Sunday, August 12, 2012

US in Asia-Pacific: An Indian Perspective

The US Strategic Goals in Asia Pacific: An Indian Perspective.

By T.P.Sreenivasan

The distant drums of an approaching new cold war were audible at the Asia Pacific Roundtable on Asian Security Governance and Order in Kuala Lumpur. The increasing influence and assertiveness of China in the region seemed to invite a matching response from the United States.

The striking point about the rise of China was the perception in the region, at least among some countries, that the Chinese presence was benign. Prime Minister Razak of Malaysia, for instance, said that he would not belittle “the positive transformational effects China’s ascendancy has and will continue to have on Asia and beyond.”

Mahathir Mohammed, the elder statesman of Malaysia, sough to allay the fears about China by saying that the Chinese, who had contacts with the region for centuries, had never colonized any country, while the Portuguese and other Europeans merrily built empires in Asia. He said that Malaysia should fear the Europeans more. He revealed his admiration for the Chinese when he said that the Chinese were cleverer than the Russians. The Soviet Union collapsed because it tried to reform both the economic and political systems at the same time. The Chinese survived as a nation because they only reformed the economic system.

Malaysians were not the only ones to praise China or to predict that China would determine the future of the Asia Pacific region. The assessments of China were always positive and there was never even a hint of human rights violations or curtailment of press freedom.  Mahathir favoured a certain amount of authoritarianism in Government and was as tolerant of “some killings” by the Chinese as of American atrocities against terrorists.

China’s own perceptions about security in Asia and the Pacific were quite patronizing, bordering on arrogance. The Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN spelt out the Chinese position on the South China Sea, making light of the repercussions of the Chinese assertiveness on this matter. Other Chinese scholars openly admitted that confrontation with the United States was inevitable, as the US “Back to Asia” security policy was targeting on China and it was a direct threat to it. But even while admitting strategic distrust, they said that shared interests made the two countries cautious and pragmatic in managing tensions.

According to the Chinese, China’s increasing importance and influence were making the countries of the region perform the feat of “putting legs on two boats”. Even though confidence made China continue to play a positive role in managing the new complex relations and challenges, the situation gave rise to nationalism and a “new victim feeling”, a strange concept of fear, which led, ironically, to greater assertiveness. China clearly sees a competition between the old US dominated military alliances and the new structures in which China plays a central role. It realizes that the key to political dominance is economic penetration and the Chinese make no secret of their strategy.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the US has identified the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia as the region which needs to receive greater attention. The rebalancing means shifting the US concentration from the Middle East to Asia and a broader reach in Asia itself with more flexible deployments and rotation of troops. President Obama was candid about the US strategic objective in Asia. He said, “I am determined that we meet the challenges of the moment responsibly and that we emerge even stronger in a manner that preserves American global leadership and maintains our military superiority.” The real debate today is not about the importance of Asia, but what methods should be used to increase the US engagement in the region.

The US interests in the region should be seen against China’s growing military capabilities and its assertiveness of claims, which has implications for freedom of navigation. Although the President is committed to reducing the defense budget, the disengagement in Afghanistan and Iraq may release enough resources for Asia Pacific. In November 2011, Secretary Hillary Clinton recalled that the stability and security in Asia was guaranteed for long by the US military. The US could not afford not to strengthen its presence in Asia at a time when the region is likely to shape global security itself.

The new strategy appears to be to reduce ground forces and focus on nuclear forces and the navy, in which the US has clear superiority over China. Old alliances in the region need to be strengthened and new friends need to be found. Since the region straddles two oceans, the Pacific and the Indian, shipping and strategy have to take the interlinkages into account.

Although the US has maintained that its rebalancing of forces in Asia is not directed against any country, China has repeatedly accused the US of pointing at a Chinese threat to perpetuate its hegemony in Asia. It has said that a de facto empire on borrowed money is flexing its muscles, while its creditors are at the door. China believes that it is all a matter of cold war mentality and that nobody will believe that the US actions are not directed against China. If anything, China will be more assertive of its claims on the South China Sea and other disputes, as it became evident at the recent ASEAN summit.

India-US relations have undoubtedly benefitted from the change of scene in Asia Pacific. When External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met on June 13, 2012 for the third round of their strategic dialogue, there was spring in the air, not blowing in from the Potomac, but from the distant Pacific and Indian Oceans. The issues that had bedeviled the bilateral relationship in the last two years were all there, but there was certain urgency about putting them behind and moving forward for larger objectives. The ripples that grew into waves in the South China Sea and the changing equations in Asia Pacific gave their parleys new content and a sense of purpose.
No doubt, after initial hesitations, the US began to see India as the “lynchpin” of its new security architecture and India became a doorway to the Pacific. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta made it clear that he was on a mission to recruit India as a partner in Asia Pacific, whatever may have been the irritants in the past.
The elaborate Joint Statement issued at the end of the strategic dialogue makes the context very clear. “The US and India have a shared vision of peace, stability, and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean region, and the Pacific region and are committed to work together, and with others in the region, for the evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive architecture.”  Such a firm assertion of the role of the two countries in the region is rare in India-US statements. What is more, Secretary Clinton welcomed India’s growing engagement in the Asia Pacific. The Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), an old Indian initiative, which had lost momentum, received a boost when the US sought to become a dialogue partner of the Association.
The US, once wary of Indian activism in Afghanistan for fear of Pakistan’s displeasure, declared its intention to seek new opportunities to intensify the efforts of the two countries for consultation, coordination and cooperation to promote a stable, democratic, united, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan. India, in turn, welcomed the announcement of the Chicago Summit of NATO of progress in the security transition process, acknowledging the legitimacy of NATO operations in Afghanistan. The statement also favoured the elimination of safe havens and infrastructure for terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No better evidence was necessary of the disillusionment of the US of the role of Pakistan as an ally in Afghanistan and its desire to work with India.
The reference to defence relations was of particular importance. Instead of harping over the disappointment over the fighter aircraft contract, the statement celebrated the fact that India had awarded defence contracts worth USD 9 billion in recent years to US companies. It noted the many military exercises and exchanges in the last six years and reaffirmed their desire to strengthen defence cooperation through increased technology transfer.  Defence Minister A K Antony had stressed to Secretary Panetta the need to transform the buyer-seller relationship into a partnership in technology and strategy. In New Delhi earlier, the US had conceded that India’s unwillingness to sign a couple of basic agreements relating to defence cooperation should not stand in the way of new defence deals.
Among the differences, which were pushed under the carpet was the nuclear liability issue, which had prevented nuclear trade between India and the United States so far.  No mention was made to the obstacles to the licensing and site development work associated with construction of the new Westinghouse reactors in Gujarat, but they welcomed progress towards the full implementation of the nuclear deal. The need of the hour was to highlight points of convergence, not of divergence.
An endless list of issues of agreement in diverse fields such as counter terrorism, intelligence, homeland security, cyber security, energy, climate change, education, development, trade, agriculture, science and technology, health and innovation and people-to-people ties found place in the Joint Statement.
The spring in India-US relations, evident after the third round of the strategic dialogue, comes from the anxiety of the two countries to rebalance them in the face of Chinese assertiveness. Compulsions of security in Asia Pacific may well bring the two democracies closer together in the future.
The Indonesian Foreign Minister expressed the current dilemma of the countries of the region in these words: “What worries us is having to choose; we do not want to be put into that position. The Pacific is sufficiently accommodating to provide not only the role of China and the US, but of emerging powers too.” A spokesperson of ASEAN said that ASEAN would not like to dictate the roles of different powers in the region. It would rather act like a flight controller at an airport, making sure that all arrivals and departures are smooth and there is no collision.
But sooner or later, the countries in the region will have to develop a cohesive Asian strategy to deal with the challenge of Chinese assertiveness. Chinese domination of the sea-lanes of Indian and Pacific Oceans will be a major concern for India. Assertion of its claims in the South China Sea, if it succeeds, will encourage it to press its territorial claims on India. India considers its strategic autonomy sacrosanct and wishes to pursue a new generation of nonalignment, but as it became evident in June, India’s engagement with the US will become stronger and more productive in the light of the evolving situation in Asia Pacific.
India has a stake in working with the US, China and other countries in the region to rearrange the regional security system, which accommodates rather than collide with India’s security interests. India’s efforts have been to identify issues, particularly multilateral issues, such as global trade, the financial system and the environment in which cooperation with China can be enhanced. But three major issues still divide India and China, with the potential for an adversarial relationship. The unsettled border between the two countries, the Chinese propping up of Pakistan against India and the possibility of China diverting the water, which flows into India are intractable. Some scholars have suggested an India-China diplomatic structure to monitor these issues and to find temporary, if not final solutions to these issues. But given the present assertiveness of China, it is not likely to help matters. India will have to search for its own security in the larger context of the evolving situation rather than bilaterally with China.



Implementation “Hona Chahiye!”

Implementation “Hona Chahiye!”

(Remarks at a Roundtable at the Brookings Institution on August 8, 2012)

I did not know enough Hindi to think up a bilingual title for this talk, the first such title I have ever used. It must be Steve Cohen who coined it, with his knowledge of India and Hindi. I found the title very fascinating and decided to accept it. Coming to think of it, implementation of existing agreements, rather than negotiating new ones, has turned out to be harder in international relations, as in private lives. Reaching of agreements often happens out of idealism and optimism or even romance, but when it comes to implementation, the imponderable impediments spring up and implementation often falls short of expectations. The test lies in the ability of the partners to stick as much as possible to the sentiments that originally engendered the agreements and implement them in good faith. Implementation “hona chahiye”, and I would even add, “zaroor.”

However, the story has another side. Agreements have a certain historical context and compulsion and it may not be possible or even desirable to implement them in letter. It may become necessary to implement them in spirit and set aside some elements of the written word to suit the new context and compulsion. History is full of agreements, which served a purpose at the time they were signed and approved, but much imagination and flexibility became necessary to sidetrack some details and proceed with the purposes and principles of the original document. Bringing the agreements in line with the implementation may be so hazardous that it will be better to let the anomalies lie. This is demonstrated in the mother of all agreements, the UN Charter itself. Nobody asks for the implementation of the “enemy clause” or the original composition of the permanent members of the Security Council as recorded in the Charter.

Coming to the specifics of the agreements between the US and India, the general situation I just laid out, holds good in diverse ways. The single instance of the US-India Nuclear Deal is sufficient to study the dynamics of agreements and their implementation. In the first place, we have to remember that what was attempted was nothing short of a miracle. The bottom lines of the two countries were so diametrically opposite that a meeting of minds was unlikely. I am referring to India’s rocky determination not to sign the NPT and the abiding faith of the US in NPT as a cornerstone of its global non-proliferation policy. It was such irreconcilable positions that the deal sought to bridge. Inevitably, the pressures of contemporary history pushed both the countries to an agreement, but the differences in perception persisted till the end. What enabled the two nations to reach an agreement was the willingness of the two to keep their own respective understandings to themselves.

In their effort to convince their own constituencies, both sides issued declarations and passed legislations to show that they had not reneged on the fundamental positions they held. But each of these steps made the implementation complicated. The most celebrated of these was the declaration of the Indian side that there was nothing in the deal that would prohibit India from testing again and the declaration on the side of the US that the deal could be annulled if a test took place. The provisions in the deal itself were ambiguous on the issue, but both had its respective interpretations. Similarly, many provisions of the Hyde Act were anathema to India, but it was explained that these were unilateral US assumptions to which India was not party. The US side clarified time and again that the Act was part of the deal and was binding. Even the meaning of “full nuclear cooperation” and the “clean waiver” given by the NSG left many lose ends. But the agreement was signed because of the political compulsions rather than practical considerations. The fact that it has not been fully implemented should not detract from its significance as a milestone in US-India relationship.

I wrote an article in 2009, when I was a Fellow at Brookings, entitled, “The US may have no nuclear trade with India” which sent shock waves among strategic thinkers and the nuclear industry in the US and in India. I received phone calls from major US companies. My logic was that the US, while it had enabled India to enter the nuclear mainstream, it had no intention to contribute even remotely to India’s nuclear capability. This was not lust my own surmise. Someone who ought to know told this to me. I could see the logic of the argument. First of all, the US had no significant new technology to share with India. The political purpose of the deal was fulfilled when the NSG clearance was given. US nuclear trade could not be resumed just with the 123 Agreement. There were more conditions built into the system. I concluded that the US would find it hard to provide nuclear technology or material to India.

India should not have been disappointed that US supplies might not materialize. Many people had opposed the deal in India because it was being signed with the US. An agreement with France or Russia would have been more acceptable. It was the indication of an assurance given to the US that India would have significant nuclear trade with it, which caused a major controversy. Many argued that we should confine our dealings with France and Russia now that the obstacles had been removed. My US interlocutor told me that India’s wish would be fulfilled and it should rejoice at the outcome. The US would benefit more from the goodwill generated by the deal and the expected defence contracts than from the nuclear trade envisaged under the deal.

The liability issue and the controversy over enrichment and reprocessing technology, which arose subsequently, have delayed the full implementation of the deal. Both these are legal and sentimental issues, which did not alter the spirit of the deal. The Government of India had no intention to include the liability of the suppliers in the bill as it was aware of the international practice in this regard and there were sufficient provisions in the Indian legal system to deal with criminal negligence by anyone involved in the transactions. A sentimental debate on the Bhopal tragedy gave the opposition an opportunity to amend the bill, knowing fully well that it would block nuclear trade with the United States, which involves private companies. What they could not accomplish during the debates on the deal was achieved through the mechanism of the liability act. The French and Russian positions on the liability law was not different, but since the companies involved were state entities, the law did not affect the supplies, which were already in the pipeline. Both the US and India are engaged in finding a way to remove the legal impediments imposed by the liability law and the MOU signed between NPCIL and Westinghouse in June this year indicates some movement. But both sides may not be unhappy by the turn of events, if my contention in my 2009 article turns out to be right.

The reiteration in 2011 by the major suppliers that ENR technology would not be available to India should not have come as a surprise to India. But India insists on the principle of “full nuclear cooperation” and the “clean waiver”, knowing full well that India will not get it. India has the necessary technology and the agreement is specifically about the establishment of reprocessing facilities, not technology. No tears need be shed on account of restrictions on ENR technology, though it has become a “Holy Grail” for India when the implementation of the deal is considered.

The totally unexpected Fukushima disaster has also cast a shadow on the implementation of the deal. Though the Government of India is determined to pursue the path of developing nuclear power for its energy needs, as originally planned, there is sizeable popular opposition to the establishment of new nuclear reactors, as was demonstrated in Kudankulam. The sites allotted to the US are in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, where regional predisposition is towards industrialization, but popular sentiment against nuclear power could be ignited anywhere. This new factor must also be taken into account in the implementation of the deal.

After all is said and done, what matters is the political will. The Obama Administration, and for that matter, the second UPA Government, have been ambivalent about the strategic partnership between the two countries. The promises made at the time of the Presidential visit have not been fulfilled as yet. The proposal for India to be admitted to the NSG, MTCR, the Australis Group and the Wassenar arrangement has been sacrificed at the altar of the NPT. The support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, voiced in vague terms by President Obama in the Indian Parliament, was not followed up by any concrete action. On the Indian side, the search for strategic autonomy resulted in its positions in the Security Council, not purchasing fighters from the US and not being helpful on Iran.

The winds, however, seem to change, with the US decision to rebalance its forces in Asia Pacific and defense cooperation with India becoming the linchpin in this context. This should explain the new spring in strategic cooperation that emerged in the latest round of strategic talks. Several issues, which had remained dormant, came up for favourable consideration, including some relating to the nuclear deal. That, however, is another subject I would like to deal with in another talk tomorrow on Asia Pacific.

Suffice it to say today that we can expect a greater degree of implementation of the agreements and understandings as the new realities of the global situation unfold. But implementation should be measured against the context of the agreements and the changing perceptions of their current relevance, rather than on the implementation of every clause. It is the spirit that should be implemented and not the letter.

Thank you.