New Delhi: The approval of a landmark US civil nuclear deal will bolster India’s strategic clout and challenge China, but those hoping for a new Western ally to tilt the balance of power in Asia may be disappointed.
The deal, effectively sealed by US Congress on Wednesday, was always more about geopolitical strategy than business ties.
For supporters in Washington, it brings India into the Western fold, cementing India’s strategic move from its pro-Soviet tilt during the Cold War towards the West just as its booming economy also embraces markets, mortgages and malls.
“The US deal is not an end in itself,” said C. Raja Mohan, a Singapore-based security expert. “It’s a means to an end, helping clear the way for India and the West to work together. The US saw that India’s economic clout will inevitably translate into strategic power. And the US acted. “Before the deal, India was not part of the international calculus in Asia. Now it is.”
Business will benefit, especially for US, French and Russian firms eager for a nuclear power market that could attract an estimated $27 billion (Rs1.27 trillion) in investments over the next 15 years.
The argument goes that the deal will have a ripple effect, allowing closer military ties with the West and leading New Delhi to act in US and European interests as the world’s largest democracy and now a de facto nuclear power.
But India, with a history of an often independent or non-aligned foreign policy, lives in a troubled neighbourhood where toeing the US line may clash with its own interests.
The difference can be seen in the rhetoric. Analysts point out that India talks of “strategic partnership” while the US often speaks of India as a “potential ally”.
From Iran to Myanmar, and especially in its relations to China, India has its own interests to protect, whether strategic, military or to satisfy its ever-growing energy needs. Those interests may or may not coincide with those of the West.
Take Myanmar as an example, where India is resisting Western pressure to isolate the ruling military junta. Rather, New Delhi is determined to bolster ties with a potential energy supplier and prevent a neighbour falling further into China’s embrace.
A worried China?
Conventional wisdom is that India will act for the US as a counterbalance for China, and the nuclear deal will mean China faces an emerging strategic competitor. The latter may be more accurate than the former.
“It brings about a shift in the balance of power in South Asia. It will not please Pakistan and China,” said Mohan Malik at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu.
There will be issues that will soon test the diplomatic waters. That includes whether India continues naval exercises with the US and moves closer to a mooted alliance of regional democracies such as Japan and Australia. China, a long-time ally of India’s old foe Pakistan, will be watching closely.
“China has been expecting this kind of deal for years and will now be in a wait-and-see mode,” said Prof. Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea, former head of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.
“But they know that India is too large and independent to be tied to any one country’s coat tails. There are too many national sensitivities for India to tie itself to any one country.”
Brahma Chellaney, professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, agrees, arguing India will resist being drawn into a “China containment strategy”.
Instead, New Delhi wants to improve ties with Beijing, boost trade and solve a long-running border dispute.
Similarly, India will be reluctant to get sucked into American efforts to isolate Iran, Chellaney said.
“Now the (nuclear) deal has been sealed, India will have to mend ties with Iran,” he said. “For India’s strategy, to give up Iran would be a very difficult proposition... There is no way India can pursue an effective Afghan, Central Asian policy without Iran.”
So, if the nuclear deal starts to usher in a brave new world, it may be a learning curve for Washington.
“Everyone talks about strategic partners rather an alliance,” Indian strategic affairs expert K. Subrahmanyam said. “But the US is used to heading alliances. It’s new for the US to have to be a partner. It will need a lot of give and take on both sides.”