US and India: a `turf' problem
PRIME Minister Rajiv Gandhi will be visiting the United States in June. This first official visit by India's young leader will raise expectations of more constructive US relations with the world's largest democracy. But a word of caution is in order. There are subterranean stumbling blocks in the relations with India which are not easily removed and which in large measure account for the perennially prickly character of the US-Indian relationship. The problems between the two nations go deeper than the much-discussed issue of US military aid to Pakistan; they relate to India's fundamental regional security aspirations and policies. For historic and strategic reasons, India sees its own security as indivisible from that of the entire subcontinent. As the largest power in the region, India considers itself to be ultimately responsible for the subcontinent's security and strives to insulate the region from outside intrusion by any of the big powers -- the Soviet Union, China, or the US. Consistent with this fundamental policy tenet, New Delhi discourages linkages between the big powers and other South Asian countries and seeks to evolve a regional security arrangement of pliant neighbors that acknowledge India's leadership.Skip to next paragraph
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In sharp contrast, all of India's neighbors -- Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan -- see India as the principal, though not the only, threat to their own security. To offset India's overwhelming presence, they all systematically cultivate links with outside powers. These links are not just a means of tweaking the elephant's tail, but reflect a deep urge for national integrity and survival.
Indians, however, see such ties as big-power trespassing on their subcontinental ``turf,'' and the US is perceived as the principal offender. For many Indians, concern over the US role in the region is transmuted into suspicion of US conspiracies to undermine India. Soviet disinformation encourages such apprehensions.
Why is the US seen as a greater obstacle to India's regional aspirations than the Soviet Union, which has invaded and occupied South Asia's traditional buffer zone, Afghanistan? The answer lies in India's relations with the three major powers, the USSR, China, and the US. Since the late 1950s, India has seen China as a long-term competitor and threat -- a perception burned into the Indian psyche by the humiliating defeat in the Sino-Indian war of 1962. As the Sino-Soviet split widened, India and the USSR increasingly saw themselves as having common interests. US arms aid to Pakistan in the '50s, and the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war, reinforced India's doubts about Washington and also its conviction that close relations with Moscow served Indian interests. Soviet support in the 1971 war further confirmed this view, especially in light of the American threat manifested in the dispatch of the aircraft carrier Enterprise toward the Bay of Bengal.
The Soviets, moreover, have been India's principal supplier of sophisticated weapons, on highly concessional terms. Political backing has been forthcoming in United Nations forums. Economic assistance, while not generous, supported India's early predisposition toward a large-scale public sector.