A Delicate U.S. Dance in S. Asia

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Selig S. Harrison has covered India and Pakistan since 1951 and is the author of five books on South Asia. He is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has engaged in a delicate balancing act in South Asia. It has embraced Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, as an ally against Al Qaeda. At the same time, it has worked to prevent its Islamabad connection from damaging continuing efforts to improve a potentially more important relationship with democratic India.

Until recently, the administration had succeeded in maintaining good relations with both Islamabad and New Delhi. But three new developments threaten the balance. The U.S. has tilted toward the Pakistani position in its policy toward the conflict in Kashmir; it has expressed discomfort with India’s growing ties with Iran; and it has disappointed New Delhi by maintaining restrictions on the sale of military hardware and industrial high technology to India.

Musharraf’s visit to Washington this week will further test the administration’s balancing act. The White House is on the verge of a new, five-year economic and military aid commitment to Pakistan. That would firm up the two countries’ cooperation in the pursuit of Al Qaeda, but it should be conditioned on termination of Pakistani support for Islamic militants’ infiltration into Indian-held areas of Kashmir.


An unconditional commitment to Musharraf would give hard-line, anti-U.S. Hindu nationalists a new lease on life in India. It would also directly conflict with the administration’s view that India, eight times larger than Pakistan, is a “growing world power with which we have common strategic interests.” The U.S. sees India as a counterweight to China in the Asian balance of power and as a de facto naval ally in the Indian Ocean.

When Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage visited New Delhi and Islamabad last August, he publicly criticized Pakistan for sponsoring cross-border insurgent operations in Kashmir. By contrast, on his peace mission last month, he told India that the United States had done all it could to pressure Pakistan to stop the infiltrators. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, Armitage didn’t challenge either Musharraf’s “absolute assurance” to him that Pakistan had shut down base camps for Islamic militants or his denial that militants were currently infiltrating into Kashmir.

India has recently provided the United States with detailed maps showing 174 locations where Pakistani base camps of varying sizes now operate. State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency sources say that U.S. reconnaissance satellite findings broadly corroborate the Indian maps.

To sustain the improvement in Indo-U.S. relations since the end of the Cold War, the administration should insist that Pakistan dismantle all its base camps as a condition for new aid; stop badgering New Delhi to curtail its economically vital links with Iran; and loosen restrictions that are sharply limiting U.S. -- and U.S.- licensed -- sales of military hardware and high technology to India.

Tensions between New Delhi and Washington over Iran center on U.S. suspicions that India is helping Iran’s nuclear and missile programs by giving it dual-use technology. But so far, the United States has produced no evidence to back up these suspicions. Indeed, India has never transferred nuclear technology to others, as Pakistan allegedly did with North Korea. Still, that hasn’t stopped Washington from threatening sanctions against New Delhi.

India regards Shiite Iran as a counterweight to Sunni-majority Pakistan. India and Iran share an interest in countering the current resurgence of Pakistani-supported Taliban activity in Afghanistan. Their economic ties are growing rapidly, spurred by a “strategic partnership” announced in January. India is importing more Iranian oil and gas, and negotiations are underway for an undersea pipeline from Iran to India that would enable India to get gas from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan without going through Pakistan. Iran has agreed to make the port city of Chah Bahar a tax-free transit point for Indian overland trade with Russia and Europe via Afghanistan and Central Asia, and to let India build new roads northward from Chah Bahar to make this expansion possible.


On the surface, there has been a striking improvement in U.S.-India military relations in recent years, symbolized by routine refueling of U.S. warships in Indian ports and seven joint exercises involving air, naval and special operations forces. But this new relationship has carried with it Indian expectations that the United States will sell it a greater range of military equipment. The Pentagon has made moves in this direction but is balking at authorizing the sale of such sophisticated equipment as the U.S.-licensed Arrow antimissile system, which Israel is willing to sell to India, and P3 anti-submarine maritime patrol aircraft.

U.S. curbs on selling industrial high technology have particularly rankled India. These restrictions, primarily on items that could be used for civilian and military purposes, originated before India became a nuclear power. They should be lifted, because U.S. policy is now based on the implicit strategic premise that Asia is more stable with India having a minimum nuclear deterrent than with China enjoying a nuclear monopoly.

The United States should also end its ban on the sale of civilian nuclear technology to India. The fact that China is able to buy such technology has long been an irritant in India-U.S. relations. The United States should treat India as a major power, not only on issues arising from its membership in the nuclear club. It should also support India’s participation in an expanded G8 economic summit and its permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council.

Lingering Indian criticism of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has crystallized a pervasive mood of resistance to American unilateralism similar to that found in many other countries. Significantly, public opposition to the U.S. role in Iraq has been almost universal among both the Muslim minority and the Hindu majority. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee persuaded Parliament to tone down a resolution “condemning” the U.S. to one “deploring” the war. But Vajpayee, too, has changed his tone of late: He is resisting a U.S. request to provide peacekeeping forces in Iraq.

The prime minister reflected the new mood in his answer to critics who asked him why he had suddenly made his May 1 peace overture to Pakistan. To a group of editors, he said that India and Pakistan should get together to create a new independent power center in a multipolar world. In Parliament, he was more oblique, but his meaning was unmistakable.

“What has changed that has forced us to extend a hand of friendship?” Vajpayee asked. “The international situation has changed. The world is standing on one axis. There should be different sources of power in the world. One key should not turn the world.”