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America?s martial arts

With the war of necessity against terrorism getting fused with the US war of choice in Iraq, there has been fallout on Asian geopolitics.
None | By Brahma Chellaney
PUBLISHED ON JAN 28, 2006 05:09 AM IST

With the war of necessity against terrorism getting fused with the US war of choice in Iraq, there has been fallout on Asian geopolitics. The Iraq quagmire has not only constricted US options vis-à-vis renegade States like North Korea and Iran but also helped a rising China to increase its strategic leeway and influence in Asia.

An emboldened Chinese leadership has stepped up nationalistic rhetoric. This has had the unintended effect of persuading Japan to jettison its doubts about US security commitments and reinvigorate its military relationship with the US.

At the same time, despite Washington propping up and arming an India-hostile military dictatorship in Pakistan, New Delhi is cosying up to the US, with its foreign policy adding democracy and non-proliferation advocacy as central planks.

India now promotes democracy and non-proliferation where the US wants, not where its interests demand. Being close to the US has also meant lavishing attention on its pet autocrats, as symbolised by the Indian mollycoddling of the Saudi king but the cold-shouldering of the Nepalese monarch.

India’s warm ties with Washington both mirror and spur a major shift in public opinion at home. Such ties also boost India’s international profile.Yet, to avoid the pitfalls and better capitalise on these ties, India needs to absorb US’s strategic aims.

America’s overarching aim is to safeguard its global primacy. In Asia, its central interest remains what it has been for long — the maintenance of a balance of power. During the Cold War, the US chose to maintain a balance by means of military alliances and forward bases in Asia.

By the time the Cold War entered the second half, America designed its ‘opening’ to China to reinforce a balance by employing Beijing to countervail Soviet power. It also shored up Pakistan over the decades largely to counterbalance India.

Today, as China, India and Japan assert themselves in Asia, US’s main strategic objective remains unchanged. It does not want any single power to dominate Asia or any region there. Its war on terror came handy in Asia to establish new US military bases.

The US is certainly concerned about China’s aspiration to dominate Asia. But at present it shares greater interests with China than with India, such as on North Korea. The US and China, once allies of convenience, have now become partners tied by interdependence.

America depends on Chinese surpluses and savings to finance its super-sized budget deficits, while Beijing relies on its surging exports to the US to sustain its average 9.6

per cent growth rate and subsidise its military modernisation. By ploughing more than two-thirds of its $ 819 billion foreign-currency reserves into dollar-denominated assets, China holds down US interest rates, props up the value of the dollar and finances American spending.

In return, it gains significant political leverage.The US tolerates a nearly $ 200 billion trade deficit with China largely because cheap Chinese-made goods help keep US inflation down. By outsourcing lower-cost manufacturing to China (and back-office work to India), the US economy can concentrate on high-value productivity.

For its part, Beijing will dare not behave towards the US the way it spits fire at Japan or condescendingly treats India. In fact, given the vast disparity in US-China power, the Chinese approach to handling US’s global primacy is a model of canny tactics — a calibrated balance of inconspicuous submission, modest resistance and circumspect competition.

The US and China are far from being enemies, and the basis of their future ties is open to all options — from amity to hostility. Any US balancing of China, if the need arose, will certainly not be in the Cold War model, given the US reliance on Chinese capital and China’s own role as an engine for US economic growth. Indeed, the recrudescence of the Sino-Japanese historical rivalry not only makes such externally driven balancing gratuitous at this time but also helps reinforce the US’s role as the main arbiter in Asia.

Japan and China may not like the downward spiral in their relations to continue, but the vicious cycle bedevilling their ties offers no easy exit. In comparison, the Sino-Indian relationship, despite being racked by unresolved issues and the Chinese strategic squeeze of India, appears better managed only because the two sides have eschewed shrill rhetoric against each other.

The US’s interests, other than playing the balancing game, lie in hedging its Asian options. Consequently, India has begun to attract greater US attention. However, any US need to rope in India as an Asian balancer has been mitigated by the emerging Sino-Japanese cold war. Through their heated rivalry, China and the economically mightier Japan will keep each other in check, without one gaining the upper hand over the other.

That in turn, means the US has less incentive to accommodate India. After failing to support India’s bid for a Security Council permanent seat, the US is now shifting the nuclear deal’s goalposts on issues that go far beyond the breeder programme. On offer is a second-class nuclear status to India at best — that too if New Delhi danced to the US foreign-policy tune. Had it wanted to build India as a counterweight to China, the US wouldn’t be seeking to constrain Indian nuclear military capability even before India has acquired a minimal deterrent against Beijing.

Pakistan’s uncompromising resolve to thwart India’s regional pre-eminence also jibes well with the US balancing strategy. In the past, the US turned a blind eye to Pakistani proliferation for the same reason that China aided Islamabad’s nuclear ambitions. Not only did it shield A.Q. Khan from arrest in Europe in 1975 and 1986, the CIA also had a likely hand in the disappearance of Khan’s legal files from the Amsterdam court that convicted him, according to recent Dutch revelations.

More troubling is that the US has resumed the rearming of Pakistan with lethal, India-directed systems. The supply of 10 P3C Orion dual-purpose aircraft, for example, will arm Islamabad with the capability to monitor India’s entire western naval flank down to the Indian Ocean. By seeking to also sell arms to India, the US wants to reap profits on both sides and step up leverage over New Delhi.

Equally revealing is that it is trying to market in India the very weapons it has presented Pakistan (like the F-16s, Orions and C-130s) or other arms that will leave this country both poorer by billions of dollars and unable to decisively defeat an aggressor. Through major bargaining chips — from Kashmir to military spares to nuclear energy — the US wishes to gain over India the kind of strategic influence it has secured over Pakistan. No US president will visit India without also going to Pakistan, though more visiting time will be lavished on the country where US businesses can make more money.

As Iraq testifies, the US’s strategic calculations do go awry. It failed to deter India’s nuclear weaponisation. Today, it can only watch China’s accretion of strength, Japan’s political resurgence and Russia’s increasing use of its energy weapon.

India is right to seek closer engagement with the US. But such engagement has to proceed with a clear appreciation of where mutual interests diverge. Moderation, pragmatism and subtlety should guide India’s US policy, not sentiment, hyperbole or false expectation. In history, a nation’s pursuit of friendly, mutually beneficial ties with a globally dominant power has rarely translated into securing a trustworthy friend.

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