Steven R. Weisman, the chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, says that President Bush has always been interested in better relations with India, something that has been spurred recently by increasing concern in the Pentagon over China’s military strength.
Discussing the just announced U.S.-India agreement that will allow India to get civilian nuclear reactors and materials from the United States even though it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Weisman says it is due largely to the Pentagon’s warnings about China. “I would say, right now, if you were to take the temperature of the administration, you would have to say that there is more concern about China than there has ever been.”
Weisman, who was New Delhi bureau chief for the Times in the 1980s, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on July 19, 2005.
In light of this week’s state visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which included an accord on nuclear-sharing, could you, as a longtime observer of the India scene, describe the evolution of the Bush administration’s policy toward India?
As I understand it, President Bush wanted to move relations with India from the moment he took office. Even as governor of Texas, he was terribly impressed with Indian entrepreneurial enterprise, and wanted to make relations with India a priority of his presidency. That all changed on September 11th of his first year in office, when the United States reversed its policy and looked at lifting bans on arms assistance to Pakistan, at a time when India-Pakistan relations were still very tense. It became impossible for India, and really for the United States, to have a good relationship.
However, Bush was still surrounded by people who were strong advocates of developing a new strategic relationship with India, in part as a counterweight to China. In particular, his ambassador to India, Robert D. Blackwill, who had been one of his foreign-policy advisers in Texas and had worked for various administrations going back to Kissinger and Nixon, [backed improved relations with India.] This administration came into office with a lot of China-bashing-type thinking, in part, because as you recall in the late 1990s, there was criticism that President Clinton had sold too many arms to China. The incoming Bush administration was very keen to do everything it could to counter the expanding Chinese military and be wary of Chinese intentions. And one way of doing this was to develop a relationship with India. This is something that the administration has been loath to acknowledge publicly, but it’s clearly underneath the surface.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke recently about India balancing China, but aren’t there many in the administration who also see China as a great opportunity?
That thinking has gone up and down in the administration. For a time, you remember when they came into office, there was a big flap with China over the EP-3, the Navy plane forced to land on Hainan Island. That shook up a lot of hawks in the administration who suddenly got nervous that they couldn’t afford to have a confrontation with China. So, those who advocated closer ties with China and working with China on a number of common issues, had the upper hand and they have for years. In fact, it was routine to hear then-Secretary of State Colin Powell say, “We have the best relationship with China since the early 1970s.” They were very proud that there were lots of things to do with China. They encouraged China to join the World Trade Organization, and of course, in political terms, got Chinese cooperation to solve the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program. That was a big diplomatic success story”"as long as the negotiations seemed to be going well.
What’s happened, however, is even in the last year or two, the Pentagon has become much more alarmed over Chinese military intentions, and their acquisition of high technology that has given them an upper hand in the Taiwan Strait. Suddenly, the administration was alarmed over Europe’s selling of high-tech stuff to China. In addition, there have been many hawkish statements from the Chinese about Taiwan as well, and this has alarmed the administration. So, I would say right now, if you were to take the temperature of the administration, you would have to say that there is more concern about China than there has ever been.
India, of course, has made a concerted effort to improve relations with Pakistan. The leaders of the two countries, even before India’s current leadership came in, have been meeting. Are relations calmer now than they have been?
They’re calmer than they have been in some time, but as you said very kindly at the outset, I’ve been a longtime observer of this relationship as a reporter and an editor, and I think it would be foolish to think this state of affairs is permanent. Things are going well now, but when I talk to Indians and Pakistanis, they recognize that it would only take one bus bomb in Kashmir or New Delhi to get things off track. And the Indians, although they’re improving relations with Pakistan, adamantly insist that Pakistan has done nothing to stop the infiltration of militants or extremists”"whatever you want to call them”"into Kashmir to provoke militant opposition to Indian sovereignty there.
So, it’s a very touchy situation that is only temporarily in a good place. Naturally, the administration is taking some credit for the peaceful state of affairs, saying they are the first administration in history that has tried to have good relations with both India and Pakistan. Well, with all due respect, it would not be possible if India and Pakistan were not themselves trying hard to have good relations.
Isn’t there a paradox here? Washington sees India as a way to offset China, but India has been trying to improve its own relations with China.
That’s right. That’s what’s so interesting. India is playing Kissinger-like games of making up with the longtime enemy. India and China fought a war in the early 1960s, as you know, and they still have a boundary dispute left over from that war. India accelerated a policy of improving relations with China, and when you talk to Indian officials, they are adamant, and resentful, frankly, that they are being seen in Washington as a kind of a pawn here to beat up on China among the China-bashers. So, for both India and the Americans, you don’t hear very much [public] talk about, “Let’s build up India as a counterweight to China,” even though everybody knows that’s part of what’s happening.
Strategically, how would it work? The Indians are not interested in any confrontation with China, right?
That’s true, but they have their own ambitions to have a blue-water navy, and the tsunami aftermath was a pretty interesting display of India’s ability to deploy military forces for a humanitarian cause. It must have been noticed in China, and other countries in the region, that India was utilized by the United States as a major player in taking care of the tsunami aftermath. India’s navy is a presence in a part of the world where China also wants a presence, so if you look over the long term, I think from the perspective of the Pentagon, you see the possibility of India being another stabilizing force just by being there.
Let’s talk about this week’s nuclear arrangements. India’s stance as an official nuclear power has been a matter of enormous strain between India and the United States going back to the 1970s. What is the deal that is in the works?
Well, what’s interesting is that the entire international regime governing nuclear weapons results, in a funny way, from the confrontation with India in the 1970s. Remember, India exploded its first nuclear device in 1974, and the current law that exists in the United States, which says that countries that develop nuclear weapons can’t get nuclear technology, is all a result of that crisis in the ”˜70s. The nuclear-suppliers group, which is a group of something like 40 countries around the world that have agreed not to sell or supply countries with nuclear weapons any civilian technology, also resulted from the India crisis in the 1970s. So, this decision by the Bush administration will no doubt be seen, by its critics, as just another case of the administration seeking to dismantle an international arrangement.
In other words, so I’m clear on this, the United States is now agreeing to supply India with civilian nuclear know-how, or some components, even though U.S. law forbids it?
Correct. National-security exemptions enable President Bush, for instance, and other presidents, to override bans on selling stuff to Pakistan on national-security grounds. The administration, however, is committed to changing the law before it goes ahead with this. And so the law that says that the United States cannot give components, reactors, nuclear fuel, or know-how to any country that has a nuclear-weapons program is going to have to be changed in order for this arrangement to be implemented.
Where has India been getting its nuclear components and reactors?
From arrangements that were grandfathered in from before these laws took effect.
And how does this play out in the current debate over negotiations with Iran to keep it from getting nuclear weapons, and with North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?
Based on the reporting I’ve done so far, everyone agrees that it’s going to complicate the efforts on Iran and North Korea, but in different ways. North Korea has already pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]. It did so in 2002 and 2003, after the confrontation over its program, when they kicked the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors out. But Iran is still a signatory of the NPT, and it’s going to be hard, in either case, to use the NPT as a club over Iran and North Korea, when the United States has now carved out a big exemption to that club for India. On the other hand, you could argue that this is just a recognition of a reality; that India was already developing its nuclear-weapons program. So you could argue that what the administration has decided to do is just to recognize the reality and try to make it as effective as possible for its objectives.
India has agreed to certain restraints, right?
It’s agreed to a series of restraints. Many of them still have to be implemented. One of the hardest, as I understand it, is that India has agreed, on a phased basis, to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs, and to allow for inspections of its civilian program. But that’s going to take a long time, and it’s going to be very complicated, and hard to do that”"and to make sure that it is being done.
India has also agreed to a bunch of other safeguards. It’s agreed not to export military nuclear know-how and its weapons-grade material. Also, it’s agreed to indefinitely continue its voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing. So there are some things that India is doing. The people I’ve talked to so far today say that the administration actually should have driven a harder bargain, and if they had, they could have gotten India maybe to agree to inspections of its military, as well as its civilian nuclear program, because of the possibility of their being able to cheat. But this is the deal that the administration struck, and it’s now going to have to be scrutinized by the international community and by Congress.
What about Pakistan? They’re going to want the same deal, right?
The Pakistanis, as of today, haven’t made clear what deal they want. But, this spring, they already got their biggest priority, and that was the F-16s that the United States agreed to sell them. This goes back to the 1980s, when their purchase of the F-16s was held up because of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program. I don’t know that Pakistan now wants the kind of thing that India has been given, which is help on its civilian nuclear program. They do have reactors, and frankly, I don’t know what plans Pakistan has in the civilian sphere or what kind of outside aid it wants. But chances are if the India deal goes through, Pakistan will line up and ask for the same deal after they have a bit of a better record on nonproliferation.
What’s the status of India’s nuclear-energy program?
India has a nuclear-energy program going back to its reactors that caused this problem in the 1970s. After their [test] explosion, when Jimmy Carter was president, being the anti-proliferation president that he was, he tried to block all kinds of sales of reactors and civilian components for India’s program. And that did happen. But India is now experiencing huge economic growth, the broadening of a middle class and a consumer class, and as a result, it has unprecedented energy needs, like China’s. And it’s in the market for any kind of energy that it can get, including something that would have been unthinkable years ago, which is the possibility of a pipeline from Iran to India for natural gas”"a pipeline that would go through Pakistan. Imagine a few years ago what sort of security considerations would have been involved, with the pipeline going through Pakistan. It really shows you how economics and energy are the driving forces changing political arrangements.
During the presidential campaign, the Democrats made a big deal about the outsourcing of jobs to other nations, and India was always highlighted. Is this still a factor in Congress? How is India regarded in Congress now?
The Indian diaspora in the United States is now a very powerful political factor in congressional politics, not least in fundraising. So there’s a [positive] disposition for that reason alone, and common values of shared interest in democracy to improve relations with India. There’s certainly a lot of anxiety in Congress, as there is in America, about the outsourcing of jobs, but I don’t think it’s as high now as it has been in the past. There are other advantages. Places where you might expect to see such thinking are also now aware of the need to build up India as a counterweight to China.