Articles,  Kanwal Sibal

India-USA: Blow Hot, Blow Cold

Kanwal Sibal

IFS (Retd.) & Advisory Council


Just as you had not anticipated the size of this roundtable, I was not at all prepared for the kind of intervention that I may have to make. I thought it would be more in the nature of making some comments here and there. So I have no pretension of giving you any definitive discourse on how I see Indo-US relations. I must confess that I have not yet got my teeth fully into the subject. I have some ideas about our relationship, having served in Washington during an interesting period and in a sense perhaps, seeing the transformation of our relationship post the Gulf War, when the United States began to conceive for itself a global role, in what was rapidly becoming and has become a unipolar world.

And then again this subject is very sensitive, in the sense it is at the core in some ways, of our foreign policy. Any less than fully thought out remark on this subject could perhaps create misunderstandings or doubts, which may not be entirely necessary or warranted.

I am not fully in agreement with those who believe that in the past we had a relationship of deep distrust or animosity or antagonism towards the United States of America. We are not built that way. There may have been some people here and there, for ideological reasons, and may be it was the fashion of the times to take a certain view of United States and its role. But temperamentally, we have never been a very ideological country. Maybe in the case of some other countries like China, you can really talk about blowing hot & blowing cold.

At one moment, United States is the principal enemy of China and at another phase of their foreign policy, the United States was its strategic partner. So this kind of total change in thinking and approach has never been visible in terms of India’s relationship with the United States, or for that matter, any other country.

Yes, during the period when we were trying to create space for ourselves after our independence, to play an independent role as much as possible on the international scene, the United States because of the cold war and its policy of forging alliances with countries to combat the communist countries, tried to put constraints on this independence, and we reacted. It was more in the nature of India trying to carve out space for itself rather than any preconceived ideological opposition to the United States.I think what we are seeing today, which seems to appear to be a phase of blowing hot, is another version of the same thing. That, how does India carve out space for itself in a unipolar world? We can’t do it in opposition to the United States, so we do it in cooperation with the United States. We tried to find common ground. In a way this is a reflection of what some other allies of the United States are trying to do.

When countries like France or others speak about multi-polarity, what does that mean? It does not mean they are going to oppose the United States. Or become a part of another cold war crusade, this time directed against the United Sates. It just is that they don’t feel comfortable with the idea that United States has today, the kind of power and influence on the world scene and is willing to use that power and influence primarily to push it’s own view point and it’s own interest and in disregard not only of perhaps the interest of the European countries, but at times the larger consensus in the international community at large.

But this is a point of debate and discussion and engagement and pressure. The idea being to speak to the United States, discuss with them, assert your view point, try to steer them in the direction you want and try to build as much as possible a multi-polar world within a cooperative rather than an antagonistic concept. So our engagement today with the United States or, during this blow hot phase, is a part of our effort to adjust to the reality of the situation, look around and see what options we have and tailor our policy in accordance with those options.It is a fact, that in the past and to some extent even today, the policies of the United States, even if they have not been directed against the interest of India, have tended to adversely affect the interest of India.

The nuclear question is of course a big one. The refusal of India to sign the NPT and our nuclear test in 1974 was a starting point for a whole series of legislation that the United States introduced into the US Congress, which sought to constrain India, and beyond India, the ambitions of any other country. The United States by virtue of its size and its responsibility, thinks globally. So even if India per se may not have been such a major problem, the consequences of the actions India takes could have been reasonably seen by them as creating a problem for them in terms of shaping the global environment according to their priorities and their interests.

Post-Pokhran, the situation changed. Initially the international community led by the United States tried to build a consensus against India, but they did not succeed. Some countries, especially France, did not allow that consensus to be built and engaged us in strategic dialogue, in terms of trying to see how India could be made a partner progressively of the existing non – proliferation regime, knowing fully well that India could not become legally a member of the regime, but how in practical, de facto, terms this could be done.So that India’s perceived defiance is contained and does not set a bad example for others. And then of course, domestic politics in the United States and other events which we need not go into – the position that they took subsequently on CTBT, their own nuclear posture review lately, their desire, in fact, to develop new weapons, nuclear weapons, deep penetration, that can take care of the development of WMD by rogue states underground etc. I think to that extent they themselves have weakened their own non – proliferation posture and continuing pressure on India in this area would not have be consistent or logical. But there are others factors also which we need not go into.

Likewise, Jammu and Kashmir, India and Pakistan. There is a long history to it as all of us know. Most of you know better than I as to how problems with Pakistan and the complication of the issue of Jammu and Kashmir has been due to a large measure, the policies pursued by some western countries, and in particular Britain and the United States. At the time when I was in the United States, this particular issue was even more complicated by the US State Department.

For the first time they started speaking about Jammu and Kashmir being a disputed territory. Though I must here perhaps correct Chidanand, because even at that time they were telling me that when they say it is disputed territory they are referring to the whole of Jammu Kashmir and not simply the part of Jammu Kashmir which is under our control. This being a core area of our own foreign policy and our national security and our national interest, it was inevitable there would be a conflict of interest between us and the United States.In that period, I think the United States initiated certain steps which made us feel uncomfortable with regard to what role they intended to play in Jammu and Kashmir. Their reference to the settlement of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan taking into account the wishes of the people of Kashmir. What did that mean? How would those wishes of the people be ascertained? Who would represent those wishes? Hence came the idea of a third party to the dispute. Efforts to give shape to this third party, and support given to the Hurriyat, and attempts to try and build some kind of a group which would then encompass not only the people from this side, but also the people from the other side. At one time Kathmandu was being chosen as the spot where this vast congregation of Kashmiris from both sides of the LoC could take place.

We had to struggle against this, but that pressure point has remained. Today there is certainly a big change effectively, in the way United States looks at the issue, and I would agree that the Kargil episode was a watershed in terms on how the United States looks at it. Perhaps there is now a realisation that, come what may, the line of control should be sacrosanct and should not be violated. But, of course, there are a lot of study groups etc., directly or indirectly having the benediction of the State Department and others, which look at various formulae of how this issue can be resolved. After what has happened recently in terms of a real possibility of military conflict between India and Pakistan, perhaps the efforts to encourage some kind of a permanent solution based on the realities on the ground could become a viable solution which the international community led by the United States may wish to support. But that remains to be seen.

The blow hot phase can also be traced to the change of regime in the United States with the Republicans coming to power. We saw some very major developments, including on the defence side between India and United States. Now how does September 11 affect all this?

Interestingly, September 11 is all about combating international terrorism. If one were to logically go down this road together, that is India and United States, then it is very clear what our expectations are and what United States must do. They can’t separate one segment of international terrorism from another and say that they would deal firstly, and on a priority basis, and forcefully, with only that segment of International terrorism which potentially threatens their security. That the other segment, which they recognise does constitute some form of terrorism, would be given second priority. This is not an argument and a logic which is comfortable for us, nor do we accept it.

Our task would be to continue to pressure the United States to see this combat against international terrorism as an international combat, and directed against international terrorism as a whole. This is one issue on which the United States has itself pushed an international consensus and we have resolution 1373 which is very clear in terms of the obligations it imposes on all countries to combat international terrorism – not to give safe haven, not to actively or passively support international terrorism, to stop funding etc. But because the priorities of United States and India perhaps are not in phase, there is a little problem.

That problem we can see, because we would like Pakistan’s involvement in international terrorism, and what it is doing to India, to be dealt with in a particular way. There the progress we are achieving in convincing United States to go down that road has been substantial but not complete. We have to continue to press United States down that road. It is very important for the credibility of the international community, and the international community often today is the code word for the Americans and the British, that the commitments that General Musharraf has given must be honored by him.

These commitments we are told have been given to the International community, and to the Americans and to President Bush himself. So these commitments cannot be watered down. Now it cannot be said that, yes, he has promised that he would be completely end infiltration and take visible action on the training camps, but in reality he does not control all the infiltration. So, the best one can do is to put sustained pressure on him to control, not end, control at present levels, that part of Infiltration which is under his control. But that is not the commitment which was given.

If it is interpreted in this way, then it gives a lot of room to General Musharraf to play with ambiguities, to carve out for himself some room for maneuver, continue in some ways to pursue the policies he has been pursuing in the past, and then say that if there is something still happening, it is because of terrorism that is outside his control. In other words this would give him that alibi that he needs, that he wants.

The diplomatic exercise between us and the Americans on this point is not yet over and will continue. Though I must say that the statements that have been made by the American Government on the issue of Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism, and the need to end terrorism, the need to act on training camps, need to do these things visibly, credibly, demonstratively, to India’s satisfaction – all these statements have come from the US leadership and are most welcome. That is what gives sustenance to the efforts that we will continue to make with them.

The Indian diaspora has been growing in size especially since the 70s. But it became a factor in our political and economic relationship only in the 90s. I think, the role that is played by the Indian-American community should not be under estimated. It was during my time that the India Caucus was established and from its initial modest proportions has grown to the size that it has acquired today. It was during that period that the India Interest group was established by some big American companies with a view to changing the perceptions of India in the US Congress.

We put the India Interest Group & India Caucus together, to see how they could combine their efforts together to advance our interests there. The Information Technology sector has been driven a great deal by this diaspora and this has had a major impact not only on our bilateral relations with the United States but even in a sense globally. This is something which we should cherish and this is something which has a bright future and we can work on it.

Our economic relationship in general also seems to have developed very well in the post liberalisation phase, post 1991. When I left the United States, our two-way bilateral trade was less than 8 billion dollars. Today it is over 13 billion dollars. It is a little less than what I thought. I thought the figure was higher but today our Ministry told me that it is a little under 14 billion dollars. That came as a bit of a disappointment. But I think this is a figure which can be improved upon.

The United States was the one country which reacted the most warmly and the most enthusiastically to India’s policy of liberalisation in the area of Investment. 33% of the cumulative investments in India are from the United States of America. This is an area in which more can be done and the responsibility for this lies not only on the United States but perhaps and even more on ourselves – in terms of putting our own house in order and taking certain initiatives that need to be taken, implementing what is called the second generation of reforms etc. We all know this, since we are speaking at the CII. I think they know exactly what needs to be done in order to invite greater American and foreign Investment in this country. If that happens, I think the blow hot phase could perhaps come to a boil and which is what one would hope for.

Finally, how do we look strategically at United States’ role in our larger region. Chidu has mentioned that we have had exercises with the United States and nobody has said a word. There is no criticism of whatever we are doing with the United States in terms of defence and other areas. I think this says a lot about the sense of pragmatism and realism of the Indian policy makers. There is clearly a community of interest that is growing between the United States’ strategy in this region and our own.

We have always said that there is no real conflict of interest between India and the United States. If there has been a conflict of interest, its largely because of Americas perception of it’s global role and it’s unwillingness, from our point of view, to give India a legitimate share of what we think should be our role. If the United States is willing to concede that and make us a partner, I think those areas where we have a certain conflict would begin to disappear progressively.

We are not averse to United States presence in Afghanistan, on the contrary we welcomed it. It was necessary to get rid of the Taliban, to get rid of international terrorism. If, for promoting stability in this region, their further presence is required, I don’t think the Indian policy makers are necessarily averse to that. If the United States can help in putting an end to the Pakistani-sponsored terrorism in India, we would welcome that. But of course, and I should make that clear, that does not necessarily mean that the policy of bilateralism has been given up. Not at all.

There is a difference between our willingness to work with the United States to combat international terrorism because there is an international consensus on this. But once that is achieved, then it will be we who will be discussing with Pakistan on how to resolve our outstanding issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. There are some fears that we are slipping down the road or giving up our policy of bilateralism. That is not necessarily the case. At least that’s how I see it.

Democracy is a very strong binding factor between India and the United States, though of course, it is quite easy to be cynical about it. The biggest friends of the United States, historically and today, are not necessarily the epitomes of democracies, and if you look at the relationship between United States and China, certainly it not driven by Chinese democracy. But yes, if one were to look at it philosophically, and even in the longer-term interest of the International community and United States’ own interest, I think the fact that India is a practicing democracy, is a vibrant democracy, helps the United States to globally advance its aims of promoting democracy everywhere.

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