Manipal, India — Once in office, U.S. President Barack Obama apparently decided to abandon his own policy preferences in favor of those of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Given the reluctance of the former president and the current secretary of state to agree to an equal partnership with India, it is no surprise that the past year has seen the killing-off of the tiny shoots of U.S.-India high-tech cooperation promised by former President George W. Bush.This is despite the eagerness of NASA for joint projects with India. The U.S. space agency is aware that it will continue to be commercially outclassed by the European Union unless it ties up with India's Space Research Organization.
The Indians can undertake space launches that are 40 percent cheaper than the EU. Were NASA to outsource some of its hardware and software needs to India, the agency would outclass the Europeans in almost every segment of space research and exploration. This is why successive NASA administrators have – on record – pushed for closer cooperation with India.
However, the death-grip between Washington and Islamabad has thus far sabotaged all such efforts, even though NASA and ISRO have numerous complementarities, such as in hardware and software.
On several occasions, pressure from the White House and the State Department aborted efforts by Taiwan, Malaysia and a Middle Eastern country to put payloads into orbit through ISRO rockets. Taiwan withdrew its request to use Indian launch capabilities more than a decade ago, but it has been scarcely five years since Malaysia called off its launch less than an hour before liftoff.
The Malaysians were up front in privately telling the Indians that pressure to abort came directly from the White House, and hence could not be refused.
During the 1950s, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his successor J. Foster Dulles muddied U.S. relations with several Asian countries by tagging alongside European countries unwilling to put an end to their colonial empires in Asia. This included the French, for example, who sought to hold on to Indochina long after the British had left India.
These days, despite his promise of change, Obama appears to have returned to Clinton-style paternalism toward countries in Asia and Africa, focusing obsessively on the EU as the only U.S. partner of choice.
In the mind war that is being lost by the coalition in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the addition of a few non-EU partners would have done much to remove the fear among the local populations that European-style colonialism was returning via the Pentagon. Media commentators in the West quote high "approval" ratings for occupation forces, unaware that the people polled are simply telling them what they believe the West wants to hear – the way these same people professed love for their former president, Saddam Hussein, and fealty toward the Taliban.
Asian visitors to Iraq and Afghanistan say the local populations are eager to see the back of the hundreds of thousands of coalition troops in their countries.
Indeed, the security situation in Iraq has improved considerably now that U.S. forces have taken a recessed role. In Afghanistan as well, only a withdrawal of coalition forces from the towns and cities will generate public support and participation for the government of President Hamid Karzai as it seeks to fend off the threat from the Taliban – newly revived by cash from coalition sources buying off opposition and logistical backing from within Pakistan.
Sadly, such advice sounds as outlandish now to coalition ears as did similar advice by this columnist to friends in the Pentagon in 2004, who refused to believe that the high visibility of U.S. troops was in fact the primary engine fuelling recruitment to the growing tide of militancy.
Although George W. Bush understood the imperative of close cooperation between the United States and India, the many Europeanists within his administration – including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, though not Donald Rumsfeld – prevented him from building on the momentum created by his 2005 decision with Prime Minister Singh of India to forge a nuclear partnership. However, baby steps toward high-tech cooperation were initiated on his watch, including a small easing of visa restrictions on Indian scientists.
Today, thanks to Hillary Clinton, these irritants are back. Indian scientists are once again being denied visas to enter the United States, including people such as Goverdhan Mehta, who is a member of the U.S. Academy of Sciences. Those working in aerospace, physics and chemistry find it next to impossible to visit the United States even to attend a conference.
This has created anger among India's scientists, who are now dismissive of Singh's claim that there has been a qualitative improvement in U.S.-India high-tech cooperation. Of course, a few cosmetic measures have been permitted by Clinton and Obama, such as the sending of a small NASA payload aboard India's recent mission to the moon.
Clinton and Obama have been working overtime to pressure India into giving concessions to U.S. entities that have no place in a market economy. An example is the attempt to fix a cap of just US$400 million as liability for a nuclear accident involving a U.S. reactor, a figure that would apply even if such a disaster were to claim as many lives as Union Carbide's 1984 Bhopal gas leak did – around 30,000 over its course.
Of course, a benevolent Indian Supreme Court demanded less than US$400 million from the company for the accident. Soon afterward Chief Justice R.S. Pathak was appointed to the International Court – clearly by coincidence.
Indian civil society is aghast at the way the Nobel Prize-winning U.S. president is permitting his administration to arm-twist the Singh government into placing such a low cap on financial liability for a nuclear accident. A senior atomic scientist in India's nuclear establishment warned that such a cap "would encourage U.S. companies to make Indians into experimental mice for reactor designs," pointing out that it has been close to four decades since the United States designed a reactor. He warns that the use of technologies with such artificial caps would be hazardous to public safety.
Under President Nicholas Sarkozy, France has become the new poodle of Washington, displacing Britain. As a consequence, Paris is seeking tough conditions for nuclear trade with India – in the process handing over the advantage to Moscow, which is much more open to equal collaboration.
No wonder Russia has secured 70 percent of the new Indian orders for nuclear reactors, with France taking the rest. Because of its insistence on conditions that are antithetical to a free market, the United States has not secured a single order.
However, this shortfall in cash from India could be made up if the United States emerged as the major weapons supplier to India, displacing Russia. But here as well, a toughening of conditions under the Obama administration – as well as a repeat of the Dick Cheney policy of thrusting the obsolete F-16 down the throat of the Indian Air Force – may mean that defense orders bypass the United States.
By any rational measure, India is at least as important as Britain and France, nuclear weapons states with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. Unless Clinton paternalism is discarded in favor of realism, and India is seen as deserving of the same status, the promise of an India-U.S. technology alliance may remain no more than that during the Obama years – a promise.
(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)