure of Donald Rumsfeld and the arrival of Secretary Robert Gates offer a chance to rapidly expand military-to-military interaction. Rumsfeld was irked by India’s refusal to send troops to Iraq in 2003 and let the defense relationship idle for the last three years. The US Pacific Command is particularly eager to expand further naval cooperation in protecting the sea lanes in the entire Indian Ocean. India should be designated a major non-NATO ally and get access to additional high tech defense sales (Pakistan was designated a major non-NATO ally two years ago).

Global cooperation should focus on issues like counter-terrorism, proliferation hot spots like Iran and North Korea, global warming and other environmental concerns, and human rights issues. Washington and New Delhi should also press for the advancement of democracy around the world. The State Department will seek to align India with the US on virtually every global issue.

The most intriguing area for new cooperation should be in the subcontinent itself. Already the US and India have cooperated in trying to end the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, bringing the Maoists into the government at the expense of the king, and they will need now to try to keep the peace. India and the US should also cooperate in trying to stabilize Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, both of which face mounting internal political difficulties.

India also shares the American interest in a healthy, stable, and free Afghanistan and has provided over a half-billion dollars in aid to the Karzai government. Indians are rightly alarmed at the revival of the Taliban since 2005 and the sharp increase in Taliban attacks on NATO and Afghan forces in 2006 (suicide attacks went from 23 in 2005 to over 120 in 2006; overall attacks rose from 1,632 to 5,388). New Delhi would be prepared to do more to help Karzai and blames most of the problem on Pakistan’s tolerance for Taliban activity on its side of the 1,500-mile Afghan-Pakistan border. With US leadership, NATO should reach out to India to get more help in Afghanistan.

The toughest issue will be Pakistan and trying to advance the nascent Indo-Pakistani dialogue. The dialogue has produced some movement on confidence-building measures between the two rivals, but the underlying source of friction, the Kashmir conflict, has not been addressed. Washington should try to quietly press the parties to find a solution to the Kashmiris desire for greater self rule. India’s territorial integrity should be kept intact but the valley should gain a special status. This will require very delicate diplomacy but has a large potential pay off.

The Indians have rightly been miffed by President Musharraf’s habit of floating his thinking on Kashmir first to the press but they have reacted with some positive signs to his latest overtures. Prime Minister Singh has said he welcomes Musharraf’s ideas and that he looks forward to the day when one could breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dine in Kabul, a vision of a subcontinent at peace with itself for the first time in decades. The positive noises from New Delhi come despite continued ISI support for terrorists and infiltration across the Line of Control.

The Indian leadership apparently has recognized that it has no good military options to deal with Pakistan, now that both states are proven nuclear capable. The Kargil War was an early indication that nuclear weapons made conventional military options too dangerous. In 2002, India mobilized its armed forces for a showdown with Pakistan that lasted more than half a year. Indian military planners were never able to suggest a viable military option to the previous government, led by Bharatiya Janata Party, that would not threaten to get out of hand and go nuclear.

For his part, Musharraf has come a long way from being the instigator of the Kargil War to a possible peace maker. Apparently, he has come to realize that India cannot be forced out of Kashmir by terrorism, limited war, or nuclear threats. Musharraf may also recognize that Pakistan can not clear itself from charges of involvement with terrorist organizations as long as it is intimately bound to the Kashmiri groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LT).

None of this is to suggest peace is at hand or that a nuclear conflict is impossible. South Asia remains a potential tinder box, which is why it is so important to use this period of relative quiet to carry out preventive diplomacy to resolve Kashmir. But it does suggest the opportunity for diplomacy is riper than usual in this new era.