A few moves short of a global tango

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2006, 12:00am

With her passionate defence of the 'historic' Indo-US nuclear deal before the House of Representatives and Senate committees last month in Washington, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have managed to evoke sympathy for India. However, the fate of the deal remains uncertain, thanks to the intransigence of some committee members.

For Dr Rice - and, indeed, President George W. Bush, who announced the deal during his visit to India in early spring - a strategic partnership with India is a cornerstone of what is described as America's 21st-century foreign policy. The nuclear deal is a manifestation of this partnership. Dr Rice used every weapon in her oratory arsenal to try to convince committee members of the importance of cementing this partnership between the world's two most vibrant democracies.

Meanwhile, New Delhi has held low-key discussions with Iran over a gas pipeline passing through Pakistan to meet India's voracious energy appetite as its economy expands. Dr Rice argued that access to nuclear technology would wean India away from Iran, allowing it to firmly embrace the US and become its partner in a global tango. Indeed, bringing India into the US camp has been the dream of many American politicians, going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, through John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, to Bill Clinton and Mr Bush. Indeed, private comments from US think-tank experts suggest Washington would do everything possible to keep India within its fold.

But some diehard sceptics in Congress still question India's importance for US global interests. Dr Rice tried to silence the naysayers by reminding them of India's stature as a 'rising global power' and 'pillar of stability' in a rapidly changing Asia. The allusion was to the emergence of China as an economic and military power that could challenge the US in future.

By roping in India, so the strategic thinking goes, a circle could be formed around the mainland, stretching from Taiwan and Japan through the friendly Southeast Asian nations to India. Because of its huge size, India is a perfect foil to China's ambition of dominating the Asia-Pacific region where, Beijing believes, the US has no business to be.

Thus, India, soon to become the world's most populous country and expected to mature into a global economic power, could provide - on its own or with other nations - a counterweight to China's might.

Nonetheless, doubts still linger in the minds of some US lawmakers because India has steadfastly refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. These sceptics believe that any concession to India would invariably weaken the pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

Dr Rice also dwelt on the economics of energy. She argued that allowing India to develop its own civilian nuclear energy would also arrest the escalating oil prices, partly caused by the huge demand from China and India. Besides, the deal would generate almost 5,000 new jobs directly, not to mention a three-fold increase in indirect jobs in related industries. The US Chamber of Commerce has also backed the deal.

Although opposition to it has certainly mellowed, it is still not certain that the deal will overcome all the hurdles. The coming months promise to be exciting times for India-watchers.

Manik Mehta is a political commentator based in New York