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The Rediff Special/Josy Joseph in New Delhi

April 25, 2003

This article is the fifth of a six-part series on Indo-US military relations. The first part dealt with  US attempts to gain access to Indian military bases and establish USAF airbases on Indian soil. The second focussed on how access to American technology could be the key to gaining entry to Indian bases. The third highlighted American perception of Indian decision-makers. The fourth points out the reasons behind India's wariness in accepting Americans as reliable partners.

The series is based on 'Indo-US Military Relations: Expectations and Perceptions,' a US defence department-commissioned study, that is in possession of rediff.com

Despite the pessimism, distrust for each other and the lack of a common strategic vision, policymakers from both sides agree the bilateral relationship between India and the United States has improved since 1998.

But there are serious concerns on the American side that the Indians are not focussed on improving the economic relationship. A policymaker in Washington, DC, who said the Indians do not fully understand the importance of economic relations, recalled National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra's reluctance to meet then US Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill one early morning during a visit to the US.

'This view (that economic ties was not a priority with Indian leadership) was reinforced during a recent visit by National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, when he backed out of an appointment with US Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill that could only be scheduled at 7:30 am. Mishra's behaviour left the impression that the economic discussions were not important enough to get him up that early in the morning,' he is quoted as saying in 'Indo-US Military Relations: Expectations and Perceptions,' a US defence department-commissioned study, that is in possession of rediff.com

According to the officer, O'Neill, who was leaving Washington that day for the duration of Mishra's trip, had made an extraordinary effort to accommodate Mishra because O'Neill felt the meeting was important.

Many decision-makers quoted in the report stress that for the military relations to swing up, a strong economic relationship is most important.

Both sides agree that an economically powerful India would be a 'stabilising force in Asia' and only strong economic ties between India and US can sustain 'an enduring strategic relationship and insulate the relationship from political change in either country or future disagreement on strategic issues.'

More importantly, the report felt strong US investments in India would secure 'a more predictable, long-term American commitment to the Indo-US relationship.'

An American policymaker pointed out that India cannot act like France, described as one of America's most defiant partners in the report. As a result of its deep economic ties with the United States, France, the report says, 'carries political clout that sustains the strategic relationship, even when the French outwardly defy the United States.'

From the US view, trade with India is less than one per cent of the total US trade, and Indians are not dependent on the American market so at present 'either party can walk away from the relationship unaffected,' officials argued in the report. Though from an Indian view, the US is one of its biggest trade partners accounting for some 25 per cent of the total trade.

Presently there are significant asymmetries in economic field that divide the two countries, especially on forums like WTO and that would continue to cause tensions, American officials quoted in the report said.

Several policymakers credited the Bharatiya Janata Party, current Finance Minister and then external affairs and defence minister Jaswant Singh, Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, the US response to Kargil, then US President Bill Clinton and the influential Indian community in the US for 'creating a new context for a military relationship that is measurably different.'

Jaswant Singh is identified as the single most important individual on the Indian side who helped forge a positive change in the bilateral relationship. Policymakers interviewed on both sides for the report speculated that Singh lost the defence portfolio after the United States did not respond to India's offer to provide unprecedented support after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 'Many Indians explained that Jaswant Singh was seen as too close the Americans,' the report said. Singh held both the defence and external affairs portfolios when 9/11 occurred.

Sources in the Indian intelligence agencies claim he was a major influencing factor in them offering assistance to the Americans, including access to several intelligence inputs on Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other Islamic terrorists.

Policymakers on both sides said the BJP was a 'crucial factor in creating the conditions for a new relationship.' 'The BJP pursued a deliberate policy to enhance India's power position in the world, for example by conducting the nuclear tests in 1998, which raised India's profile in Washington and around the world,' the report said.

The Jaswant Singh-Talbott dialogue in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests too was a very important influence in the growing relationship, according to policymakers. Senior diplomats and military leaders interviewed for the report believe Singh championed 'the Indo-US relationship, despite real political costs,' that of losing the defence portfolio.

American response to the incursions in Kargil in 1999 was also a 'significant turning point in the relationship.' Indians and Americans 'marvelled at how one event could have such a profound impact on changing perceptions after decades of distrust.'

The BJP in power, the Singh-Talbott dialogue and the US response to Kargil together led to the pathbreaking visit of President Bill Clinton to India in March 2000. The visit contributed tremendously to improving India's trust in America because Clinton 'showed sensitivities to Indian concerns in his landmark speech to India's Parliament.'

The report also points out the growing influence of the Indian American community. Driven by the IT boom, the number of Indians in America shot up several times in the 1990s. 'Consequently, Indian-Americans have become the most affluent and prosperous minority in the United States, with increasing political clout in Washington.'

By 9/11, the growing Indo-US relations were visible, when India offered in public all assistance to the US. It is another matter that the Americans did not take up the offer and disappointed India. But the Indian offer itself was a marked departure from 1991, when India clandestinely allowed US planes to refuel in Mumbai during the first Gulf War, but stopped it when the assistance became public, according to the report.

Despite the low opinion American policymakers have for some of their Indian counterparts, some Americans find very 'positive' attitudes with the new breed of Indian policymakers. Several American policymakers find their counterparts in the external affairs ministry to be 'forward thinking and highly supportive' of the Indo-US military relationship.

Tomorrow: Immediate areas for Indo-US military cooperation

Part I: Target Next: Indian military bases
Part II: US tech hold key to Indian bases
Part III: Of insults, obsessions and distrust
Part IV: Drawn, but not ready to fire
Part VI: Spats apart, future's rosy

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