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India’s new best friend, the US
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Respect for power and pragmatic alliances
India’s new best friend, the US
India has patiently and deliberately created and cultivated a diplomatic and economic relationship with the United States. Many in the new Indian elite regard the European Union, once a prospective partner, as in terminal decline.

By Christophe Jaffrelot

TWO people are most responsible for the rapprochement between India and the United States: Bill Clinton, whose visit in 2000 marked a radical change in the relationship of the countries, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, prime minister of India between 1998 and 2004, whose opponents criticised him for always calling the White House before taking a foreign policy decision. Despite a new Indian government, a Congress party-led coalition that includes the Communist party (which was critical of Vajpayee’s stance on the US), the relationship has not changed.

Joint army, navy and air force manoeuvres have become routine. Last year the US and India signed an open skies agreement that increased commercial flights between them.Then Air India bought 68 Boeings at a total cost of $11bn, snubbing the European Airbus consortium, and in the same year the nations established a strategic partnership.

India has developed closer ties with Israel, a prerequisite for good relations with the US: Israel is now India’s second arms supplier after Russia (1). The Indian Communist party did succeed in preventing military exercises with Israel, but that is the only concession they have obtained to date.

Why has India aligned itself so firmly with the US? It gains access to attributes of power. Washington has authorised Israel to sell the Phalcon radar system to India, although it vetoed a similar sale to the Chinese. Since then Bush has offered to sell F-16 and F-18 aircraft to India, whose strategic vision matches that of the US in a vital area: the fight against terrorism. Since 9/11 many Indians from the political establishment see a similarity in the countries’ situations: both are victims of the same network of Islamists.

Although the communists and some Muslim organisations organised anti-Bush demonstrations, polls on the eve of his visit revealed that the majority of Indians approve US foreign policy and think “the war in Iraq has made the world a safer place”.

Military and strategic considerations apart, there has been significant progress in energy cooperation over the past few months and the US has agreed to help India process its coal to make it more energy-efficient and less polluting. In agriculture, the US is helping India to achieve a second-generation green revolution.

However, the most important outcome of Bush’s visit to India was the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. Even though India has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Bush has accepted that it may be an exception to the rule and has agreed to the transfer of sensitive products (including enriched uranium) because of India’s good behaviour in nonproliferation and in democracy. The US made only one condition: India must open 65% of its nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by 2014 to ensure that dual purpose technologies are not being used for military purposes.

That means that eight of 22 nuclear reactors will remain under the sole authority of the Indian government, which could well use them to develop weapons. India has made few concessions that would erode its sovereignty from a military or strategic standpoint. However, Congress is about to ratify the US-India atomic energy cooperation agreement.

Bush’s one success
Why is the US going out of its way to please India? India is the Bush administration’s only foreign policy success after a term and a half in office. India is becoming a significant geopolitical player and Washington is counting on its new ally to help it tackle sensitive issues. India is in a crucial position to police the Indian Ocean, protecting the routes of supertankers. The Indian government has already voted against its Iranian “friend” on two IAEA resolutions, and seems ready to abandon the pipeline project from Iran’s South Pars gas field to India.

The US is also counting on India to counterbalance China’s growing influence in Asia, even though there is no indication that India would cooperate with the US if it meant jeopardising relations with China. China is already India’s second trading partner. Cross-investments are proliferating and both countries respond together to calls for tenders for acquiring oilfields, as in Syria and in Canada.

The India-US partnership amounts to more than diplomatic and strategic agreements. These have been accompanied by unprecedented economic activity. The US is India’s leading trading partner, with 11.1% of trade in 2004-2005, compared with 5.6% for China. It is also the leading foreign investor with a total of 17% in foreign direct investment since 1991.

The Indian diaspora in the US has doubled to 2 million people over the past 10 years and plays a key role in the relationship, since it has lobbying power and the means to exert influence. The US 2000 census revealed that Indian-Americans have average annual per capita income of $60,093 compared with the national average of $38,885. Because 75% of Indian-Americans have a university education, only 6% live below the poverty line.

This new relationship is not based solely on strategic or military considerations but on economic and social exchanges. The Indian government has refused the F-16s on offer from Washington for technical reasons; communist-led states and nationalist Hindu parties have maintained an anti-US stance to the point of banning the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, claiming high levels of pesticides in their soft drinks. Yet links with the US will strengthen, while those between India and Europe weaken daily.

A weakening link
The first EU-India summit, in June 2000, was meant to galvanise relations. The summit became a regular feature and in 2004 resulted in a strategic partnership with five objectives: international cooperation with an emphasis on conflict prevention, the fight against terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, democracy and human rights; the strengthening of economic ties through sector dialogue and joint regulatory policies; cooperation in development to help India achieve its millennium goal of combating poverty; increased intellectual and cultural exchanges; and the institutionalisation of relations between India and the EU.

Two years on, the EU, which had been a leading trading partner with India, has been displaced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) (2) plus China, South Korea and Japan. These accounted for 20% of trade in 2004 compared with 19% for the EU; India accounts for only 1.7% of the EU’s imports and exports, making it Europe’s twelfth-ranked trading partner. In 2004 EU foreign direct investment in India totalled only 0.3%.

The diplomatic and strategic situation is worse. The EU is totally focused on China, and Chris Patten is the only EU commissioner to have taken New Delhi seriously in the past few years. India has been hostile to a number of EU initiatives, including the International Criminal Court and the Ottawa convention on banning land mines. India is wary of EU intervention in such matters as human rights in Kashmir or child labour.

The newly empowered Indian elite no longer hides its disdain for Europe. They consider the continent to be in an economic slump, even in terminal decline, its welfare states a thing of the past. Nationalist new India is taking its revenge for centuries of colonialism and neocolonialism, while Europe clings to colonial attitudes.

The Mittal affair (3) is typical. Although the Mittal steel company is not strictly Indian, the way that its takeover was regarded by EU leaders allowed the Indian press scope for indignant articles about European hypocrisy in playing the global capitalism game when it is convenient and refusing to play it when it is not. India welcomed the French Lafarge cement company with open arms when it became a world leader; why should France be inhospitable to an Indian lead in steel?

The EU claims that India and Europe share a multilateral vision of the world (4), but India’s insistence on a multipolar world is a facade. India inherited an anti-imperialist, and especially anti-US hegemony, stance along with third-world obligations in the non-aligned movement. This legacy offers a natural affinity with the multilateral European project for promoting a system of international standards. In practice, India has shown a pragmatism bordering on realpolitik since the 1990s. Indian politicians believe that US leadership will endure whereas the EU is still trying to find itself and does not count as a leading international player.

Respect for power
India’s great respect for power is a factor behind its lack of consideration for the EU. Whereas Nehru, like Gandhi, believed in values — or standards as we would say today — contemporary Indian strategists are convinced that the ideal of turning India into the largest global democracy had far less impact on the world than its 1998 nuclear tests. It’s a fair point: did the West pay any attention to India when it defended values such as nonviolence and disarmament, or other leaders such as the Dalai Lama?

The EU is gradually disappearing from the view of the most promising emerging nation and being replaced by the US; it would have been impossible to imagine this eight years ago when Washington imposed heavy sanctions on India after its nuclear tests. An excellent example of the change, and the price that Europe will pay for it, is the strategic and military cooperation agreement signed by India and the US in June 2005, under which they agreed to joint peacekeeping missions in third countries. Such an agreement will dampen any enthusiasm the Indians might have for similar operations with the EU, although this was an aim of the strategic partnership signed between India and the EU the year before.

To improve India-EU relations, Europe must impose itself internationally, not an easy task after the rejection of the constitution that might have given the EU a minister of foreign affairs. If any European momentum remains, there is an ambitious initiative that the EU could take: to campaign for India to join the UN Security Council, accepting the emergence of a new power. That would have the advantage of bringing India into the multilateral fold and allow the Europeans to distinguish themselves from the US and China who, openly or otherwise, are hostile to India having a seat on the council.

That move would cause a long-awaited readjustment of European diplomacy. The European preference for China is paradoxical, given EU claims for the importance of democracy. China’s record on democracy is far more stained than India’s. India is therefore more indulgent towards US policy, which constantly promotes democracy and denounces the authoritarianism of the Chinese government.

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