India's Drive Toward Regional Dominance

INDIA turned up the heat in the South-Asian nuclear arms race this last summer by successfully test-flying an "Agni" medium-range ballistic missile. Reports say the missile is believed capable of carrying a 2,000 lb. payload 1,500 miles. The Agni program and the new launch, symbolizing India's stubborn drive to become a dominant regional military and nuclear power, have impeded progress in relations between New Delhi and the West.

Since India is the world's most populous democracy, these relations might have been expected to move ahead smartly with the demise of the Soviet Union, India's de facto ally. They are in fact improving marginally, but India's military/geopolitical drive, rooted in its deep national need for respect, authority, and economic-industrial autarky, presents a continuing problem.

India is uninvolved in most of the world's evil, but it is helping to impel a China-to-Arabian Sea nuclear and delivery-system arms race that the world doesn't need - just as the superpowers are apparently turning the corner on doomsday.

India became the world's sixth confirmed nuclear power with a land detonation in 1974. Despite denials, it almost certainly has weapons stockpiled. By launching a dozen satellites in the last decade, India has demonstrated its growing capability, newly highlighted by the Agni, to project its nuclear might. Pakistan, meanwhile, finally admitted early this year that it, too, has nuclear capability. And China, in possession of nuclear weapons since 1964, has displayed its feelings on the Indo-Pakistani race

with its own one-megaton underground blast.

Although China recently signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Beijing government's record and its very nature make any commitment suspect. India and Pakistan steadfastly refuse the treaty. The three powers have almost 40 percent of the world's population, over 2 billion people - all of whom are now subject to nuclear threat.

India has been engaged for some time in a drive to make the Indian Ocean literally that. With ownership of the Lakshadweep, Andaman, and key Nicobar Islands and with growing naval, air, and land forces, the country has acquired at least some capability to "sharply constrain the freedom of extra-regional fleets to operate in its backyard," notes South Asian military specialist Ashley Tellis. Its continuing arms buildup has had the stated goal of "thwart[ing] the extension of superpower condominium in the Indian Ocean." Its 1987-1990 "peacekeeping" occupation of Sri Lanka and 1988 intervention in the Maldives showed India's willingness to flex its new muscles.

This sustained military drive has further chilled relations with longtime rivals against whom India has fought at least four major wars (inconclusive struggles with Pakistan in 1948 and 1965, followed by a victorious one in 1971, and a 1962 border war with China in which India was defeated). India and Pakistan have busily stirred up each other's rebellious northern minorities, and small-scale but savage military clashes in disputed, glacier-bound Kashmir continue sporadically. These events constantly off er the potential for an explosion. Late '80s diplomatic initiatives among India, Pakistan, and China, then promising, have fizzled with the passage from the scene of Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi and the hard post-Tiananmen retrenchment of the Beijing regime.

India is key to defusing the situation, because: (a) It is physically between and geopolitically hostile to the other two; (b) it presently is the prime impeller of both the conventional and nuclear arms races; and (c) it is politically nonaligned (Pakistan being more or less in the Western camp and China being a pariah state despite having a quarter of the world's population).

India has also had unprecedented instability of late. The country, which saw five prime ministers in its first 43 years, has seen three more in the young 1990s. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, as his mother was in 1984. While most scholars agree that a direct military takeover is unlikely, it used to be considered virtually impossible.

Indians, under British colonial rule for two centuries, understandably have had mixed feelings about the Western democracies - and Indian Ocean rival Australia - from the beginning. American and Chinese support for Pakistan in the 1971 war drove them into the arms-laden arms of the Soviet Union. The 1984 Bhopal disaster didn't help and has not been forgotten. The Indian Supreme Court moved last spring to seize all Union Carbide assets in the country, citing the company's failure to make sufficient amends

for the tragedy.

The Agni program, which the United States says violates the international Missile Technology Control Regime, has been a cold current in relations. It may signal that the Moscow-New Delhi military connection is continuing, unaffected by changes in Moscow and in the world. In May, the Bush administration imposed limited sanctions in response to an Indo-Russian deal that would send powerful rocket engines to India that could loft more satellites - or deliver nuclear weapons.

The present tensions were to some extent created by 20 years of US and Soviet "aid" to Pakistan and India. The US relationship with Pakistan was largely one of convenience in the face of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; both occupation and occupier are now history, forcing a shift in US policy toward the subcontinent.

"While the Middle East may not be directly related with Southeast Asia," said then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949, "both are connected with India." Yes, India is indeed important. The salient fact now is that India remains neither ally nor enemy of the major democracies, as its pseudo-alliance with Moscow seems to continue. India and the West, talking to each other, will find significant areas where their interests diverge, but many convergences as well.

The West and Australia should have a clear goal of bringing India out of its dangerous nuclear-delivery drive in a way that serves both its national dignity and the need for regional stability. Diplomacy along those lines should move forward in earnest.

Constructive engagement, a phrase coined in reference to another Indian Ocean littoral country, can have real meaning with India. Friend and foe alike agree that what India wants is attention, and we should go ahead and give it some.

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