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Why the United States Promotes India’s Great-Power Ambitions

The Research Unit for Political Economy, based in Mumbai, India, publishes the journal, Aspects of India’s Economy, and a range of research publications in English and Hindi.
This essay is adapted from Aspects of India’s Economy, no. 41 (December 2005)

In March 2005, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Washington’s decision to “make India a global power.” No doubt U.S. arms manufacturers can now look forward to large contracts from India; but this course is dictated by broader strategic considerations.

First, the United States is not worried by India’s ambitions: it knows that India is unable to project power across Asia independently. For example, India’s plans for a rapid-reaction force which could be deployed immediately in countries along the rim of the Indian Ocean cannot be pursued without fast long-range aircraft with aerial refueling capabilities, airborne early warning and command aircraft, attack helicopters, and a carrier in addition to the INS Virat. A significant share of this would have to be imported from the United States. Any drawn-out intervention abroad would require even greater infrastructure, which India lacks. (In fact, even the European Union countries are not equipped with the infrastructure for sustained projection of military force independent of the United States. This was demonstrated during the Balkans crisis, when they were forced at last to turn to the United States to intervene.)

Moreover, given the balance of military strength, India’s attempts to project power cannot be sustained in the face of U.S. opposition. Indeed, in 2003, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reportedly confessed that strategic partnership with the United States was essential to his twenty-year program to attain great-power status; “otherwise India’s ability to project power and influence abroad anywhere would be greatly compromised.”

The second reason for the United States to promote Indian ambitions is that it suits U.S. interests to do so. This is spelled out with brutal candor in at least three important U.S. sources.

The first is a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense in October 2002, titled The Indo-U.S. Military Relationship: Expectations and Perceptions. The report is based on interviews with forty-two key Americans, including twenty-three active military officers, fifteen government officials, and four others; as well as with ten active Indian military officers, five Indian government officials, several members of the National Security Council, and outside experts advising the Indian government. The second source is the writings of Ashley J. Tellis, a former aide to Robert Blackwill during 2001–03 when Blackwill was ambassador to India; he is considered at the moment a key U.S. policy analyst on India. The third source is the October 2005 study by Stephen Blank of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, Natural Allies?: Regional Security in Asia and Prospects for Indo-American Strategic Cooperation.

Context: U.S. Strategic Perspective Worldwide

The context for these studies is the situation of U.S. imperialism today and its current strategic perspective worldwide. We have written about this in Behind the Invasion of Iraq (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003) and hence will merely summarize that argument here.

On the face of it, it would appear that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States faces no serious challenge to its global hegemony. Its military expenditures are half of world military spending; around 3.5 times the total of the remaining members of the UN Security Council (China, Russia, Britain, and France); and double the total of the world’s next six largest spenders (Russia, France, Japan, Germany, Britain, and China—even taking China’s actual military expenditure to be double the official figure). The United States is the only country with the infrastructure and forces to project military force over long distances, and thus to fight sustained wars abroad, as it is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan at present. (Countries such as France and Britain are able to mount relatively small intervention forces to carry out operations against second-rate forces in, say, Africa.)

Yet it is economic power that ultimately sustains military power, and U.S. power is fragile at its economic base. The U.S. share of world income has fallen from half in 1950 to 21 percent today; its share of manufacturing from 60 percent in 1950 to 25 percent in 1999; its share of the world’s stock of foreign direct investment from 47 percent in 1960 to 21 percent in 2001.

No doubt the U.S. economy is said to be “doing well.” However, U.S. economic growth today is being maintained only by a systematic and massive expansion of consumer borrowing and government borrowing. An increasing share of goods and services are imported. Thus the U.S. current account—the balance of a country’s earnings and its expenditures from trade in goods and services, and investment income—has been in deficit for two decades, and it is now out of control, touching $668 billion in 2004. The figure for 2005 will be much higher. This gap has been covered by borrowing from abroad, making the United States by far the world’s largest debtor.

The giant U.S. current account deficit is funded by soaking up more than 70 percent of the world’s savings. Other countries place their savings in the United States for three reasons: the United States is the world’s dominant imperialist power; the U.S. dollar is still the leading currency for international payments; and many of these countries want to prevent the dollar from declining, since the United States is their main export market.

However, this game cannot continue endlessly, as the debt would have to be serviced by larger and larger shares of the U.S. national income in the future. International investors and central banks are aware of this, and they are contemplating shifting their investments elsewhere. If this were to happen, the U.S. dollar would fall, U.S. interest rates would rise, and the U.S. economy would be in danger of collapse.

The U.S. military plays a key role in staving off this eventuality. It protects the United States’ status as the dominant imperialist power worldwide and hence safe harbor for the world’s capital. It ensures (for example, by the invasion of Iraq and the threatened invasion of other countries) that the bulk of the world’s oil trade continues to be carried out in U.S. dollars. It maintains physical control of much of the world’s crucial resources (such as oil) as well as of trade routes—trump cards to be used against potential rivals for hegemony. It can also challenge potential rivals in an arms race such that it can undermine their economies.

However, U.S. military power too is increasingly vulnerable. First, it must cover the whole globe and check resistance anywhere, for its supremacy rests precisely on the inability of any power to defy it; it is in a state of permanent war. Indeed, precisely because it intervenes everywhere to protect its supremacy, it is the number one target of anti-imperialist forces around the world.

Second, while the U.S. military is well-equipped to knock down conventional standing armies, it has a poor record against guerrilla resistance and popular upsurges. The earlier liberation of Vietnam and the current Iraqi resistance have proved this amply. (In such cases its only hope lies in the manipulation of ethnic tensions.)

Third, one of the legacies of the great Vietnamese struggle is that the U.S. ruling classes now fear the domestic political consequences of large military casualties and of military conscription. Thus the U.S. armed forces are much smaller than would be required by its global hegemony. The United States may indeed finally institute conscription, but it would have to pay a heavy political price internally for doing so.

New U.S. ‘Global Defense Posture’

It is in order to maintain its hegemony over diverse and shifting potential adversaries that the United States has set up a vast network of military bases. The proliferation of new bases has spread U.S. forces even thinner. In 2003 the Pentagon announced a new basing policy, whereby it would close down 35 percent of the large Cold War–era bases (geared to war with the Soviet Union) and shift troops to a large number of small bases along what it calls the “arc of instability” in West Asia and Central Asia. These “lily-pad” bases (forward operating sites) would have minimal permanent facilities and limited permanent detachments, and they would serve mobile forces dispatched from the United States as required.

This new “global defense posture” is related to the new requirements of U.S. global hegemony:

“During the Cold War we had a strong sense that we knew where the major risks and fights were going to be, so we could deploy people right there,” Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said…“We’re operating now in a completely different concept….We need to be able to do that whole range of military operations (from combat to peacekeeping) anywhere in the world pretty quickly.” The Pentagon is seeking maximum flexibility in the decades ahead in responding to terrorism and other potential threats, including those to oil supplies. So the military wants a range of basing and access agreements with as many countries as possible and in as many regions as it can.

Apart from main operating bases and “lily pads,” there will be even more skeletal sites, called “cooperative security locations.” With little or no permanent U.S. presence, these may be maintained by “contractor or host nation personnel.” The United States wants a free hand to use these sites as it wishes:

Feith said the Pentagon wants to avoid the kind of environmental or political constraints that have limited U.S. military training and deployment options in Europe in recent years. “If countries are going to subject us to the kinds of restrictions that may mean we’re not going to be able to fulfill the purpose of having troops deployed there, then we’re going to have to think whether to have troops deployed there,” Feith said.

The Need for Indian Bases and Training Facilities

The U.S. War College study, which draws on discussions its author had with representatives of different military services at the U.S. Pacific Command, states bluntly:

We need tangible Indian support because our strategic interests and objectives are global, while the military and other means at our disposal to pursue them are not keeping pace….American force posture remains dangerously thin in the arc—many thousand miles long—between Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Okinawa and Guam in the Pacific….

The United States’ Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of 2001 openly asserted the need for more forces and bases in Asia “due to the expansion of threats there across the spectrum of conflict.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Brookes told Congress in 2002 that

Distances in the Asian theater are vast, and the density of U.S. basing and en route infrastructure is lower than in other critical regions. Moreover, the U.S. has less assurance of access to facilities in the Asia-Pacific region than in other regions. The QDR, therefore, identifies the necessity of securing additional access and infrastructure agreements….

American officers, says MacDonald,

are candid in their plans to eventually seek access to Indian bases and military infrastructure. India’s strategic location in the centre of Asia, astride the frequently traveled Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) linking the Middle East and East Asia, makes India particularly attractive to the US military.

U.S. lieutenant generals told MacDonald that access to bases in India would enable the U.S. military “to be able to touch the rest of the world” and to “respond rapidly to regional crises.” Moreover, in case U.S. relations with traditional allies (e.g., Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia) ever become more acrimonious, or collapse, or in case U.S. access rights to bases are restricted, “The US needs to develop alternatives in Asia. India is the optimal choice….”

An American colonel told MacDonald that

The US Navy wants a relatively neutral territory on the opposite side of the world that can provide ports and support for operations in the Middle East. India not only has a good infrastructure, the Indian Navy has proved that it can fix and fuel US ships. Over time, port visits must become a natural event. India is a viable player in supporting all naval missions, including escorting and responding to regional crises.

India has already provided port facilities for U.S. forces engaged in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, it has given the green signal for the United States to use Sri Lankan bases:

Despite years of trying to prevent any foreign state from getting near Diego Garcia and Eastern Sri Lanka’s base and port of Trincomalee, India has acted on behalf of the US Navy to secure its access to these ports and offered Washington access to its own ports for the GWOT (Global War on Terror). In return, Washington successfully pressured the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to persevere in peace talks with the Sri Lankan government….[A]ccess to these bases in the Indian Ocean…is extremely valuable for operations and missions from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and could thus also serve as a check on Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean….Moreover, at the moment, US ships and planes now enjoy a case-by-case access to Indian bases.

The September 11 attacks in the United States, and India’s eager offer of its bases for the invasion of Afghanistan, marked a turning point. Before that point, a U.S. Navy ship visited India approximately every three years; now, according to U.S. Pacific Command officers, there are regular trips. Before September 11, the Indian government would not allow U.S. troops with weapons on the ground when responding to the Gujarat earthquake. “Today, after September 11, the US military has full access,” says MacDonald.

The United States also wants facilities for training in India; according to MacDonald, “India has a variety of landscapes, from ice-clad mountains to deserts, and it would help the Americans because military training ranges are shrinking and becoming increasingly controversial in the United States.” And for the U.S. Navy, training with the Indian Navy is the best way to become “proficient in the Indian Ocean region.”

Indian Armed Forces to Do the ‘Low-End’ Tasks

The United States needs not only Indian facilities, but the services of the Indian armed forces themselves. According to Ashley Tellis, their role would be lowly, but useful to the United States:

in those Asian areas of critical significance to vital US interests that would warrant the commitment of US resources, including force on a unilateral basis if necessary, India will remain a peripheral actor. But as its capabilities grow, so will its influence even if it is limited. And that influence can help advance shared bilateral interests if relations with New Delhi are adroitly managed.

In these critical areas, he writes, “the enormous disparity in power capabilities and resources between Washington and New Delhi will be so stark as to render Indian preferences entirely irrelevant.” Yet even in such matters, “Indian power could be dramatically magnified if it were to be applied in concert with that of the United States. In such circumstances, Indian resources could help to ease US operational burdens….”

Moreover, he emphasizes that Indian forces can be assigned tasks in areas/issues which the United States feels are not worth its direct intervention:

Indian power will be most relevant in those geographic and issue-areas lying in the ‘interstices’ of Asian geopolitics….In those areas, great power interests are neither obvious nor vital. Consequently, their incentives to enforce certain preferred outcomes unilaterally are poor. In such circumstances rising powers like India can make a difference because their substantial, though still not dominant, capabilities can swing the balance in favor of one coalition or another….

MacDonald suggests Indians could be assigned “low-end operations”:

[The] US military seeks a competent military partner that can take on more responsibility for low-end operations in Asia, such as peace-keeping operations, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and high-value cargo escort, which will allow the US military to concentrate its resource on high-end fighting missions.

The most immediate candidate for such “partnership” is the Indian Navy. Cooperation between the two navies took off after the September 11, 2001, incidents in the United States. For six months the Indian Navy undertook joint patrols with the U.S. Navy to escort commercial ships and patrol the busy sea lane running from the North Arabian Sea to the Malacca Straits.

That episode set a useful precedent. MacDonald says that “naval cooperation represents one of the most promising areas of service-to-service cooperation.” For one, “The Indian Navy is the only Indian service that is organised to operate outside of India’s borders.” It would invite less political opposition within India; in the words of an American admiral, “The Navy may be the easiest service to move forward with cooperation because the US Navy leaves no footprints in India. Exercises are conducted out of sight, with no US troops on the ground in India.”

The “New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship,” agreement of June 2005 specifically mentions, among other things, that Indian and U.S. militaries would conduct joint and combined exercises and exchanges; conduct joint responses to disaster situations; and collaborate in multinational operations and “peace-keeping” operations. Note that there is no mention of the United Nations; these operations will evidently not be carried out even nominally under its banner. This is part of the systematic U.S. effort to use disasters and regional conflicts as a means to introduce its troops and those of its allies in situations to which they earlier had no access. The July 18, 2005, joint statement between Manmohan Singh and George Bush speaks of a new “US-India Disaster Relief Initiative that builds on the experience of the Tsunami core group.” That group, which included India, was later dissolved and its efforts were placed under the UN, but the United States nevertheless managed to use the disaster to introduce its troops and equipment into Indonesia’s Aceh province and Sri Lanka (in the latter case it sent 1,500 Marines and an amphibious assault ship for “humanitarian purposes”).

Proliferation Security Initiative: Violation of International Law

The “New Framework” agreement of June 28, 2005, also mentions that the United States and India would collaborate “to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” In fact, India is set to become a part of the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a dangerous and illegal development. The PSI is not a treaty or an organization, but an informal coordination among a group of states, without binding terms or regulations, under the banner of preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Discarding the United Nations route, the PSI calls for the participating states to arrest (the term used is to “interdict”) the transport of WMDs, WMD delivery systems, and “related materials” to or from states or others who may be proliferating them.

“Delivery systems” presumably mean missiles and the like; the term “related materials,” however, is so vague that even materials for manufacture of fertilizer could be seized on the ground that they could be used for making WMDs. During the operation of the sanctions regime against Iraq (1991–2003), Iraq was prevented at one point from importing pencils on the grounds that they contained graphite, which could be used in weapons manufacture.

At their own initiative, and without the sanction of international law, the PSI participants may board and search any vessel in their waters or even on the high seas (i.e., beyond the territorial waters of any state) that is “reasonably suspected of transporting such cargoes,” and seize such cargoes. Even aircraft “reasonably suspected of carrying such cargoes” to or from proliferators of WMDs could be required to land and have their cargoes seized. (What would be the consequences if such aircraft refused to land? Presumably they could be shot down with their alleged cargoes of WMDs.)

As with the farcical U.S. claim of WMDs in Iraq, which formed the U.S. justification for invasion, the PSI’s claims would not be subject to the scrutiny of any international body, but could be based on U.S. “intelligence” (note the phrase “reasonably suspected”). Since in international law such actions as described above are understood as acts of war, India’s joining the PSI could have grave consequences.

A little over a year ago, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was pressing India to join the PSI, senior Indian officials had expressed serious reservations regarding its legality. Now, however, India appears on course to become a participant in PSI. At the Seventh Asian Security Conference in January 2005, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee claimed that proliferation of WMDs through the sea lanes was “one of the biggest problems,” and he proposed that “initiatives such as the PSI” would “need to be examined in greater detail.” He said that the Indian Navy and Coast Guard could play a significant role in dealing with such threats. On May 21, 2005, the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash said that if India were to join the PSI, “India’s status in world affairs warrants that we should be one of the core countries.”

In September 2005, the Indian Navy carried out its biggest-ever joint exercise with the U.S. Navy. Led by aircraft carriers and supplemented by guided missile destroyers, frigates, helicopters, spy planes, and fighter aircraft, the navies practiced interdiction on the high seas as well as visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) of vessels. Senior Indian officials denied that this was related to the PSI.

Missile ‘Defense’: An OffensiveAlliance with Grave Consequences

The “New Framework” agreement says that the two countries’ militaries shall “expand collaboration relating to missile defense.” This harbors profound peril for the Indian people.

In May 2001, George Bush announced a “new strategic framework” for the United States, including that the United States would proceed with its plans for “national missile defense” (NMD), that is, a system aimed at defending the United States from incoming missiles by knocking them out before they descend toward their targets. Bush announced his intention to “move beyond the constraints” of the thirty-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The logic of the ABM Treaty was that if a nuclear-armed country were to achieve an effective defense against other countries’ nuclear weapons, it might feel freer to use its own nuclear weapons on others, without fear of retaliation. Other powers would multiply their missiles to ensure that the sheer number of missiles pierced the shield; and thus a dangerous new arms race would begin.

Bush’s declaration met with widespread criticism. The official China Daily said Bush’s plans appeared aimed at establishing “absolute military supremacy” in the world. Pursuit of that aim would “break the present fragile global security equilibrium” and “trigger a new arms race in the international arena and destroy what has been achieved so far with international disarmament efforts.” A Russian foreign ministry spokesman said “The US has been unable to give us arguments to convince us that they see clearly how to solve the problems of international security without damaging disarmament agreements which have stood for 30 years.” Germany remained unconvinced and raised “very, very serious questions” over the project. Public opinion around the world was even more hostile.

The Vajpayee government was one of the few countries in the world openly to welcome Bush’s announcement, justifying it strangely as a step toward nuclear disarmament. Talks began with the United States on how India could join the system. On January 1, 2004, Bush announced the “Next Steps in Strategic Partnership” (NSSP) with India, including cooperation in missile defense; the Indian official response was ecstatic: the NSSP was “unique…completely out of the ordinary.”

However, the Vajpayee government fell five months later, and the new Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was guarded at first in its statements regarding missile defense. After all, the “Common Minimum Programme” of the UPA included a few general statements about maintaining an independent foreign policy. The Indo-U.S. Defense Policy Group, the forum through which U.S.-India strategic ties are being implemented, nevertheless met at the end of May, shortly after the new regime assumed office. The U.S. delegation made a presentation regarding missile defense, but the response of the Indian side was not made public. Over the next year, several more exchanges took place on this issue, including a visit by an Indian team to the missile defense exercises in California during April 2005.

In an address to a meeting of the Delhi Policy Group in August 2004, Satish Chandra, deputy to India’s national security adviser, laid bare the real import of missile defense. Missile defense, he said, was part of the “paradigm shift [in the United States] whereby it could consider the use of nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive mode.” In his address Chandra lamented the fact that instead of striving for a nuclear weapon free world, the United States had been “advocating new rationales for the retention of nuclear weapons and developing new types of nuclear weapons.” “The annulment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and the US moves to develop ballistic missile defenses are clear indicators that the strategic thinking in the US is undergoing a paradigm shift whereby it could consider resorting to the use of nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive mode. Thus, while the nuclear weapon build-up of the 1970s and 1980s was justified mainly on grounds of deterrence, the Nuclear Use Theorists (NUTS) envisage the actual utilisation of these weapons in situations short of nuclear war…” (emphasis in original).

Chandra’s dissent was irrelevant; the decision had already been taken. In October 2004, U.S. ambassador Mulford told Force magazine that the United States and India had already gone beyond merely talking about missile defense: “There has already been a discussion about technology and systems….The only problem that I see is that it is a technically complicated subject and there are different generations of systems available. So the issue is to figure out which system is needed where. This is a complicated process.”

The systems being set up for Japan’s missile defense give us an idea of what may be planned for India: ground-based interceptor missiles deployed in Japan itself, and sea-based interceptor missiles deployed on U.S. Aegis destroyers around Japan. The third element is still being developed, namely, laser beams mounted on the nose of converted Boeing 747 jets, which would fly round-the-clock around China’s coast, and would fire at any missile launched by China or North Korea. (The airborne laser program, however, has huge technological development problems.)

Even assuming the missile defense system works, it is obvious that Japan is much smaller than India; the latter would be more difficult and expensive to defend. It is possible that in India’s case the system is not intended to defend the whole country, but only select locations—military sites and metropolises. At any rate, China will most probably respond by building more missiles in order to overwhelm the system, as it is doing with Taiwan already; and India would probably respond by building more Agni-3 missiles and arming them with nuclear weapons, in order to retain the ability to retaliate against China.

The Indian public needs to be made aware of the insanity of such a path, its huge costs, the grave peril it invites, and whose interests it serves.

India as the linchpin of a proposed ‘Asian NATO’

Meanwhile, the Indian public is unaware that their country may be made the linchpin of a broader U.S.-sponsored military alliance for Asia:

during 2003, if not since then, American and Indian officials discussed a possible ‘Asian NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)’ although the content of these discussions and of India’s significance for them has not been made public.

An alliance is meaningless unless it is against something. NATO was originally fashioned as an alliance against the Soviet Union; the principal target of an Asian version would be China. Toward that end the Indian armed forces, particularly its navy, have been active. According to the new Maritime Doctrine, the Indian Navy is to dominate the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) “choke points, important islands, and vital trade routes.” By late 2004, it was to have started policing the IOR together with the Singaporean, Thai, and Philippine navies.

Accordingly, the Indian Navy has embarked on a “Look East” program, sending goodwill missions to Southeast Asia (during which Indian vessels took part in naval maneuvers with Japan and Vietnam); making port calls in Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan; and conducting joint patrols with Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The purpose is to build links with countries near China, to familiarize the navy with the South China Sea as a potential theater of operations, and to develop the navy’s ability to operate far from home.

The Indian government’s stepped-up plans for the Indian Navy and its massive expansion of the Andaman and Nicobar bases should be seen in this light. According to one report,

The plan to set up the Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) was set in concrete in 1995 following a closed-door meeting in Washington between then Indian prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, and [then] US president, Bill Clinton….

The US is expected to partly fund FENC because it is considered part of a US-led security arrangement for Asia in which India plays a key role. US funding was cleared in 2000 when Clinton visited India.

India has built a particularly close relationship with Vietnam. Once a heroic fighter against U.S. imperialism, Vietnam has now been made, tragically, an indirect U.S. ally:

India is increasing military sales to Vietnam, providing spares for overhauling its…aircraft…sending its officers to Vietnam for training in counter-insurgency and jungle warfare operations, while India’s coast guard and Vietnam’s sea police would cooperate to fight piracy. India is also providing help to build up the Vietnamese Navy….India has also agreed “in principle” to sell Vietnam the…Prithvi missile, train Vietnamese scientists in Indian nuclear establishments, and help Vietnam establish its own arms industry for small arms….The Indian Navy has also conducted combined exercises with the Vietnamese Navy.

It is reported that, in exchange for transfer of missile technology, India may ask for an option to use Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, the finest natural deep-water harbor in Asia.

India’s ties with the close U.S. ally Japan are growing. Japan’s navy, known as the Maritime Self-Defense Force, is now operating in the Indian Ocean region in support of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. The special significance of this operation (which was extended in April 2005 by a special act of legislation) is that it marks an important precedent: Japan’s first participation in an overseas military operation since 1945. The term “Self-Defense Force” for the Japanese military is clearly outdated. Japanese naval ships have used Indian port facilities during this period. In May 2004 Japan made a public offer to establish a “global partnership” with India to balance China’s rising power. In April 2005 the Indian and Japanese prime ministers met, reaffirmed their “global partnership,” and pledged to work as partners “against proliferation” of weapons of mass destruction. They announced that the Indian Coast Guard and the Japanese Coast Guard would establish a framework for effective cooperation, as would the two countries’ navies.

In 2000, then Indian defense minister George Fernandes declared that Vietnam and Japan were emerging as India’s strategic partners for countering piracy from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. “By doing so,” said the U.S. War College study, “they also serve notice on China that they will contest its efforts to dominate that sea.” Further, “India might find possibilities for enhanced defence cooperation with Thailand, Australia, Singapore, and the United States….” Indonesia may join the list.

In a speech to the Confederation of Indian Industry–World Economic Forum conference in New Delhi, India’s foreign secretary Shyam Saran made a fairly explicit statement of the plans for an “Asian NATO.” “In the context of Asia, there is no doubt that a major realignment of forces is taking place,” he said. China was emerging as a “global economic power” with significant military capabilities. The United States and India could “contribute to creating a greater balance in Asia.” In managing the security situation of the region, he said, there is a need for bringing “more and more countries within the discipline of a security paradigm for this region.”

The U.S. War College study spells out the benefits of an “Asian NATO”:

What’s in it for the United States? For one, the proposed security system is principally an in-region solution for dealing with two of the biggest international security threats—an over-ambitious China and the spread of Talibanised Islam. Second, this scheme being entirely indigenous, there is none of the odium that attends on US troops deployed locally as in South Korea and Japan….And, finally, it in no way precludes the presence in the extended region of the US armed forces or limits US military initiatives.

However—and this is crucial—the entire scheme will fall apart if India does not nurse great power ambitions. Only if India sees itself as a great power, a “counterpoise to China in the region,” will it want to promote a broad anti-China alliance. And so the United States must push India to pursue its “manifest destiny”:

But crucial to making this system work is India’s being convinced of its ‘manifest destiny’ and for it to act forcefully. It will require in the main that New Delhi think geostrategically and give up its diffidence when it comes to advancing the country’s vital national interests and its almost knee-jerk bias to appease friends and foes alike. The corrective lies in the Indian government expressly defining its strategic interests and focus and, at a minimum, proceeding expeditiously towards obtaining a nuclear force with a proven and tested thermonuclear and an ICBM reach. Nothing less will persuade the putative Asian allies that India can be an effective counterpoise to China in the region, or compel respect for India in Washington.

India’s great-power ambitions, then, are crucial to the success of U.S. plans for Asia. Indeed, the further Indian foreign policy is subordinated to U.S. strategic designs, the better India’s chances of winning U.S. backing at last for its single-minded drive to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. While admitting that the United States had not supported India’s claim to UNSC membership, Manmohan Singh told Parliament that “when the time comes, I have reason to believe that we will not be ignored.”

In Conclusion

The prospects for a U.S.-India alliance seem attractive to the Indian rulers. First, because the United States evidently enjoys military superiority without precedent in world history, and therefore it seems in a good position to guarantee India a new global status. Secondly, perhaps more than ever before, the Indian upper classes, and even considerable sections of the urban middle class, by now identify with the United States’ world hegemony: Many have relatives in the United States; growing numbers of them work for U.S. firms or firms serving the United States (e.g., in the IT sector); and the explosion of foreign and domestic media during the last fifteen years has heightened this sense of identification. Official U.S. backing to India’s “great power” project will no doubt further consolidate support among these sections for a U.S.-India strategic alliance. Though a small minority, these sections play an important role in shaping “public opinion,” that is, in influencing broader sections.

However, there are several reasons why all will not go smoothly for the U.S.-India alliance now unfolding.

First, U.S. military superiority is overrated. It is by no means unchallenged. Even now it has been unable to suppress the resistance forces of just one country, Iraq. And it is overstretched globally and showing signs of strain. More significantly, the economic base of U.S. hegemony worldwide is fragile. Given this, its guarantees of “making India a global power” are even more fragile.

Secondly, the internal political difficulties of the Indian ruling classes are unlikely to be solved by India being deemed a “global power.” This is for the simple reason that while the upper sections of the class hierarchy have prospered from the changes that have taken place in the last two decades, the large majority have seen their conditions worsen. It is the latter sections, at the bottom of the pile, that are behind the turbulence in the domestic political scene. These sections live in such grinding misery that they are by and large not susceptible to propaganda about India’s “global status.”

The current trajectory of the Indian economy is not likely to change that fact. The growth of what is called “national income,” when accompanied by even faster growth of inequality, is of dubious benefit to the working sections. Had employment genuinely grown, the working sections would have benefited, but there has been negligible employment growth and thus (given the growing numbers seeking work) there has been rapid growth of unemployment. Further, major changes are in the offing that, in the process of creating opportunities for the foreign and domestic corporate sector, will wreak havoc with India’s small-peasant agriculture. With these changes, unemployment in the country is likely to become even more acute, and the political scene even more turbulent.

Thirdly, the United States today is set on a course of extraordinary military adventurism to shore up its declining imperialist power. We do not have space here to discuss this topic in the detail it deserves. Suffice it to mention a few examples. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, as it is now well known, is part of a broader U.S. scheme to grab physical control of as much as possible of the world’s oil. The well-known American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh writes that the U.S. government has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran since summer 2004 in order to prepare for bombing strikes and commando raids “to destroy as much of the [Iranian] military infrastructure as possible” (“The Coming Wars,” New Yorker, January 24, 2005). Perhaps the main obstacle to the execution of this plan has been the continuing resistance in Iraq tying down the U.S. military.

Military plans to check China are longer-term, but no less adventurist. The Pentagon’s thinkers envision a new Cold War, writes Robert Kaplan approvingly in a piece titled “How We Would Fight China” (Atlantic, June 2005). Russia too is to be checked. The United States (with European help) has recently sponsored “revolutions” in Georgia and the Ukraine in order to construct a network of U.S. allies ringing Russia; in fact, the United States is pushing a specific proposal for a “security organization” in the region of the oil-rich Caspian Sea excluding Russia and China. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002) declared that the United States would not tolerate the emergence of a competitor, not only for global hegemony, but even for regional hegemony in any part of the world.

Because it needs support in this task, the United States must encourage elements among its allies to entertain dreams of great-power status under U.S. aegis. Japan, with which the United States has concluded a broad-ranging strategic agreement in October 2005, is a striking example. The United States has been systematically encouraging Japan in recent years to abandon constitutional restraints on its armed forces and to dispatch them abroad. It has supported a prime minister (Koizumi) who has repeatedly paid homage to Japanese war criminals at the Yasukuni shrine, in a blatant appeal to reactionary sentiments in Japan and in deliberate provocation of China. It has made Japan the key partner of its program to militarize space.

The United States went so far as to adopt a “Nuclear Posture Review” in March 2002, directing the military to prepare for use of nuclear weapons against at least seven countries (China, Russia, pre-occupation Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, and Syria). Further, it directed that the military should build smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations: against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack; in retaliation for attacks with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; or “in the event of surprising military developments.” The document said the United States would be prepared to use nuclear weapons in an Arab-Israeli conflict, in a war between China and Taiwan, or in an attack from North Korea on the south. In a nutshell, nuclear weapons would no longer be considered merely a “deterrent,” but could be used pre-emptively against a wide range of countries—even those without nuclear arms. The very announcement of this policy is intended to put potential adversaries on notice.

Thus it is no exaggeration to say that the United States is on a course of belligerence and terrorism against the people of the world. Various forces, of diverse character, have recognized this and are gearing up for the confrontation.

At the level of important military powers, China and Russia are moving closer. They have issued a joint “Declaration on the World Order” opposing unilateralism and the use of force and calling for multilateralism and reliance on the United Nations, peaceful use of outer space, and a world order “free from any claims to monopoly or dominance in international affairs.” They have formed a military alliance (the Shanghai Co-operation Organization) with four Central Asian countries. Most significantly, they have recently carried out their first joint military exercises, involving 10,000 troops in all.

However, Chinese and Russian opposition to the U.S. designs is confined to areas of their direct strategic interest. It is at the level of the world’s people that the opposition to U.S. designs is sharpest and broadest—a fact confirmed not only by several public opinion surveys, but, more importantly, in popular struggle the world over. In Latin America, which the United States considers its backyard, the United States faces unprecedented isolation, as George Bush discovered during a recent visit there. Similar is the case among the people (as distinct from the rulers) of West Asia and North Africa, Europe, and parts of East and Southeast Asia as well.

Therefore as the Indian rulers sign on to the U.S. military alliance, they tie India to the world’s most reactionary power and place it at the receiving end of the response of diverse anti-U.S. forces the world over. The negative consequences of that tying will be felt by the Indian people, in one form or the other: for example, through bloated military expenditures and increased danger of war and other retaliatory acts. So the Indian people must come to register their opposition to this subordination to U.S. designs and to the bogus “great-power” status, which can neither feed, nor clothe, nor house them.

2006, Volume 57, Issue 10 (March)
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