Clinton's Passage to India: A Primer

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Why is India important to the U.S.?

The world's largest democracy and largest English-speaking nation, India has 1 billion consumers and hundreds of thousands of highly skilled university graduates — many of whom have emigrated to the U.S. to participate in the current techo-boom — who represent vast economic and political opportunities for Washington.

On the negative side, India's importance was also confirmed by its testing of nuclear weapons two years ago, which, together with its perennial state of low-key war with Pakistan — also a nuclear-armed state — puts it at the center of one of the most dangerous geopolitical flash points in the world.

Why have relations between Washington and New Delhi traditionally been chilly?

The Cold War put the U.S.-India relationship in the deep freeze, and made Washington an ally of India's neighbor and mortal foe, Pakistan. The socialist inclinations of India's post-independence leaders, and its considerable hostility toward the West prompted by 300 years of British colonialism, made New Delhi suspicious of ties with Washington, while the U.S. refused to accept India's decision to remain neutral in the superpower conflict. Instead, the U.S. began cultivating a close relationship with its historic enemy, Pakistan. India, for its part, despite its professed nonalignment, drew closer to the Soviet Union.

As a signal of this state of affairs, when India and Pakistan fought their third war in 1971 over Bangladesh's secession from Pakistan, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal as a warning to India. And Pakistan's centrality to Washington's Cold War objectives was underlined during the Afghanistan war, where it became the staging ground for U.S. efforts to aid Afghan guerrillas fighting the Soviets.

U.S.-Pakistan relations began to cool in the wake of the Cold War, while efforts at economic liberalization by successive Indian governments helped fuel a rethink in Washington on India's significance. The 1998 nuclear tests slowed any progress in developing the relationship, but the U.S. refusal to support Pakistan's incursion onto the Indian side of Kashmir last year signaled that the Cold War era's automatic support for Islamabad was over. That helped set the stage for a new era of U.S.-India relations.

Given India's vast economic potential, why is U.S. trade and investment in that country so limited?

Socialist instincts and a desire for self-sufficiency in the wake of British colonialism left India's governments suspicious, and even hostile, toward foreign investment from independence in 1947 until the early '90s. Despite a cross-party consensus on the need to liberalize the state-dominated economy, India maintains one of the most protected economies with which the U.S. does business. Ironically, India's democracy has slowed the pace of economic liberalization, since those constituencies who stand to be hardest hit by lowering barriers to trade and investment can fight back through the electoral process. Still, President Clinton's visit is expected to jump-start U.S. investment in India.

Why have U.S.-Pakistan relations deteriorated to the point that President Clinton almost left the country off his itinerary?

Pakistan fares poorly in any comparison with democratic, economically self-sufficient India. It's a deeply impoverished, aid-dependent nation ruled for most of its history by the military, and for the rest by corrupt civilian politicians. And its rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism gives Washington cause for concern. Cold War imperatives made the U.S. overlook many of these faults in seeking a strategic alliance with Pakistan, but relations began to cool shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when legislation forbidding the U.S. to supply arms to nations suspected of developing nuclear weapons forced Washington in 1990 to cancel delivery of a shipment of F-16's to Pakistan.

Although Pakistan had cooperated with U.S. authorities in apprehending World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and CIA headquarters shooter Mir Amal Kansi, U.S. national security personnel complain that Pakistan has been decidedly lackluster in cooperating with efforts to capture Osama bin Laden, the alleged terrorist mastermind who is being sheltered in Afghanistan by the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban movement. Pakistan has also refused to cut ties with the Harkat ul Mujahedeen, a Bin Laden-aligned Kashmiri organization on Washington's list of terrorist groups. Last October's overthrow of Nawaz Sharif's elected government by General Parvez Musharraf also made it more difficult for the U.S. to maintain business as usual with Pakistan.

President Clinton believes closing the door on Pakistan will do more harm than good, and the priority of his brief stopover there will be to open a channel of communication with General Musharraf to help resolve future crises and secure greater cooperation in the battle against terrorism.

How forcefully will Washington push for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan?

Washington didn't mind dealing with military dictators in Pakistan during the Cold War years, but in the Clinton years it has sought to put military coups beyond the pale. That said, however, President Clinton's insistence on an early return to democracy in Pakistan is likely to remain mostly rhetorical. Pakistan's civilian governments have for the most part been notoriously corrupt, and the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism contributes further to the inherent instability of Pakistani democracy. While the U.S. will publicly insist on a speedy handover of power to an elected civilian government, Washington's working relationship with Islamabad is more likely to be determined by General Musharraf's performance on issues such as terrorism and nuclear nonproliferation.

Can President Clinton mediate in the India-Pakistan dispute?

No, for the simple reason that neither side is asking him to do so. The conflict between them dates back to 1947, when Britain created Pakistan in a failed attempt to partition India's Muslim population from its Hindu and other populations. (Even though Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim state, there are as many, if not more, Muslims living in India.) The flash point of their conflict continues to be Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region whose Hindu ruling elite opted to join India in 1947, prompting a Pakistani invasion. Kashmir is divided between the two countries along the cease-fire line of their last war, and while Pakistan wants international mediation and a referendum in Kashmir to settle its future, India steadfastly refuses any foreign intervention in what it sees as a domestic and bilateral dispute. Under those circumstances, the best President Clinton can hope to do is remind both sides that they're better off avoiding a war, and creating channels of communication with Washington to allow the U.S. to play a role in resolving future crises.

Will the President's visit help slow South Asia's nuclear arms race?

While no breakthroughs are expected, Washington has been working quietly over the past two years to minimize the danger represented by both countries' going nuclear. Expecting either side to renounce nuclear weapons is unrealistic in the near term, but the focus of U.S. efforts is to help the countries develop mechanisms that minimize the danger of conflict escalating to the nuclear level, and to persuade them to sign on to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and other international agreements governing the interaction of nuclear states. President Clinton's visit marks a de facto acceptance of India and Pakistan's nuclear status, placing the emphasis on containing their nuclear programs. Both sides have indicated that in principle they are willing to abide by international treaties governing nuclear weapons.

Where does Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, which President Clinton will visit for a day, fit into the region's complex politics?

Bangladesh was created in 1971 when East Pakistan, with Indian help, seceded from Pakistan. The deeply impoverished country has remained highly unstable ever since, suffering two presidential assassinations, three coups and some 18 attempted coups, and is often paralyzed by crippling strikes organized by the political opposition. The ruling Awami League party of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hopes to attract more U.S. investment, but President Clinton is likely to urge her to ensure greater political stability and generate income by selling some its plentiful energy resources to neighboring India. However, the political opposition consists primarily of Islamic parties opposed to India, which makes trade agreements with New Delhi a tough sell for the government.