Emerging India - Key to resisting US or Chinese dominance

George Bush joins the pilgrimage to the “new India”. A decade of rapid economic growth has alerted the world to a new giant of Asia, helped on by a feverish campaign by the country’s image-makers. “India Everywhere” was the motto they chose for the recent economic forum at Davos. Now they have the imprimatur of a Bush visit, his first in five years of power.

India, which once championed non-alignment and even tilted towards the Soviet Union by signing a “friendship treaty”, seems eager for the US embrace.

The centrepiece of the Bush visit is a US plan to lift an international ban on sales of civilian nuclear technology to India. It is an extraordinary reward for a country that secretly built nuclear weapons, exploded five of them eight years ago and still refuses to join the non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

Contrast this with the massive pressure on Iran, which has gone nothing like as far down the nuclear road, and claims not to want a nuclear bomb anyway. Sign up to the NPT and you are castigated for not obeying the rules. Refuse to sign it and you are forgiven for whatever you manage to do on your own, including making a bomb.

India received a slap on the wrist after its 1998 explosions, as did Pakistan, which followed with its own tests a few months later. The US imposed diplomatic and technology sanctions on both countries. The 9/11 attacks and Islamabad’s role as an ally in the war on terror eased them in Pakistan’s case. Now the lure of the tinkling cash register is doing the same for India.

Its fast-growing but energy-scarce economy urgently needs new sources of fuel, and nuclear power is seen by many as the answer. There are conditions. The Americans dominate the world cartel known as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and are insisting on a clear separation of India’s civilian and military nuclear technology before exports can flow. Just how restrictive the checks will be has not yet been agreed, but Washington is demanding that India accept all the requirements for international inspection that govern signatories of the NPT, as though India had signed it.

Hawks in India’s nuclear-bomb establishment complain that this will cramp its fast-breeder reactor programme and freeze research and development of weapons; the US will be able to cut fuel supplies, giving it a stranglehold on Indian foreign policy. Better, they say, for India to look for sources of civilian fuel other than nuclear. The government’s leftwing coalition partners complain that US pressure is already influencing Indian policy. They cite Delhi’s two recent votes against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

There is also concern over the recent sacking of the energy minister, who was backing a pipeline to carry natural gas to India from Iran via Pakistan, a project that would weaken American efforts to isolate Tehran and have the additional benefit of bringing India and Pakistan together. The left sees US hand in his demotion.

The government’s increasingly pro-American stance is being attacked by the opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, even though it launched the tilt towards Washington in the 1990s. Splits were also clear at a conference on “developing durable peace processes and partners” run by the Delhi Policy Group, where I was a guest. Several ex-ambassadors and foreign-ministry officials favoured multilateralism, including better links with the EU. They also favoured pursuing a tentative policy of forging ties with China and south-east Asia. C Raja Mohan, an academic advocate of the US as India’s “natural ally”, took the opposite view.

In south India, I found great anger with the US at a seminar for graduate students at the University of Madras. Opposition to the US occupation of Iraq, contempt for human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and resentment at US dominance of global policy were strong. No visitor to India can miss the new nationalism across the political spectrum. Doubts centre on what the implications for Indian foreign policy should be.

Washington’s line is that the “world’s most powerful and the world’s most populous democracies should work together”. But work on what? Is this the start of a crusade against China to emphasise its lack of human rights or, in more realpolitik terms, an attempt to build up a new regional power in Asia, again with an eye on China? Many Indians would like to see greater political activity by EU nations in Asia. In Delhi, an India-EU summit in September highlighted multilateralism and the UN’s “central role”. But where was the punch? The EU and India have one factor in common: they are “regional plus” powers; their political weight goes well beyond their geographical borders, though not as far as to give them a global reach or global ambitions. This gives them a perfect stake in developing a multipolar world that can resist any single nation’s efforts to achieve dominance, whether it is the US today or China tomorrow. They should be wary of both. — The Guardian