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As the US pivots to Asia, new challenges arise for India

Nov 23. 2012
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By Praful Bidwai
The Daily Star

US President Obama's re-election is a welcome signal. A Republican win would have further widened class, race and ethnic rifts in America's highly unequal society, strengthened a rightward economic tilt domestically and internationally, and made for a mor


The victory owes itself only partly to “positives” like a well-planned campaign, and “negatives” such as Mitt Romney’s crass elitism, his repulsive remarks against the 47 per cent of Americans who allegedly don’t pay federal income taxes, and his inability to attract non-white minorities and women.
Underlying this is a deeper demographic change: a relative decline in the white population vis-a-vis blacks, Latin-American Spanish-speakers and Asian-Americans. In the last decade, these groups accounted for an absolute majority of all births. The number of Asian-Americans and Hispanics rose by 43 per cent, and blacks by 12 per cent, but the white population only grew by less than 6 per cent. Over 70 per cent of the new non-white social coalition voted for Obama, supported by a majority of women and university-educated people.
Hopefully, this welcome long-term trend will make for a less pro-rich, pro-corporate domestic policy and a less militarist foreign policy. It won’t translate into major shifts immediately. But there will be minor changes and nuances. The biggest will be a further shift in policy pivot towards Asia, in line with the shift in global power away from the North Atlantic. 
Early in his first term, Obama wasn’t especially warm towards India. However, he soon visited India, hosted Manmohan Singh as the first foreign leader at the White House, and advocated a permanent seat for India on the United Nations Security Council.
Obama has since tried to rope India, along with Japan, into a hedge against China. India doesn’t want to be seen joining a “China containment” strategy. But India hasn’t really thought through its position.
India is under pressure to play a major role in Afghanistan and “cooperate” with the US to reduce tensions in the South China Sea, keep vital Asian sea-lines peaceful, and coerce Iran into giving up her nuclear programme, although she has the right to pursue peaceful nuclear activities.
India must resist such pressure while maintaining foreign policy independence and strategic autonomy. India must not underestimate its leverage vis-a-vis the US. For instance, even as it pursues the imposition of heavy sanctions against Iran, Washington has had to accept that India will continue to import oil from Iran, albeit in reduced quantities.
India can translate its strategic weight and tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan to see that the US does not leave behind a vacuum in which violent jihadi forces flourish. India should help train Afghanistan’s army and police autonomously of the West, without rivalry with Pakistan.
India is critically poised to repair its frayed relations with Pakistan. Dr Singh must visit Pakistan very soon. That’s a high priority. Nothing, including short-term gains from glitches in Washington-Islamabad relations, should be allowed to interfere with this.
India should play an important mediatory role in resolving the crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran is probably still many months, if not a couple of years, away from producing enough enriched uranium to construct a nuclear bomb.
According to US intelligence, Iran hasn’t yet decided whether or not to acquire atomic weapons. A military strike against Iran will be dangerously counterproductive. This has become apparent even to hardnosed hawks in the US and Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for an attack have been strongly opposed by many in his cabinet, and by Israel’s security establishment, including serving army chief Benny Gantz, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin and former Mossad head Meir Dagan, who called it “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.
More than 30 former top US foreign policy-makers, experts and military officers have also warned that an Israeli strike would delay Iran’s nuclear programme at best by two years. A much bigger US “military action involving aerial strikes, cyber-attacks, covert operations and special operations forces would destroy or severely damage many of Iran’s physical facilities”.
But their “complete destruction” is unlikely, and “Iran would still retain the scientific capacity and the experience to start its nuclear programme again”.
A strike on Iran would produce a conflagration in the Middle East, threatening US bases and Israel. It would create resentment greater than the American-engineered overthrow of elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. Worse, it would guarantee that Iran rapidly becomes a nuclear weapons-state.
President Obama could be receptive to a diplomatic approach. He refused to capitulate to Netanyahu, risking the US Zionist lobby’s hostility. India should push Obama to translate his recent call for moving “beyond this time of war” into a major diplomatic initiative, including bilateral talks with Iran for the first time since 1979, which are “under consideration” in Washington. Iranian leaders too have indicated their willingness to mend relations with the US.
India should propose a compromise along the lines that Turkey and Brazil worked out in 2010: transferring Iran’s low-enriched uranium for further enrichment overseas, but capping domestic enrichment to non-weapons-grade levels. This was then rejected by the US, but has a better chance of being accepted now.
India can thus reverse the damage from repeatedly voting against Iran since 2005 at the International Atomic Energy Agency under Washington’s pressure.
This will help India rebuild its relations with Iran, with which it has traditionally had friendly ties, besides a close alliance in Afghanistan. India can then re-launch the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, which was abandoned under Washington’s pressure.
Bilateral issues also need attention. India must reject the US’s demand for diluting the Nuclear Liability Act to exempt suppliers. It must not let the US pry open its defence production sector through joint ventures. It’s one thing to have normal relations with a “problem power” like the US; it’s another to get close to it.

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