India rises as strategic US ally

Monday India celebrates Republic Day - and worries neighbors, especially Pakistan.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Every Republic Day, India struts its military stuff, dragging out the latest ballistic missiles and tanks and parading the finest soldiers on the subcontinent. But Monday, on this year's anniversary, India has a bit more to strut about.

Just five years after US-imposed sanctions turned India and Pakistan into virtual pariah states for their nuclear-weapons tests in 1998, India has emerged as America's "strategic partner" in South Asia. Far more than its alliance with Pakistan to hunt down Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants, America's new relationship with India is a broad security, political, technological, and economic arrangement on par with America's relationship with Europe or NATO. The US is even talking about sharing roles in joint space missions.

In speeches over the last week, President Bush, Colin Powell, and other US officials have lauded India's new position in the world and growing economic importance on the global stage. Separately, US officials have talked of India's common interests in protecting sea lanes from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, an area that India already patrols with its blue-water navy.

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Call it the outsourcing of global security, with India once again getting the job.

"If you're looking at the security of the oil lanes or the sea lanes of Southeast Asia or the relationship with China, there's a natural convergence of interests from the US and India on all this," says K. Santhanam, director of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a government think tank in New Delhi.

It's a situation that has many of India's neighbors, primarily its nuclear rival Pakistan, wringing their hands.

After Sept. 11, Pakistan reaffirmed its longstanding alliance with the US by severing ties with Afghanistan's Taliban regime. As a result, the US is giving some economic incentives to Pakistan, but the arrangement falls short of America's accelerating relationship with India.

That's partly due to the same trade opportunities and shared values that the Clinton administration saw when it began to strengthen US ties with India - a move stunted by the 1998 nuclear tests.

The war on terror has also stretched the American military thin with two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and delegating the safety of South Asia to a strategic partner certainly makes sense. And for India, it's a welcome recognition that India is a global player.

In the past year, the US and India have conducted some 17 different exercises together. In addition, the US has sold $200 million in major weapons systems to India. Using America's Q-37 fire-locating radar, Indian artillery units in the northern state of Kashmir can now locate and destroy Pakistani artillery units on the other side of the cease-fire line before the Pakistanis have a chance to move.

Upcoming arms sales could include P-3 Orion aircraft, a maritime-based plane used for surveillance, and some of the equipment used by American special forces soldiers, such as rifles, parachutes, light-weight bulletproof jackets, and night-vision goggles.

Yet while the countries' military and strategic relationship has improved dramatically since nuclear sanctions were lifted against India in late 2001, India still turns to other nations for big-ticket items. This was underlined last week when India announced the purchase of a Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, for $1.5 billion.

"If you want to talk of a real strategic partnership, give us an aircraft carrier," says Bharat Verma, editor of the Indian Defense Review, a military affairs journal based in New Delhi.

For Mr. Verma and other military analysts, the limits of US friendship are seen in America's unwillingness to transfer its technology to its friends. By not giving India the blueprints for how to reproduce state-of-the-art weapons systems, America keeps countries like India dependent on it for supplies and spare parts.

"We don't like to be in a situation where our strategic autonomy is dependent on somebody else's supplier," Verma says. "That's why we ask for the transfer of technology. Today, the Russians are transferring. The French are transferring. The British are transferring. But the Americans are not."

The US has other concerns as well, although these are not discussed as openly. While the US and India may have common interests in some areas, such as combating terrorism or protecting oil shipments, their interests may diverge on lower-level issues, such as India's relations with its neighbors.

"The bottom line is that India is too independent an actor in South Asia and does not want the United States to dictate the terms under which it will deal with its neighbors," says Sumit Ganguly, chair of the Indian Culture and Civilization department at Indiana University in Bloomington. "This really sticks in the craw of Washington, D.C., and most importantly the State Department striped-pants set."

India's current leaders like to talk about "soft power" and diplomacy, but India's neighbors point to a number of interventions over the past three decades.

In 1971, India sent troops into neighboring East Pakistan to halt a massacre by the Pakistani army and to support the creation of a new nation, Bangladesh, under the separatist leadership of Mujibur Rahman.

In the early 1980s, India allowed the violent separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to set up training camps in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This support was later cut off, leading the Tamil Tigers to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1992.

In 1990, India was accused of allowing separatist guerrillas from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Pakistan's Sindh state to set up training camps in India and launch a reign of terror in the crucial port city of Karachi. India denied giving support, but MQM official Javed Langhri reportedly visited India in 1992, and other MQM leaders publicly sought India's moral support during a decade of government crackdowns.

"There is little question that India did support the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh, and very possibly the MQM in the Sindh," says Mr. Ganguly. "Of course, the neighbors routinely whine to Washington about real and utterly imagined grievances, thereby reinforcing the images of the striped-pants set."

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