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US and India: a `turf' problem

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From the Indian point of view, close relations with the Soviet Union have consistently served important national interests without compromising Indian independence. India provides Moscow with political support on a number of issues, but Delhi has not granted tangible assets to the USSR, such as port facilities, or associated itself with Soviet security arrangements in Asia. Most outside observers would agree that India is no client state or proxy of Moscow.

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Delhi's close relations with Moscow, however, prompt India's neighbors to look toward the US and China. This is not necessarily a matter of ideological affinity, but rather of pragmatic diplomatic efforts to enlist big-power support to offset dominant Indian influence -- and for this purpose one does not turn to India's closest ally, the USSR. Delhi sees these external links as intended to counter India's influence -- a perception that reinforces India's opposition to big-power ``intrusion'' in general and its suspicions of the US and China in particular.

Indians are concerned about US ties to all the neighbors, but they object most strenuously to the US arms supply to Pakistan. Beneath the surface, the present controversy is not about military hardware, but about what India sees as a US intrusion into India's security sphere. In the Indian view, US support, wittingly or unwittingly, encourages Pakistan to resist accommodation to an India-centered security arrangement on the subcontinent. This is perceived by many Indians as more threatening to India's regional dominance -- and thus its own security -- than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Some Americans would argue that US interests in South Asia would be adequately protected if the US recognized India as the region's security manager and guarantor. India, after all, is a major power and has a fundamental interest in keeping both the Soviet Union and China (as well as the US) from intruding into its security preserve.

Such an arrangement is anathema to India's neighbors, who fear that India's aspirations for regional leadership could infringe on their own freedom. Without a common perception of a shared threat, an Indian-managed security arrangement is not a viable proposition.

Rajiv Gandhi, after taking office, stated India's intention to improve relations with its neighbors. During Mr. Gandhi's visit to the US, Washington should stress its conviction that improved relations among South Asian countries not only are consistent with US interests in Asia but also could help erode that subterranean stumbling block to better Indian-American relations. The US recognizes that India is legitimately concerned with the security of the subcontinent, but in its view a viable security arrangement depends on the evolution of relations of mutual trust and confidence between India and its neighbors. Washington should also reaffirm that the US is not in the business of conspiring with neighbors against India. US interests in southern Asia and the Indian Ocean region depend in large measure on India's own unity, stability, and territorial integrity and on its stubborn resistance to becoming incorporated in any bloc.

Jane Abell Coon, formerly US ambassador to Bangladesh, is diplomat-in-residence at the American Enterprise Institute. These are her personal views.