Power shifts in Asia

The breathtaking rise of China is prompting Washington to woo India, but will the U.S. go so far as to reverse its stance against providing the nation with nuclear reactors?

Published April 11, 2005 2:46PM (EDT)

If proof were needed that the 21st century will be about the struggle to shape Asia's destiny, then it came from the mouth of Condoleezza Rice last month. In New Delhi for the day during her trip across the continent, the U.S. secretary of state told the Indian prime minister that America's newest foreign policy goal was to "help India become a major world power in the 21st century."

A State Department briefing elaborated by saying that Washington understood "fully the implications, including military implications, of that statement." Sealed by the promise of a visit to New Delhi by President Bush later this year, these unequivocal statements imply that America wants India to be a permanent friend. The message is that India is not a great power, but it has the potential to emerge as one.

Asia is in a period of dramatic change, a time dominated by the breathtaking rise of China. Such upheaval suits the White House, which considers turmoil important because it offers hitherto unrealized opportunities. These moments are America's chance to determine the future of the world.

The Bush administration has torn up its previous policies toward the subcontinent aimed at denying weapons to India and Pakistan, states engaged in a nuclear-tipped arms race. In a dramatic reversal, the White House announced that Pakistan will get F-16 jets, the sale of which were barred in 1990 out of concern for the country's then undeclared nuclear weapons program. Simultaneously, the White House announced that it will allow U.S. companies the right to provide India with the next generation of multirole combat aircraft.

More acute is the talk of large transfers of nuclear reactors to India, currently denied such technologies under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Washington's latest move suggests that the agreement's periodic review next month might be more radical than many realized.

By accepting both South Asian nations as regional partners, Washington says it has snapped the link between India and Pakistan in policymaking. There is a deliberate echo of the aftermath of the Egyptian-Israeli detente in the '70s, when both sides agreed to peace, got multibillion-dollar arms packages and became U.S. allies. The difference now is that the hot spot of Kashmir still burns.

Diplomacy is rarely a zero-sum game, but the signal from Washington is that these gains will be someone else's loss. Although now cloaked in the language of human rights and democracy, the Bush doctrine is still the one articulated in his first term: to prevent the emergence of a hostile rival.

The only competitor on the horizon is China. Its military rise, economic clout, self-confidence in Asian affairs and unpredictable behavior make the world's biggest Communist country a real threat in the eyes of the Bush administration.

In Europe, the shared perception of a common enemy that was the foundation of Washington's Cold War alliances has disappeared. The confusion in Brussels over whether or not to sell arms to Beijing confirmed to the White House that a new set of attitudes needs new allies. Washington identifies with trends that promote freedom and democracy (although the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and the detentions at Guantánamo without charges dim this moral claim). New and old U.S. alliances in Asia now encircle China -- not that this is openly acknowledged.

Washington's ties with South Korea, Japan and India are justified on the basis of liberty and shared ideology rather than a balance-of-power argument. The United States has not articulated its new Asian policy, but its trusted Asian ally, Japan, has. Tokyo is aware of the potential threat to its shores: Chinese submarines use its waters, and defense analysts argue that Beijing is developing submarines and missiles disproportionate to the threats in its neighborhood.

In a speech in New Delhi, Yukio Okamoto, the special assistant to the Japanese prime minister, spoke of Indo-Japanese cooperation to restrain a powerful China that wishes to alter the status quo to right perceived historical wrongs. As two democracies, where English is the language of administration, India and America share common values. There are reasons for a partnership between Washington and New Delhi to engage with China. India dreams of great-power status, has a boundary dispute with China, is irked by its missile technology transfers to Pakistan and has lost out to Beijing in securing oil fields in Africa.

India too is an element in China's calculation. But how big this is may become apparent after the Chinese prime minister's visit to New Delhi April 9. The thought of the United States becoming a weapons supplier to India would alarm Beijing. Aware that bonds are yet to be forged, China is wooing Delhi with promises of free-trade agreements and security pacts.

What America wants to do to China in the early years of this millennium appears similar to what it did to Russia in the last decades of the previous century. On offer to India is an opening -- as well as a means to reduce China's influence -- by joining Washington to challenge Beijing.

If that sounds familiar, it is because it was another U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who invented this particular form of triangular diplomacy in Asia. Then, in the early 1970s, the game was played to strengthen China at Moscow's expense. The question in Asia is whether America's newest friend will become a tool rather than an ally.

By Randeep Ramesh

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