US to tread softly in S. Asia tour

President Clinton arrived in India yesterday, marking the first visit in 22 years by a US head of state

Finally, finally, finally: President Clinton, or "Bill-ji," as he is affectionately called here, is in the land of tigers and the Taj Mahal. His visit comes after two years of incessant speculation and the biggest-ever clean- up in Delhi, where turbaned low-caste workers toting buckets of white wash have bent double to paint the curbs for weeks.

The American "engager" is in the world's largest democracy for one of the trickiest trips of his administration. Mr. Clinton and a huge entourage of CEOs, two senators, and several Cabinet members will engage India's dynamic info-tech sector and take steps to bring India further into world markets and the comity of nations.

Yet deep waters of suspicion and hatred make South Asia "a far more dangerous place than it was only one or two years ago," as 20 former US diplomats and South Asia experts wrote Clinton last week. The White House is keen to avoid sending signals that, misread, could feed a fight or even war between nuclearized India and Pakistan.

India, now in late spring, hopes the visit will bring a fair-weather blooming of relations with Washington that will permanently sunder the "equal" status it has long held with Pakistan in US affairs of state. Some 60 percent of India's export earnings are from the US, and the potential is greater still. A six-day US visit to South Asia with only an hours-long stopover in military-ruled Pakistan - an old ally - does send a message. But the US position on Pakistan is still closer than many Indians would like.

Actually, little state business will be conducted in Delhi. No nuclear security agreements are expected, despite 10 rounds of high-level talks. No major trade agreements or breakthroughs on the Kashmir dispute will likely occur. The US sanctions placed on India after it exploded five nuclear devices in 1998 are not scheduled to be lifted. However, 51 Indian firms were recently taken off a prohibition list.

With no real deals, no clear policy line, and with major disagreements over nuclear issues, the White House and the prime minister's office on Race Course Road in Delhi have arrived at a pragmatic and congenial story line: This is the beginning of a guarded new friendship, a time to focus on the "process" of developing an "underlying relationship."

"This is not a problem-solving trip," says a high-ranking Indian foreign ministry source. "This is about engagement."

Indeed, given years of bumpy and prickly relations, any sudden Indo-US marriage would be surprising. India always opposed US intervention in Vietnam. It opposed US involvement in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion there. Delhi protested bitterly when China sent arms and technology to Pakistan, and the US seemed to look the other way.

"The idea that you are going to waltz into the most-sensitive country in the world and sign this and sign that is unrealistic," argues George Perkovich, author of "India's Nuclear Bomb." "This is a courtship that may lead to greater engagement down the road."

Much has changed since President Jimmy Carter visited 22 years ago and got a town, Carterpuri, named after him. The Soviet Union, India's patron and ally, broke apart. Kashmir, the wrenchingly beautiful valley divided between India and Pakistan, is 10 years into an insurgency and occupied by 700,000 Indian troops. The two neighbors both have proven nuclear-weapon capabilities. India has become a software power. And, in a development still not fully grasped in the US, a huge South Asian diaspora - a "dotcom generation" as it is known - has migrated to the high-tech cubicles of US corporations.

"In my generation, we went to England," says Sanjaya Baru, head of the Indian Council for International Economic Relations in Delhi, speaking to an audience of Delhi elites. "Now, 50 percent of the people sitting in this room have a son or daughter or cousin living in Dallas or Palo Alto." Clinton's appeal will be to this educated, accomplished, and emerging middle class of the mind, say Indians who support greater engagement with America.

Both the shrinking cadres of the old communist left and the growing cadres of the new Hindu right are opposed to warm Indo-US relations. (Last week the new head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist group, warned of a coming "epic war" between Hindu and anti-Hindu forces in India.) But the "dotcom generation" is the "cutting edge of India, and where we hope the future is," argues C. Raja Mohan, senior diplomatic writer of The Hindu daily newspaper.

Still, popular assumptions among Indian elites - that the US has absorbed and approved its nuclear agenda, or that US officials are preparing to push for things like an Indian seat on the UN Security Council, or cease to see Kashmir as a dispute - are either premature, or incorrect, US sources say.

"There are those in the region who hope we will simply accept its nuclear status and move on," Clinton stated in a speech before the Carnegie Nonproliferation Conference in Washington last Thursday. "I will not do that."

Today, the president will make the first-ever US state visit to Bangladesh.

Next Sunday, he meets quickly with Pakistan's new chief executive, Pervez Musharraf, who took control in a popular coup last October. This engagement may be one of the most historic on the trip, since Gen. Musharraf is thought by some to be the last line of defense against a growing breakup and Islamization of Pakistan. Islamic militants do not support strong Indo-US ties. Many middle-class Pakistanis feel betrayed by the US, after US support dwindled when the Soviets left Afghanistan.

One of Clinton's hopes is to urge Mr. Musharraf to rethink Pakistan's policy on militant camps that train Islamic fighters. Musharraf sees the battle against Kashmir as a holy war - a fight against Indian terrorism targeted at the province's overwhelmingly Muslim population. How this issue will be finessed remains unclear. One thing the US president reportedly wants to do is convince Musharraf that the US, despite an implicit tilt to India, is still a friendly suitor committed to stability and economic help in the volatile region.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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