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U.S. is One of the 'Central Pillars' of Indian Foreign Policy

Interviewee: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 29, 2008

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Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert who has served in the Central Intelligence Agency and in the Clinton White House, sees the improvement in U.S.-India relations as a major accomplishment of the Bush administration, which carried forward progress made during President Bill Clinton’s tenure. Riedel says the U.S.-India nuclear agreement, which has been held up by opposition in India’s parliament, is likely to be approved next year, and that both major Indian political parties now see the United States as one of “the central pillars of India’s foreign policy.”

In looking at President Bush’s foreign policies, people have criticized him for not building on the past. On the question of dealing with India, President Bush’s administration seems to have built on [President Bill] Clinton’s work in getting a relationship going with the Indians. Would you agree with that?

Very much so. When it came in, the Bush team recognized that India was going to be one of the key powers of the twenty-first century, an emerging potential power, certainly a regional power, but perhaps a global power as well. I worked for President Clinton and for President Bush in his transition. His team very much understood that they wanted to build on what the Clinton people had done and to take it further. The Bush people have taken it further with the India-U.S. civilian nuclear deal, which offers the opportunity to remove one of the main stumbling blocks to U.S.-Indian rapprochement—the nuclear nonproliferation issue.

That agreement caused a certain amount of controversy in the United States when it was signed in 2007, but eventually it got general approval in Congress. Why is India delaying approving it?

The delay in India is entirely due to politics in the governing coalition. The Congress Party, a strong supporter, negotiated the deal and it wants to conclude it. But their junior partner in the coalition, the Communists, opposes the deal for a very simple reason. They recognize that the deal is the pathway by which U.S.-Indian relations are going to get much stronger. The Communists are basically opposed to a strong U.S.-Indian strategic partnership and they want to try to scuttle the deal. When I was in India a few weeks ago, the government made it very clear that they are determined to push this deal forward and to get the various bits and pieces of it put together to go to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] to finish the negotiations with them and then take it to the Nuclear Suppliers Group [multinational nuclear safeguards group]. Sooner or later they will force a showdown with the Communists but probably closer to the next scheduled Indian election in May 2009. This agreement is probably one that is going to slip over into the next administration.

Is there any chance that a new president in the United States would want to scuttle this?

I certainly hope that wouldn’t happen. This deal is the basis for strong U.S.-Indian relationship and I support it. There is certainly a possibility that a new administration may try to strengthen the nonproliferation parts of it, and might, particularly if the Democrats are elected, try to revive the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT]. But the first step there of course would be for the United States to ratify the CTBT. I don’t think we could go to the Indians and ask them to do something that we haven’t done so far.

When was the CTBT last pushed in Washington?

It died when the Senate turned it down in 1999.

In the United States, India is discussed in a slightly negative way—companies farming out work to India and that sort of thing. Is the U.S.-India trade relationship very strong right now?

The U.S.-India trade relationship is growing. U.S. trade with India has been increasing and U.S. investment in India has been growing. The Indian economy is now growing at about 9 percent [GDP growth], which by Indian standards and by any standard is really remarkable. The change in India in the last decade is one of the most revolutionary developments in the world. We see India really, at long last, beginning to have the kind of economic growth rate that people have always hoped for. There is still a great deal of poverty but there is an enormous amount of change and wealth. India will soon have the world’s largest oil refinery in Jamnagar by Reliance Industries. It’s a symbol of the country’s growing emergence as a major economic power.

It will be able to process virtually every kind of oil from around the world from heavy to light, making it really one of the most attractive refineries for oil in the world. It will not be dependent upon a certain kind of oil to come to it. It’s one example of the economic change that is going there.

That is fascinating. And the two-way trade between the United States and India, what does that show?

It’s growing. It’s certainly nothing like U.S.-Chinese trade, but after decades of being almost flatlined, it’s growing and improving. The traditional barriers to stronger U.S.-Indian economic relations, the bureaucratic jungle that India was for many years, are slowly changing in the right direction. Infrastructure in the country which has been very poor for a long time is improving. You see new big container ports in India, new airports coming into being, the beginning of a national highway system: the kinds of things to undergird real economic growth for a long time to come. All of those things are going in the right direction.

When I started in foreign affairs, India was always the leader of the nonaligned countries and was in a way in line with the Soviet bloc against the United States’ interest in most places. Now of course we’re getting closer and closer. Who is responsible for this change in India’s thinking?

The end of the Cold War freed India in some ways from thinking in those terms. There is still resistance to stronger U.S.-Indian relations. The Communists are very much opposed to it. But there is a very large consensus between the Congress Party and the main opposition—the BJP—that U.S.-Indian relations will be one of the central pillars of India’s foreign policy. When the Indians look around, they look at a troubled neighborhood. To go around the circle with them: Pakistan is in the midst of a difficult transition from military dictatorship to democracy and it’s clear that that transition is going to be a troubled one and that violence is increasing. In Afghanistan, to the north, the Karzai government is having a difficult time with the Taliban, demonstrated by the attempted assassination of President Karzai yesterday. Nepal just elected a Maoist government; Maoist rebels are a big problem in much of India today so this could be another source of trouble.

There is a very large consensus between the Congress Party and the main opposition—the BJP—that U.S.-Indian relations will be one of the central pillars of India’s foreign policy.

Then there are problems in Tibet which have come up this year. India probably has the most at stake with how those troubles work themselves out, being the home of the Tibetan exile community and the Dalai Lama. Then you have Bangladesh and Burma [Myamar] on the other side, which have been experiencing great deals of domestic trouble and both are now under military government. Burma, of course, has a horrendous human-rights record. So India looks around its neighborhood and it’s got many troubled neighbors and it’s trying to look for friends that will be standing by it. The United States has demonstrated in the last decade or so, first under President Clinton, then under President Bush, that it’s a solid partner for working with India.

What about the current flap about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is due in India on April 29 to talk about a natural gas pipeline that would go through Pakistan? This has been talked about for over a decade. Is this about to come into fruition? Is the United States really that opposed to this deal?

Ahmadinejad and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf announced that they worked the Iran-Pakistan part of this deal out. I’m a little skeptical. This is a very complex deal and it’s been in the works a long time. My own suspicion is that it’s still probably years away from being operational. American relations with India should not become a hostage to Indian-Iranian relations. India does have a working relationship with Iran. India is the world’s second largest Shiite Muslim country. There are almost as many Shittes in India as there are in Iran. But India also has a very strong relationship with Israel. India is today Israel’s number one customer for military exports and India and Israel have a very close relationship in terms of space activity. India has been a launching point for Israel’s most sophisticated spy satellite, which will launch later this year, and several that are coming up. So if you compare the India-Israel relationship with the India-Iran relationship on a strategic level, India and Israel are much closer and have much more intimate relations in terms of military technology transfers and space research than India has with Iran.

India has made clear that it supports the United States and other UN Security Council members on the resolutions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Right?

That’s right. In the critical vote in the IAEA on the Iran issue, India has been with us. Indian officials said to me when I was there a few weeks ago that the last thing they want to see is a second Muslim nuclear power on their western border. They have enough to worry about with a nuclear-armed Pakistan. They don’t want to see a nuclear-armed Iran.

When you talked about the troubled neighbors you didn’t talk about India’s relations with China.

One part of that is the Tibet issue but yes, there is a larger question in the relationship between Indian and China. The Indians do not want to become part of some kind of American strategy to encircle or contain China. They want to engage China. They obviously have some concerns about long-term Chinese policy. They are quick to point out the difference between India and China is that India is a democracy with a proven track record of democratic elections and democratic transitions whereas China remains a communist dictatorship. They are eager to have strong relations with China but they also know that the two of them are the emerging major powers in Asia and there will be areas of competition as well as cooperation. Indian strategic thinkers recognize that in the long term, getting their relationship with China right is probably the single-most important part of Indian foreign policy in the twenty-first century.

Has the United States taken advantage of this improved relationship with India to do much with military cooperation and in intelligence cooperation? Are we working together against terrorists for instance?

There has been progress in the right direction in the military and intelligence fields but more can be done. We’ve begun to strengthen the military to military relationship but we still have some ways to go. In the intelligence relationship, we’ve made some progress but there again more could be done. But India has been a frequent target of Islamic terrorist groups, many of them operating out of Pakistan. It is high on al-Qaeda’s list of targets , as is the United States. India should cooperate much more strongly on counterterrorism than they have in the past. I would say that this is one of the areas—military and intelligence cooperation—that the next administration should really try to take this relationship to an even higher level.

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