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The tortoise & the hare

Wonk’s world: The slow pace of Indo-US relations will have more lasting power than Sino-US ties, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Jun 11, 2007 00:15 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

When Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria a year ago compared George W. Bush’s maiden voyage to India with Richard Nixon’s 1971 visit to China, even Indian bloggers derided him. It’s easy to see why. Nixon’s visit to China was the perfect combination of public relations and geopolitics. The world seemed to pivot around one seven-day visit, two leaders and one handshake. “This was the week that changed the world,” as Nixon famously said at a farewell banquet in Shanghai.

A recent retelling of the Nixon visit, Margaret Macmillan’s Nixon and Mao, used “the week that changed the world” as its subtitle. If a book were written about the interaction between Bush and Manmohan Singh, its tag would be more like “eight messy years that may eventually change the world”.

The difference is not a matter of happenstance. There are hard-edged reasons that the turnaround in Indo-US relations has been so tortuous while that between China and the US shifted so sharply. The first, and most important difference was that in 1971 there was plenty of push behind Washington and Beijing to change the global status quo.

The world was an unfriendly place for both. The US was in the darkest years of the Vietnam war, its home-front one running battle between generations. China was worse off. Soviet and Chinese troops had been skirmishing for two years. In 1969, when Premier Zhou Enlai warned China’s generals "we should be preparing for fighting a war,” he was talking about taking on the great bear. Mao recognised China was down to only one friend in the world — and it would take a Great Leap Forward of imagination to see a strategic buffer in Albania. For both countries, military necessity was the mother of geopolitical invention. With things going so badly, radical change was the easy option. The contrast to the positions of the US and India today could not be more stark.

The Bush administration is domestically beleaguered now, but this is an 18-month-old phenomenon. From 9/11 until the second year of the Iraq invasion, approval for the US has been above average. The counter-culture spawned by the Iraq war? Wealthy white liberals donating to Barack Obama. In any case, while wooing China could have benefits for the US in Vietnam, India has nothing to contribute to Iraq.

India is having one of the easiest rides in its foreign policy history. Singh understands this, noting that “the global environment, both politically and economically, is largely benign from our point of view.” BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) reports and Chindia books all claim India’s rise is now preordained. Governments are falling over each other to ingratiate themselves with New Delhi. Far from a mood for change, Indians seem to believe they can have their global cake and eat it too.

The second difference is the political context of the key players. President Bush, at least during his first five years, and Mao were similar in that they had almost untrammeled authority in their respective capitals. Nixon was on shakier political ground, but not on China where only a small Right-wing Republican faction opposed him.

Singh, however, has been hobbled by the perception he is an accidental prime minister — a viewpoint held not only by his fellow Congressmen but to a degree even by himself. Assailed by left and right, today the Indian Prime Minister can count the number of supporters of the civilian nuclear deal in his cabinet on his thumbs.

No better evidence of Singh’s weakness is how India’s grand strategy is being held hostage by a gaggle of scientists. Nixon, with the help of his then national security advisor Henry Kissinger, orchestrated his China policy with almost no bureaucratic input. “If the Department of State has had a new idea in the last 25 years, it is not known to me,” he caustically said. Kissinger echoed this, writing that “the spirit of policy and that of bureaucracy are diametrically opposed.”

The Nixon-Mao and Bush-Singh partnerships do have one thing in common: the vision thing. Nixon saw a great leader as “the man who boldly went on ahead, dragging his nation with him and changing the world”. Singh has privately compared his struggle to get the nuclear deal, the touchstone of a broader Indo-US relationship, to his 1991 announcement of economic liberalisation. He was attacked then too, by right and left, business and labour. Today, by virtue of those decisions, he is seen as the father of the new India.

Even Bush has pushed his India policy in the teeth of opposition from an array of his ministers, the State Department bureaucracy and even his Vice-President, Dick Cheney. While the American Street is favourably inclined to India these days, when asked about the civilian nuclear deal, most of the Street opposed it. Kissinger wrote that statesmen “often went without honour in their countries because it was difficult to get domestic support for policies that appeared to require compromises, with other powers or of a nation’s own dearly held principles”. Singh would understand, he’s experiencing it for the second time in 16 years. He once said: “To be different is not always rewarding.”

There will never be a week that will change the world as far as the relationship between India and the US. The geopolitical factors are hazy. The democratic system limits one-man grandstanding. The two countries will move leisurely; two steps forward, one step sideways.

But keep this in mind: much of what Nixon and Mao wrought proved ephemeral. The collapse of the Soviet Union ended triangular diplomacy. Taiwan wasn’t resolved in 1971 and remains a powder keg. Today, as one former senior Pentagon official said, China is among “only four or five” countries in the world that US generals “wake up every morning and wargame against”. Macmillan points that just one year after the week that changed the world, Beijing had begun to sour on the US.

The one thing the Indian and US establishments are relatively certain is that, while they may or may not evolve into allies, they won’t be a military threat to each other. The people-to-people relationship is even more remarkable. India is among the most pro-American countries in the world. Americans are more upbeat about the future of India than the Russians and the Chinese. Here’s a prediction: the tortoise-like pace of Indo-US relations will have more lasting power than the haring speed of what happened between China and the US. Only the historic photo-ops will be fewer.

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society, Washington DC.

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