Tuesday, September 15, 2009

SURROUNDED BY TURMOIL India Holds the Center While Storms Rage on All Sides



India Holds the Center While Storms Rage on All Sides


Sept. 11, 2001, awakened U.S. policymakers to the turmoil in South Asia and, for many, India has come to represent the eye of the hurricane. Encircled by chaos and political intrigue, New Delhi, for some, is among the few rational democratic entities worth engaging in the region.

“There has been a sea change in India-U.S. relations since 9/11,” said Indranil Banerjie, executive director of the New Delhi-based SAPRA India Foundation.

India is surrounded by turmoil. To the north, Nepal is wracked by a civil war with Maoist guerrillas who fashion themselves after an extinct Chinese political philosophy; to the south, Sri Lanka is engulfed in one of the most violent civil wars in modern history. To the east, Bangladesh still founders in monsoon floods, famines and political chaos that kill thousands each year; to the west, India’s long-term strategic threat, Pakistan, is on the brink of becoming another Iran or Afghanistan — or a little of both.

“The U.S. had to finally acknowledge that Afghanistan and its neighbor, Pakistan, were responsible for generating global instability through the production of ideologically motivated Jihadists. India suddenly began to look like a rock of stability in the Asian region — more so because of an increasingly geopolitically aggressive China,” said Banerjie.

Beyond radical Islamic militarism, India has to deal with a wide variety of political and religious acts of terrorism. In 2006, India suffered hundreds of terrorist attacks resulting in roughly 1,500 civilian casualties. In Bangalore, the site of the Aero India 2007 aerospace and defense exposition Feb. 7-11, a Lashkar terrorist from Kashmir was arrested recently with RDX explosives and alleged plans to bomb the Bangalore Airport, Wipro and Infosys.

A defense analyst in New Zealand said India’s real worry is China.

“They are very conscious of China’s potential,” the analyst said. India is very aware, he said, that it is sitting on the oil highway between the Persian Gulf and Northern Asia, i.e. China and Japan.

For this reason the Indian Navy is engaging in quite deliberate diplomacy with eastern Asian and western Pacific nations, including New Zealand.

When an Indian Navy frigate visited New Zealand last July, Royal New Zealand Navy officials were impressed by the warship’s capabilities and performance, although it was felt the Indians “had a way to go” before acquiring tactical awareness.

Nevertheless, the analyst pointed out, the Indian Navy sent a ship to Lebanon to assist in the recent evacuation of civilians. “It is a confident Navy that does that and a government that has confidence in its Navy,” he said.

Though one would assume a new love affair between New Delhi and Washington, the relationship is not exactly cozy.

The United States would like to view India as a compatriot in the war against radical Islamic militarism, but New Delhi has a more pragmatic view of the problem. Iran, long considered a rogue state by the United States, is one of India’s primary sources for oil. However, both India and the United States view China with concern. New Delhi sees China’s assistance to Pakistan and to Sri Lankan Tamil rebels as evidence that Beijing hopes to destabilize India. It also sees threats in the Indian Ocean, where China has increased its naval presence.

Nuclear Juggling

In 1998, both India and Pakistan conducted underground nuclear tests. It was Pakistan’s first and India’s second round of tests since 1974. The United States responded with economic sanctions that cost both nations billions of dollars and crippled their ability to maintain U.S. military equipment in service with their respective armed forces.

The sanctions were quickly withdrawn after 9/11, but left both nations hesitant to buy U.S. military equipment.

Though Pakistan is pushing forward on a nuclear weapon, India’s nuclear intentions are now seen as friendly in Washington — much to Islamabad’s annoyance.

In 2006, the Bush administration pushed through a controversial amendment to the 1954 Atomic Energy Act that will allow the United States to provide India with weapons and civilian nuclear technology. At present, India is believed to have roughly 45 nuclear warheads. Pakistan, which along with India has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, was denied the same deal with the United States due to its past dealings with North Korea and Iran.

Farewell to U.S. Arms

The United States has been quick to step into the arms business on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani border. India plans to spend around $10 billion a year for the next 10 years and is currently planning to buy 126 fighter aircraft in a deal potentiall worth $9 billion. Russia is offering the MiG-35 with Zhuk-M radar, France is pushing the Rafale, EADS Typhoon, Saab's Gripen, and the United States is anxious to sell the F-16 or the F/A-18. Of the six, it looks increasingly like Russia has the upper hand.

Pakistan has just taken delivery of the first of eight Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and bought 18 F-16 fighters in 2006. Both sales angered India and increased the likelihood that New Delhi would punish the United States by buying Russian fighters.

“Russia makes cheap and reliable fighters, and U.S. sanctions turn India and Pakistan toward Moscow and Beijing. Russia and China do not take the moral high ground. They don’t care about human rights or nuclear tests,” said Andrei Chang, editor of the Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review.

The upcoming Aero India defense show will be a battleground for U.S., Chinese and Russian defense contractors. Indian officials will think twice before buying American, no matter the quality or the price.

“U.S. sanctions have taught India and Pakistan that you can buy U.S. fighters, but tomorrow you might have trouble getting parts,” said Chang. •

Nick Lee-Frampton contributed to this report from Wellington.