- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 19, 2000

President Clinton should be applauded for engaging in a rapprochement with India in a last-minute effort of his presidency. While opening the door to more trade with China in the pious hope of reforming that communist dictatorship, he chose the right strategic partner in the region by embracing democratic, pluralistic India. Whoever may be his successor, the odds favor a deepening of what, in his address to Congress, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called "a natural partnership."

The political harmony and warm feelings exhibited during Mr. Vajpayee's state visit in Washington were in dramatic contrast with the administration's shock and condemnation including a threat of sanctions that followed India's nuclear tests a little over two years ago. Knowledgeable sources say that the subject of U.S. attitudes to that nuclear test did not come up in Mr. Vajpayee's high-level discussions. According to Indian sources, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush took time out of his frantic campaign schedule to reassure the Indian prime minister of his positive attitude toward India in the course of a half-hour telephone conversation, itself an unusual event in the annals of U.S.-Indian relations. It is safe to predict that if elected, Al Gore will accept the fait accompli of India's nuclear status and not nettle India with suggestions of nuclear self-abnegation.

In South Asia, however, the interpretation is that the United States, after half a century of alliance with Pakistan, has decided to side with India and will help build up India as a counterweight to China in Asia. The stage is set for "the world's two largest democracies" President Eisenhower's phrase that is bound to receive new currency to pursue what the joint Clinton-Vajpayee communique hailed as "a closer and qualitatively new relationship." It may take time for the two rival nations of the subcontinent to realize that the United States will expect to exact a price from its new friend while not abandoning the old one. The closer the new U.S.-India partnership becomes, the more difficult it will be for India to resist U.S. pressure to move toward a compromise on Kashmir.

Even though balancing China's power is an important hope, the driving American fear behind the new alignment with India is of a nuclear clash that could be sparked by fighting in the disputed state of Kashmir. On one track, the United States is in agreement with India on the need to roll back terrorism and will doubtless provide technical assistance to India's counter-terrorist efforts. But on a parallel track, U.S. officials will emphasize the need to give more autonomy to Kashmir and seek out forces and leaders willing to deal with India.

The main Indian fear, which is not limited to Mr. Vajpayee's coalition, is an escalation of terrorism supported by Pakistan that serves as a surrogate for other Moslem powers. Mr. Clinton has promised to apply more pressure on Pakistan to stop sponsoring across-the-border terrorism and to improve the far-too-long-neglected relationship with India. His successor can be expected to deliver on that promise, but it is by no means certain that Pakistan's current military regime or its successor will listen. As for the overwhelmingly Moslem inhabitants of Kashmir, they are unlikely to accept the continuation of Indian occupation and at least a minority will keep fighting it.

Except for the nuclear component in the India-Pakistan conflict, the precedent is the intensification of the U.S. quasi-alliance with Israel through the 1970s, along with U.S. disapproval of the continuing military occupation of the West Bank. Though Israel insisted that the future of Judea and Samaria is an internal matter, the United States promoted a formula of "territory for peace," suggesting returning land to Jordan in exchange for a peace treaty. But then came the double whammy of the miracle of Anwar Sadat's trip to Israel and the shock of the intifada, and now the land that Menachem Begin intended to annex is gradually turning into a Palestinian state in all but name again with the United States as the indispensable go-between. As it was with Mr. Begin, it is easier for a staunch nationalist like Mr. Vajpayee to find a solution to Kashmir (which is of course a part of India) and to seek a relaxation of tensions with Pakistan (which need not depend on an immediate solution of the Kashmir question). The word that still dare not speak its name is U.S. "mediation," another arduous but increasingly unavoidable role for the world's only superpower.

The fighting in Kashmir has claimed 16,000 lives over the past two decades, Mr. Vajpayee reminded Congress, and it has clearly gone beyond the dimensions of the intifada that eventually forced Israel to give up the idea of holding on to the West Bank. On one hand, Mr. Vajpayee acknowledged that "no region is a greater source of terrorism than our neighborhood." On the other hand, he blamed "forces outside" India for using "terror to unravel the territorial integrity of India" and for attempting to prove that "a multi-religious society cannot exist."

The Clinton administration accepted Mr. Vajpayee's argument. But future U.S. administrations will balance sympathy for Indian pluralism and condemnation of Moslem terrorism with some support for the principle of self-determination in Kashmir and a quest for a rapprochement with old ally Pakistan. By entering into a partnership with India, sooner or later the United States will find itself engaged in a search for peace in Kashmir, which requires building a new U.S. relationship with Pakistan as well.

Charles Fenyvesi, a Washington free-lance writer and former editor at U.S. News & World Report, spent three years in India on a U.S. fellowship and received an M.A. from Madras University.[p]

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