Friday, March 03, 2006

Parsing the U.S.--India Nuclear Agreement and What It Means for China

East Asia Has Always Been at War with Oceania…Not

It’s difficult to see the nuclear agreement between the United States and India as anything other than a sign of American weakness and skillful exploitation of that weakness by India.

In return for upgraded nuclear cooperation, India agreed to…

…spare the IAEA the aggravation of having to inspect its military nuclear facilities.

In the plan, India agreed permanently to classify 14 of its 22 nuclear power reactors as civilian facilities, meaning those reactors will be subject for the first time to international inspections or safeguards.

The other reactors, as well as a prototype fast-breeder reactor in the early stages of development, will remain as military facilities, and not be subject to inspections. India also retained the right to develop future fast-breeder reactors for its military program, a provision that critics of the deal called astonishing. In addition, India said it was guaranteed a permanent supply of nuclear fuel.

Bush and India Reach Pact that Allows Nuclear Sales, Elizabeth Bumiller and Somini Singupta New York Times, March 3, 2006 (hereafter Pact)

That’s about the only sensible construction one can put on the details of the agreement, which allows India to exempt 8 of its 22 reactors from inspection. Add to that, inspections on the civilian reactors will be phased in over the next 8 years. And there is apparently no limit on military fast breeder reactors, which by themselves can develop enough fissile material to make India a major nuclear power.

"This deal not only lets India amass as many nuclear weapons as it wants, it looks like we made no effort to try to curtail them," said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "This is Santa Claus negotiating. The goal seems to have been to give away as much as possible."

Dissenting on Atomic Deal, Steven Weisman, New York Times, March 3, 2006

What do we get out of the deal?

The New York Times snarkily concluded its article with the President’s remark:

At the news conference, Mr. Bush and Mr. Singh announced additional cooperative agreements … including the importing to the United States of Indian mangoes, considered by connoisseurs to be among the best in the world.

"And oh, by the way, Mr. Prime Minister, the United States is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes," Mr. Bush said at the news conference. (Pact)

Ah…it’s all about the mangoes.

The subtext for most Bush administration shenanigans in Asia is China, and India is no exception.

The United States has been attempting to lure India into the Western camp as a counterweight against China since Clinton. The stumbling block—now removed—has always been our quaint allegiance to the Non-Proliferation Pact that hung over the legitimization and expansion of the Indian nuclear weapons program and normalized defense ties with the United States.

U.S. courtship of India reached its current, intense stage with the signing of the defense agreement between Rumsfeld and India’s Secretary of Defense last summer that declared that India and the United States had entered into a new strategic partnership.

At the time, the comment was made:

Many of these analysts interpret the recent U.S. courtship of India as part of a wider goal of containing the growing power and influence of India's Asian rival, China.

Lalit Mansingh, India's foreign secretary between 1999 and 2001 who subsequently served as ambassador to the Washington until 2004, agreed that this was a significant agreement. "We have much greater shared interests than we did 10 years ago, and we are talking now about co-production of arms," he said. "This is quite clearly a new step towards strategic partnership." However, he also sensed a shadow of shared U.S. and Indian unease over China lingering over the document, which he said would be the subject of close scrutiny in Beijing.

"China is like the ghost at the banquet - an unspoken presence that no one wants to talk about," Mansingh said. "No one in Washington or Delhi would admit that this has anything to do with China," he continued with a reference to ideological neoconservatives in the United States. "But the U.S. neocons say that the long-term threat to the U.S. can only be from China, and India also realizes that it has a neighbor with whom it has border disputes, whose economic and military growth is greater than its own."

“New era” on Defense for India and U.S. , Amelia Gentleman, International Herald Tribune June 30, 2005

But it is doubtful that Bush’s giveaway will yield more than a sense of exquisite satisfaction in New Delhi, let alone a commitment to containing China.

India has been determinedly pursuing a two-handed policy vis a vis India and China. One might also call it playing one off against the other.

Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao made a high-profile state visit to India last summer. Other than increased trade, his particular carrot, instead of a endorsing a runaway nuclear weapons program, was to sign an agreement aimed at resolving the nagging border disputes with China. The two nations have proclaimed that 2006 is, of all things, Sino-Indian Friendship Year. Hu Jintao is expected to visit in May.

India and China may be politically and culturally incompatible but it is difficult to find areas of genuine strategic friction.

China’s playground is East Asia, India’s is South Asia.

On the occasion of President Bush’s visit to India, Michael Vatikiotis, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, provided a comprehensive overview of India-China relations in Asia Times.

He concluded:

Apart from regional talk shops, India and China are expected to avoid any head-on confrontation. Both countries' leaderships arguably share a new sense of pragmatism, which understands the risk confrontation poses to economic progress.

The best demonstration of this has been with regard to Pakistan. China has long backed Pakistan, using significant military and financial aid, to prevent India's northward and westward hegemonic extension. Yet Beijing's ties with Islamabad have, perhaps surprisingly, not proved a big obstacle to the recent improvement of India-China relations.

China stays out of the Kashmir quagmire, in return for which India doesn't play games in Tibet - although the Dalai Lama still maintains his headquarters-in-exile in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala. Beijing is notably backing India's candidacy for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, although partially as a ploy to scupper Japan's bid for permanent membership.

What could go wrong? There is always the risk that China and India will allow pretensions to power and national pride overcome their current tendency toward engagement and cooperation. More worrying is the potential for the US or Europe to drive a wedge between the two historic rivals, playing one off the other to achieve their own political and economic interests. Both are nuclear powers and both have a history of flexing their nuclear weaponry as a bargaining chip with both allies and foes.

US President George W Bush's current four-day visit to New Delhi underscores Washington's recognition of India's growing strategic importance, politically and economically. The United States could just as likely complicate the move toward a new regional balance of power by pressuring India to forge a China containment strategy. That's already happening in Japan, with Tokyo hastily attempting to shore up ties with India as a hedge against what it regards as a more aggressive China.

Such superpower scenarios are all reasonable and historically borne out, but they are grounded in Western-oriented assumptions about the behavior of large powers. The 21st century could just as likely see the rise of two Asian powers drawing as much on their historical traditions of diplomacy and engagement as on the past century's Western antecedents of competition and conflict.

The Asian tradition has arguably placed greater emphasis on trade and diplomacy, with war conducted only on a limited scale and in extreme circumstances. Nandan Nilekani, chief executive officer, president and managing director of Indian software giant Infosys, told global leaders at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos that it was time to "change the perception about India and China being a zero-sum game" and instead presented them as economies that offer complementary opportunities.

China, India, and the land between, Michael Vatikiotis, Asia Times Online, March 4, 2006

India may be willing to fish in troubled waters in Tibet if China teeters into dissolution.

However, India, as Mr. Vatikiotis points out, is too wary of its own irridentist issues in Kashmir and along its northern border to pursue reckless policies vis a vis China and Tibet for the dubious pleasure of erecting an impoverished client regime in Lhasa.

As long as India refrains from fomenting unrest in Tibet and the Land Above the Clouds remains an isolated buffer between Han China and India, there are no existential issues that should compel China to view India’s beefed-up nuclear weapons program with special concern.

Now India is free to continue its even-handed policy. What the United States has gained is less clear.

Absent clear benefits, the Bush administration is engaged in more overt than usual skid-greasing with allies and politically influential defense contractors to sell the deal, as the New York Times pointed out:

The Defense Department issued an unusually explicit statement hailing the deal for opening a path for more American-Indian military cooperation.

"Where only a few years ago, no one would have talked about the prospects for a major U.S.-India defense deal, today the prospects are promising, whether in the realm of combat aircraft, helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft or naval vessels," the Defense Department statement said.

Diplomats familiar with the negotiations with India said Britain, France, Germany and probably Russia would eventually line up to support the agreement, in part because it would clear the way for them to sell nuclear fuel, reactors and equipment to India. They would not agree to be identified, because several countries have yet to signal what stance they would take. (Pact)

Jacques Chirac, continuing his role as America’s new best friend that he commenced by backing our policy in Lebanon and against Syria (and which has been largely ignored in the U.S. press), was the first to chime in:

President Jacques Chirac of France also offered his blessings late Thursday, calling India "a responsible power" and saying access to civilian nuclear energy would help India "respond to its immense energy needs while limiting its emissions of greenhouse gases," Agence France-Presse reported. (Pact)

What this deal reveals more than anything is the bankruptcy of the Bush containment strategy toward China. It is based upon the premise of unmatchable military force that permits the U.S. and its allies to pursue an aggressive China strategy—including the willingness to escalate to armed conflict if the opportunity presents itself—without fear of excessive consequences.

American unilateralism is predicated upon the idea that U.S. backing will embolden client states to risk the prospect of military confrontation with China.

The result of this policy is defense pacts that are supposed to enable to the militarization of foreign policy i.e. including the increased threat of force in the strategic equation. The pacts are intended to be destabilizing, and lead to what is supposed to be for the world’s only superpower a virtuous cycle of escalating tension, culminating if necessary in armed conflict that the U.S. camp is uniquely positioned to survive and profit from.

This policy has been a tough sell for the Bush administration from the get-go, as can be seen from Taiwan’s half-hearted interest in the beefed-up spending regime Washington has been pushing on Taipei, and South Korea’s coldness to the idea that it fulfill the front-line tripwire role at the 38th parallel.

Add to that the dismal results and substantial perils of an aggressive military strategy as masterminded by the Bush administration on full display with Iraq, only Koizumi’s Japan—which views China as an existential threat to its security and way of life—has signed onto the American program wholeheartedly.

By concluding such a one-sided deal, the Bush administration has not drawn India into the American camp. It has merely demonstrated to the world the pleasures—and benefits—of non-alignment.

Regimes like India, which can foresee a future of peaceful coexistence with China, are free to take the gifts that the Bush agreements has strewn with so lavish and desperate a hand, and pursue its strategic and economic interests as independently—and as peaceably—as it wants.

Oceania has always been at war with East Asia—not.

March 3, 2006