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India-US: partners of convenience?

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September 25, 2006 08:17 IST
Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Henry L Stimson Centre, the only think-tank in Washington, DC, dedicated to South Asia. In this article, he assesses the India-Pakistan mini-summit in Havana, the Senate vote on the India-US nuclear treaty and its likely outcome.

This week, the US Senate may try to take up the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement while Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf made the rounds in Washington.

Boosters of the US-India nuclear deal view this as a harbinger of a new geo-strategic partnership that will yield significant, albeit vague benefits. Supporters of the US-Pakistan partnership believe that Islamabad's help is essential to counter Islamic extremism within the country and along its periphery.

One of the oddities of this week's juxtaposition of events is how much optimism Washington places on the Indian geo-strategic partnership, and how much cynicism is attached to the partnership with Pakistan. Excessive optimism or pessimism is unwise and unhelpful. Both partnerships can produce mutual dividends when national interests and domestic politics are in alignment. But at present, significant divergences remain in both cases.

The extent of these divergences was on display in Havana earlier this month, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf attended the non-aligned summit meeting. In Havana, the Indian prime minister had a photo opportunity and a meeting with Fidel Castro, while foregoing a trip to the United States and a meeting with President Bush. This speaks volumes about his government's political sensitivities in the wake of signing the nuclear cooperation agreement.

The Indian prime minister's primary need at this hour is to distance New Delhi from the Bush administration's agenda. Hence, India's endorsement of the NAM summit's final communique. Musharraf, the Bush administration's other strategic partner in South Asia, also endorsed the NAM agenda.

Are these endorsements mere political verbiage? If so, should pledges directed to US audiences also be discounted? Or do these statements reflect serious differences in national interests? Will domestic political realities in India and Pakistan continue to constrain the extent of their partnerships with the United States?

Clear answers to these questions will unfold in due course. There are already many reasons to be concerned about the state of US-Pakistan relations. The language of the NAM communique also suggests the need to contain irrational exuberance about prospects for a close US-India strategic partnership.

Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Henry L Stimson Center. He is the author of Cooperative Threat Reduction, Missile Defense and the Nuclear Future and the editor of Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia

Complete coverage: The Indo-US nuclear deal | Dr Singh at the NAM summit

Michael Krepon