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Birbal's Wisdom and the Nuclear Deal

March 01, 2006

Earlier in this series:

Part I: Time to redeem or reject nuclear deal

Part II: N-deal: Be careful what you wish for

Part III: N-pact: The biggest deal breaker

Here is a short story for our diplomats:

One day, Jahanpanah Akbar and his minister Birbal were walking in the palace gardens. Suddenly, Akbar turned to his wise minister and asked, 'Birbal, who is more powerful -– God or Emperor?' Birbal thought for a moment and said with all seriousness, 'Jahanpanah, you are more powerful than God.'

Akbar was astounded. He thought Birbal was indulging in flattery and proceeded to banish him from the empire. Birbal replied that the punishment itself was proof that what he had said was true.

Birbal then reasoned, 'Jahanpanah, if you want to banish me, you can send me out of your empire and I shall have to go. But if God wanted to banish me, is he powerful enough to do that? Where would he send me, for all the universe is his empire.'

Akbar laughed heartily and praised his clever minister (and according to news reports, allegedly gifted Birbal one more palace beauty!).

Moral of the story: the lesser guy has more choice and freedom of action than the one at the top.

Now, let's apply Birbal's law to the problem at hand -– the India-US nuclear deal -– and see if it holds.

America is willing to cooperate with India on civil nuclear technology. Why?

The US did try to banish India from the international nuclear order it built over the last thirty years.

But now, India is a rising power and has developed its own nuclear technology. India can choose to remain outside the global nuclear order, even if it hurts. India has chosen to keep its technology to itself (self-restraint), but it can choose to export it some day. And India can keep making bombs and missiles at its own pace.

America has only one practical choice. As the world's lone superpower which has to maintain stable international arrangements for the sake of perpetuating its own global pre-eminence, it cannot help but exert to maintain the global nuclear order at any cost.

And to do so, America must somehow integrate India into that order to prevent stresses from developing in it due to the combination of India's rising power and the freedom of action it has because of its outsider status.

America wants to make India a global power and a strategic partner. Why?

It is a unipolar world out there, alright, but it won't last long. China is rising. India is rising. But yet, the US wants to preserve its position of global pre-eminence forever.

No point blaming the US, it is only doing what empires and imperiums before it have done for centuries.

Anyway, to maintain its position, the US has to preserve the international security and economic order that it has fostered.

Those systems consist of regional alliances, a near monopoly on the use of force in international politics, a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, free trade and globalisation, the US dollar as the global reserve currency, etc.

These arrangements are like the ravens of London Tower – the day they cease to exist, so will America's global pre-eminence.

But China is rising, and is fast becoming a magnet for countries around it and for those who currently are bound in unequal, unhappy relationships with the US.

Revealed: The agenda for Bush visit

So, what is the American reaction?

America is searching for allies that would help it contain China now and, if that fails, help counter it in the future.

Cold War ally Europe is in no position or mood to oblige. Europe, which is busy transitioning into what Americans derisively call a ''post-modern zone of peace'', wishes to build a European and global order based on international institutions and negotiations.

Half a century of American protection and pampering have smothered Europe's military capabilities. The gap between America's conventional military capabilities, which have grown despite the end of the Cold War thanks to the technological revolution, and Europe's seems almost insurmountable, as the Europeans were shocked to discover in Kosovo.

Having built massive welfare states and having acquired a sense of 'entitlement' to every comfort, European peoples will not allow their governments to step up military spending. European states also have on their hands declining demographics and problems recruiting people to military service.

Moreover, Europe wishes to build a multi-polar world order in which American unilateralism can be tempered. Since Europe itself is incapable of balancing American power, it is building a relationship with China, which it sees as the most potent balancer to America.

Japan, the other Cold War ally, is unlikely to be a reliable partner for long against a China-scale threat. Japan's demographic problem is even severe than Europe's. The one way the Japanese might be able to withstand future Chinese power would be by acquiring a nuclear arsenal of its own, which the Americans would not countenance.

India, almost as big as China and with an economy growing nearly as fast as China's, is potentially America's best partner to act as a counterweight to China. President Bush and his advisors know this very well.

The real danger the world faces

But India is also much more than merely a counterweight to China. It is the world's largest democracy and an immensely diverse one at that. It shares a heritage of English law, institutions and financial markets with the US. In short, India offers a good 'cultural fit' to America.

India is fast becoming as much an engine of global growth as China, but even more important is the fact that India is seen as a status quoist rising power that is not driven by a desire to overturn the international economic and security order fostered by the US and which are crucial to America's continued global pre-eminence.

India is a growing force in the knowledge economy. Its young demographic profile, which will last well beyond 2050, and abundance of science and math talent are expected to propel it into the top league of high-tech economies.

But more than anything else, India can easily fulfil America's urgent, but seldom mentioned, needs:

One, America needs an alternative manufacturing base to China. An alternative manufacturing base would guard against supply disruptions from China, slow down China's accumulation of dollar reserves and help divert more of it to a friendly central bank. In time, it would allow the US to follow tougher China policies – such as on the Yuan -- than would be prudent at present.

Who best fulfils all the criteria for an alternative manufacturing base? India.

Two, America needs a 'repository' for its Cold War-era weapons systems while it undergoes a military transformation. This transformation is expected to pass through critical stages – in the period 2015-2025 – when the US may not be able to maintain enough capability in distant seas to keep China at bay.

If the legacy weapons systems could be sold to India, which is now perhaps the largest arms buyer and will remain so for at least another decade, not only would that give the American military-industrial complex resources to make next-generation systems but India would also have been co-opted into a strategy of 'offshore balancing' – that is, sharing the burden of security in distant seas and regions with local allies.

Do we really need the nuclear deal with the US?

Moreover, a rising India carrying American weapons through Asian waters, would send a signal of America's continued might to in the region to South East Asian allies that tend to get swayed once in a while by either anti-Americanism or by China.

India, therefore, is a veritable one-stop shop for all of America's needs – a beacon of democracy; a posterboy of globalisation; increasingly an engine of global growth; a status quo power that won't challenge the US-fostered world order; a perfect 'cultural fit' for America; a potential partner if the intensity of Islamist terror should increase; a possible anchor for an Asian security architecture; the most capable and willing potential partner in countering China; a potential alternative manufacturing base; a supplier of knowledge workers; a bearer of American arms and therefore of American influence.

In short, India is indispensable to America's project of perpetuating the current international security and economic systems, and therefore for perpetuating its own global pre-eminence, in the face of the rise of China.

On the other hand, India has choices that America doesn't – the US needs to maintain the elements of global order, India doesn't. In fact, India may have to overturn some of those elements of global order to rise itself.

America is unlikely to find partners other than India that are both capable and willing to help counter China's future power. But India need not choose to align with America.

Indeed, India could choose to align with China – after all, they are both rising Asian powers that have to face the same entrenched Western powers. They could make common cause, like Germany and Japan did in the early 20th century. India could even choose to revv up the Russia-China-India complex to reduce American influence in Asia.

China attacks Indo-US nuclear deal

The credibility of such options will rise as both India and China continue to grow economically and militarily. Russia too is seeking to move away from the pro-Western frenzy of Boris Yeltsin's 1990s, and is growing economically too.

India can continue to buy weapons from non-American sources. But America needs this dream market, especially as other markets for its conventional arms, including the American forces themselves, are declining – witness the F-22 and F-35 numbers being whittled down continuously.

India can afford to continue to grow at its current pace, notwithstanding the alarmist 'revolution of rising expectations' theory of the Manmohan Singh government which is the primary cause for its weak nuclear diplomacy.

But it is America that urgently needs a partner that can fill in the political prestige that it has lost globally, and that can share its burdens.

India can build on its nuclear power projects, but India need not. Nuclear power at present forms a miniscule part of the total power generating capacity. Even at the planned peak capacity, it will amount to no more than 6-8% of India's total power generation.

That Obscure Object of Desire: Nuclear energy

But America and Europe cannot afford to let India choose more polluting forms of power generation. So, it is they who have to come back to India and offer nuclear cooperation.

Our diplomacy will be far more effective if our diplomats always keep Birbal's law in mind. And keep in mind as well that America won't allow something as insignificant as our vertical nuclear proliferation to come in the way of a strategic partnership that offers it a one-stop shop for its urgent geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic needs.

Or, to modify what McGeorge Bundy once said, the Americans will try all their might to get all Indian reactors in the civilian list, but if they don't get what they want, they will accept what they are given and proceed.

Srinivasa Raghotham is an associate and columnist for the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, Britain. He writes a column titled 'Strategic View'


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