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July 27, 1999


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India's friendship with US is not danger-free

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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

So, everyone is happy -- no, euphoric is the word -- about India's improved relations with the United States.

Or are they?

The mood definitely is upbeat in the ministry of external affairs. But certain other quarters caution against going overboard like India did a little while ago with Pakistan. Remember the Lahore bus ride?

"We are probably getting a little carried away," says Professor Kanti Bajpai of the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. "The question that we should be asking ourselves is what is bringing India and the US together."

Not that everyone agrees. Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses Director Jasjit Singh is confident that the co-operation witnessed is an indication of things to come. "Certainly there is a lot of euphoria in the media and in the government, but nevertheless I see a definite change in Indo-US relations," he says.

Former foreign secretary S K Singh sees it more as Indo-US relations returning to normal. "Over the past two years, for a variety of reasons, Indo-US ties had soured. What we are witnessing right now is only the return to normal and a moving forward of ties, which would have anyway happened," he feels.

Thus, to S K Singh, Kargil has only played the role of a catalyst.

Jasjit Singh echoes the same sentiment. "Since 1997 our relations were actually improving with the US and Bill Clinton was all set to visit our country. The nuclear tests suddenly caused our ties to nosedive. What we are seeing now is a return to normal ties, and taking them forward to the next logical phase," he says.

Certainly Kargil has helped India out of the isolation that Pokhran II forcibly imposed. This year, countries have gone out of their way to request one-to-one meetings with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh. Thus, Singh's much-hyped chat with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was followed by discussions with the Chinese, Japanese and Singaporean foreign ministers, besides with other individual countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

However, Bajpai urges caution. "Let us not forget that the US cannot give up Pakistan at this juncture. The first reason is Pakistan's geostrategic position, straddling Central and West Asia, is crucial to US interests, especially in its demand for petrol. Second, the US needs a moderate Islamic ally, for its West Asian operations, a sort of political bulwark against radicals. Giving up on Pakistan could see that country go into the hands of anti-US Islamic radicals, something that Washington would dread, given their worries over the likes of Osama bin Laden. Thus, the US will not sideline Pakistan," he points out.

According to Bajpai, this necessity to keep Pakistan happy could translate into pressure on India to show movement on the Kashmir dispute.

Former foreign secretary Eric Gonsalves too agrees that India need to be careful -- after all, no one wants a repeat of the bus fiasco. "In the case of the Lahore bus ride, we let down our guard. Let me give an example. Every year I buy mangoes from the bazaar but we still check the mangoes we buy. We failed to do this after the Lahore bus ride," points out Gonsalves.

According to Jasjit Singh, the Kargil conflict actually gave the US a lever to help normalise its relations with India. "After Pokhran, India and the US held a record eight rounds of talks and we needed something to achieve a breakthrough in those talks. Kargil was the catalyst," he says.

As Gonsalves points out, the US has had some bitter experiences over the past year with its brand of coercive diplomacy, which has now made them realise the futility of chastising India for nuclear tests ad infinitum.

"After Kosovo, the near crisis between Taiwan and China and the North Korean missile threats, the US now understands that the world can no longer have just five nuclear powers," he says.

Gonsalves adds that the US is now beginning to appreciate that the world remains a dangerous place, and friendship with India would be a great help.

One major factor inhibiting the Indo-US ties is the low level of economic co-operation. "For the US, business comes first and as long as India remains a difficult country to invest in our ties will always remain below their full potential," says Bajpai.

S K Singh feels that the recent economic crisis might have made the US appreciate India much more. "Our economy and markets have shown a certain resilience, which the other countries have failed to do, and that does make us attractive," he holds.

Gonsalves points out that the Indian economy remains fragile. "The fact is that globalisation is a reality and economic profits are sought after by all. In that sense, the US needs India also. But we have to build ourselves up internally, be strong economically and otherwise to have true friendship with the US," he says.

Certainly, a relationship forged over a limited war between two nuclear powers (only the second such war after the Sino-Soviet conflict in 1969) alone cannot be the basis of a long-term relation. As Bajpai recalls, in the 1962 war against China, the US totally sided with India and the Indo-US ties peaked. But in 1963, China began warming up to the US while India, hemmed in by the non-aligned doctrine, chose not to be too close. And the US turned away from India to China.

"Similarly, let us remember that right now the US is friendly because of the Kargil war. To cement that relation, we both need to do much more, otherwise we could both go back to the old ways," the JNU professor warns.

Certain disputes between the two countries, most notably over nuclear arms, remain unresolved and could cause trouble in future. But the good news is that today there is no Cold War and with India joining the global market, albeit slowly, bygones may remain bygones.

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