Further information on viewing conditions, site index and the site Google search facility

India: Bush’s forgotten triumph

Bill Emmott 2007 02 25

For both Tony Blair and George Bush there is no escaping the huge stain on their legacy from the debacle in Iraq. However much they defend their records, as Blair did last week in his BBC interview, historians and public opinion alike will still consider it a vast foreign policy failure.

But for President Bush there is one hope that his record might at least be mitigated by a different foreign policy move he has made. That move is America’s rapprochement with India.

Bush has been America’s worst president since Richard Nixon. Yet there is another, more intriguing parallel. Nixon’s era was defined by the shame of Watergate and the disastrous final years of Vietnam, but is remembered now even more for his radical strategic move of opening up relations with China.

In Bush’s case, although foreign policy has been dominated by Afghanistan and Iraq, it may prove that his most important strategic move was the nuclear pact between the United States and India signed a year ago.

The pact is admittedly not as radical an innovation as Nixon’s visit to China. It amounted to a bold acceleration of a shift towards India that had been begun by Bill Clinton. It has driven a herd of elephants through the global nonproliferation regime by making India a special case.

Despite its nuclear weapons tests in 1998, India is not being required to sign the nonproliferation treaty nor the global test-ban treaty before it can be supplied with materials and technology for civil nuclear energy, and it will get those supplies without the full range of controls and inspections that are required for everyone else.

No doubt persuaded further by my current visit to Delhi, I now think the earlier criticism of the US-India pact was shortsighted. America should probably have extracted more concessions from India about the inspections regime for its nuclear operation.

But that regime was already well and truly bust, even before the Indian deal, as the Iranian and North Korean nuclear she-nanigans have long shown.

The pact will make no difference to the conduct of either of those rogues, and has no real effect on the limited willingness of other countries to impose punishing sanctions on them. America’s rapprochement with India is directed at a far bigger issue than that. That issue is China.

In the West people have been obsessed by the threat from China, mainly to their jobs but also to their leadership in the world, and in the past few years have begun to add India to their concerns. If “the world is flat”, in Tom Friedman’s phrase, then even white-collar jobs can migrate to these enormous, low-cost producers. By the middle of this century Goldman Sachs forecasts that both China and India will have overtaken us all in economic output. They are a threat, so western thinking goes.

We can debate whether those forecasts make sense, or whether the political systems of either country will survive economic transformation. Yet this too is to miss the real point. China’s growth is setting off a new power game in Asia that will in turn affect the world. And the country that feels most threatened by that growth and that game is not Britain, America or France. It is India.

If you talk to Indian military folk, or recently retired top diplomats freed from the restraints of office, the message is clear. India feels increasingly encircled by China’s foreign policy and by its economic development.

China’s vast hunger for energy and other natural resources has led it, as was noted copiously during President Hu Jintao’s recent tour of Africa, to make investments and friendships, lubricated by aid grants and cheap loans, with resources producers in Africa and the Middle East. India has been doing the same, albeit on a smaller scale. But this trend has also brought Chinese influence into the Indian Ocean.

Chinese engineers are building a deep-water port at Gwadar in Pakistan and are working on a harbour in southern Sri Lanka. China has installed surveillance equipment on the Coco Islands off the coast of Burma, islands that India gave to Burma in the 1950s. China has been selling arms to Bangladesh and to Nepal. It has a contingent of troops in Sudan protecting its investments there. Pipelines and roads are planned across Burma and perhaps Bangladesh to enable China to reduce its dependence on the narrow shipping route through the Malacca Straits that connects the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.

On his African tour, Hu also found time to visit the Seychelles, where he went neither for resources nor snorkelling. In due course China would like its naval ships to be able to call in on ports there.

None of this is directly hostile to India. It is all a logical extension of China’s economic growth. But it makes India feel vulnerable, makes it sure it needs to make countermoves to maintain its position in its own neighbourhood and to guarantee its own access to natural resources, and makes it sure it needs to maintain its naval superiority over the Chinese fleet.

It also convinces Indian policy makers of the vital need for India’s own economic growth to be sustained or even accelerated, in order to avoid being dominated by its already richer neighbour. And it means that India needs friends.

That is why Bush’s nuclear pact with India makes such strong strategic sense. Having been estranged from India during the cold war, thanks to India’s decision to build trade and military ties with the Soviet Union, America had been edging closer to India during the 1990s, and India had been encouraging that process. India doesn’t want formal alliances, it doesn’t want to confront China, and it doesn’t want to close off its options. But it does need nuclear energy and it does want a close friendship with the world’s superpower. The nuclear pact has given it both.

Don’t be fooled by well-photo-graphed summits such as the one this past week between the Russian, Chinese and Indian foreign ministers. India wants to be sure those relationships are smooth, for economic as well as political reasons. But Indians have no real trust in the Russians and are deeply suspicious of the Chinese. Memories of the Indo-Chinese border war in 1962 remain sharp, as does resentment of China’s military support for Pakistan. India’s natural friendships are in the West. After all, rich Indians do not send their sons and daughters to school or university in China or Russia. They send them to Britain and, especially, to the United States.

Bush should get credit for realising this and being bold enough to exploit it. India needs help if it is to become economically stronger, especially in the building of much needed infrastruc-ture and electric power plants. The world also needs India to get stronger, to extend its political and economic influence into the rest of Asia, and thus to prevent China from dominating that region. It is not a question of “containing” China, but of balancing its power.

Future historians should give Bush low marks for his deadly incompetence in Iraq. That alone is enough to condemn his presidency to the list marked “failure”. But, as with Nixon’s visit to China, that failure can and should be mitigated by Bush’s one shrewd and successful strategic step: the recognition of India’s importance.

Bill Emmott is a former editor of The Economist

See also
India ranks highly with the US
Mumbai deals
India. Superpower?
Globalising India

meditations
top