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Tuesday, June 5, 2001

America's diplomatic passage to India

LOS ANGELES -- While there was scarcely any American media coverage of the visit of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to India last month, the Bush administration's gesture, as well as the prior one made by Clinton, was intended to be profoundly significant. The Clinton state visit represented the inauguration of an American attempt to normalize relations with India after the diplomatic deep freeze that set in after New Delhi's May 1998 surprise nuclear test. India reciprocated with a return of visit by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee six months later.

It's nothing new, of course, for diplomats to confer and wind up issuing meaningless communiques. But remember: Until these high-level exchanges, India was an official international pariah for having abandoned its Gandhi/Nehru tradition, conducting a nuclear test or two and thus officially entering the elite but high-stakes world of the nuclear-power club.

On one level, the Bush administration's instincts about India are sensibly similar to Clinton's. It scarcely serves the cause of regional stability to reject out of hand the claim of the world's second-most-populous nation to have the same right to nuclear protection as comparatively tiny Britain or France. Or the same right as neighboring nuclear powers China, a geopolitical giant, and politically shaky Pakistan.

Moreover, ever since the 1998 nuclear and diplomatic explosions, the Indians have been making the fair point that the United States has stockpiled more nuclear weapons than the rest of the world combined and yet has still to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty -- a kind of show-me diplomatic pact. And even though Washington rejects the CTBT, India has suggested it will conduct no more nuclear tests for the time being. Unlike the U.S., India, after all, has not actually used nukes.

Enter the Bush administration. While searching for different policy directions from its predecessor, in this instance it quickly saw the value of engaging New Delhi in strategic dialogue. Thus, Washington was warm during the visit of Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh this April. Thus, U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill laid on the red-carpet treatment for India's finance minister, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Henry H. Shelton jetted off to India for military consultations.

New Delhi couldn't be happier about the new bounce out of Washington and has high hopes that the administration will quietly start reducing hurtful U.S. antinuclear economic sanctions. To curry Washington's favor, the Indian government wrapped a special gift for Armitage: an endorsement of the Bush administration's controversial national missile-defense project. That made India one of the relatively few powers in the world, and almost the only one in Asia, to do so.

But the pan-Asian geopolitical instincts of the Bush administration have a different cutting edge from its predecessor's, especially in two areas. The first is China. The aforementioned frenzy of diplomatic activity was not just a valentine aimed at the Indian public, but also a memo to the People's Republic of China. Its message, crudely summarized: Unlike Bill Clinton and those sheepish Democrats, we macho Republicans don't need you that much. We can always play with India. So behave yourself.

That stance has Asia feeling as if the ground underneath its feet is shaking. Even India, which has suffered through one horrific border war with Beijing, worries about Washington's mannerisms.

The Bush administration's active engagement with India entails another complication as well. Just as an in-your-face attitude toward China would alarm Asia, so would a John Wayne, we'll-do-what-we-want-our-way diplomacy toward India. Tokyo and Seoul must be firmly included in the U.S. policy loop. After all, the Bush administration, which came into office maintaining that Tokyo was inherently more important to Washington than Beijing, should not now seek to deepen relations with India without Tokyo having its say every step of the way. Certainly, it is under an ethical obligation to closely consult with nonnuclear Japan -- and, of course, nonnuclear South Korea -- before making any move to lift sanctions originally implemented to punish India's nuclear breakthrough.

And Tokyo and Seoul will also appreciate any effort to play it very carefully with China. Beijing is already in a red-alert lather over the Bush administration. The effect of the new American diplomacy should be not to undermine stability in Asia or to taunt China -- but the opposite. Little visits and tiny diplomatic changes can have huge consequences. America's passage to India needn't become a rocky road to hell.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a columnist with the Honolulu Advertiser, the South China Morning Post and the Straits Times.

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