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For decades, it has been an article of faith in Washington’s South Asia policy that India and Pakistan form the key rivalrous dyad in the region. By implication, India’s fear of China is misplaced and Delhi’s nuclear programme, its continued development of longer ranged ballistic missiles, and nuclear submarines, antagonises Beijing while hindering reconciliation with Islamabad. The brief gap in such thinking during the George W. Bush administration, when the United States offered India a deal on civilian nuclear cooperation, has since been sealed again.

There are two possibilities this narrative holds sway: one is that the Pakistan lobby in Washington has outmanoeuvred the India hands comprehensively. However tempting it is to believe this given the ineptitude of India’s diplomatic corps, it is unlikely to be the sole or even main reason for the US position. A second more likely reason is that the India-Pakistan dyad narrative trivialises the Indian nuclear programme and lends credence to US non-proliferation objectives.

Soon after independence in South Asia, the United States courted both India and Pakistan. However, Jawaharlal Nehru chose to steer India clear of bloc politics, at least in theory, and refused to be warmer to Washington than to Moscow; his personal fondness for Fabian socialism and public school education may have also repelled him from what he saw as the crass consumer culture of the West. Pakistan had no such qualms and readily embraced, however superficially, the US-led capitalist world. Karachi, then the capital, ingratiated itself into CENTO (1954) and SEATO (1955) hoping they would provide relief against India. Pakistan soon found that the while the United States intended for it to assist with an attack from the rear if Soviet forces were to ever flood south into Iran, Washington had little interest in becoming entangled in South Asia’s fratricide. Despite souring relations between client and patron after Lyndon B. Johnson’s arms embargo during the 1965 India-Pakistan War, the two states have maintained cordial relations except for the last decade of the 20th century.

From India’s perspective, Pakistan was born amidst hostility and in opposition to the idea of India. Outmatched demographically and geographically, it would register no threat had it not received constant US military support, ostensibly not to be used against India! Admittedly, Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons raised its threat perception in Indian eyes, particularly given its ties to terrorism. However, much of Pakistan’s nuclear successes were achieved as the Reagan administration turned a Nelson’s Eye while China supplied Islamabad with designs and fissile material. To Delhi, this reads like the US creating a rival for India where there was none.

The shift in US rhetoric on China is also quite revealing: throughout the late Forties and Fifties until the middle of the Sixties, the United States was convinced that Communist China was a menace to world peace. Successive US presidents tried to persuade Nehru of the danger but he would have none of it in public: it was the heydey of Panchsheel and hindi-chini bhai-bhai, and India had even turned down a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council on grounds that it should be offered to China first. There is, nonetheless, ample evidence to show that the Indian prime minister was indeed concerned about China, particularly after Mao Zedong’s annexation of Tibet in 1950. However, he was confident that his diplomacy could win over Zhou Enlai and Mao, wrongly, as it turned out.

India’s first prime minister didn’t live long after the 1962 Sino-Indian War; he died a few months short of China’s first nuclear test in October 1964. The recent defeat and the shock of China’s test sent India’s leaders fluttering to London and Washington to ask for military aid and a nuclear umbrella. Just before his death, Nehru had allowed U2 reconnaissance flights over Tibet to be based out of Orissa, but such bonhomie quickly faded. In fact, the Indian delegation in 1965 refused to name China as a threat during discussions with the British and Americans – Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Foreign Minister Morarji Desai sought a nuclear umbrella from both the Soviet Union and the United States, preferably from the United Kingdom and France too, against a “general” nuclear threat!

Two things converged in US politics the mid-1960s to India’s disadvantage: the Gilpatric Committee Report (1965) and the beginnings of the US rapprochement with China. The Fifties had been the decade of Atoms for Peace, and in 1961, the US Department of Defence had even suggested giving India a nuclear weapon so that it could test one before China did. This was eventually scuttled by John Galbraith, the US ambassador to India, who declared to Kennedy that Nehru would give another lecture on atomic apartheid. The GCR reversed US nuclear liberalism; suddenly, safeguards and controls became tighter, and the GCR even warned that India would use the Chinese nuclear test as an excuse to pursue its own nuclear weapons programme. By August 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was opened for signatures.

India claims that her 1974 nuclear test at Pokhran was a Peaceful Nuclear Explosive, but Raja Ramanna, a senior scientist in India’s nuclear conclave, announced in a 1997 interview that the test was anything but peaceful. Western analysts refuse to consider this test as a serious anti-China measure for various reasons, chief among them being the slow acquisition of reliable delivery systems and the long lag before weaponisation. These are legitimate points, but can be explained by India’s usual hemming and hawing when it comes to matters of national security. The evidence, however, indicates that in the Lok Sabha, from 1960 to 1974, Pakistan was rarely brought up when the discussion veered to nuclear policy; China, on the other hand, found a frequent mention.

As US relations with China improved, their tolerance for India’s view that China remained a threat declined. China’s economy began to grow rapidly as Deng Xiaoping opened the country to foreign trade, and Bill Clinton saw China as a partner in growth. Interestingly, Henry Kissinger had warned Richard Nixon just before their trip to China in 1972 that the Chinese were not to be trusted and 20 years hence, the US ought to side with Russia against China. George W Bush certainly did not see Beijing as a partner but as a rival and hoped to help India rise to become a global power. Barack Obama falls between the two: he has ordered a US pivot to Asia, but has done little to prop India against China. To be fair, this may partly be India’s own woolly-headedness at play.

Historically, Indian leaders, from Shastri to Manmohan Singh, have always thought it possible to reason with Islamabad because of the shared history and culture between the two states; “Enemy No. 1” remained China. It is difficult not to agree with this assessment considering that China has invaded India, holds Indian territory, claims more Indian territory, has supplied India’s rival with nuclear weapons and missile technology, armed and trained separatist groups in India’s northeast, prevented India’s entry into the UNSC and Nuclear Suppliers Group, and has continued to surround India with its string of pearls.

Thus, US policy towards South Asia has been shaped by a powerful non-proliferation lobby (the Indo-US nuclear deal had to be kept under tight wraps until it was announced), the drastic fluctuations in its relations with China, and an inexplicable fondness for Pakistan, a state that has committed genocide, supported terrorism, and indulged in nuclear proliferation. South Asia is, however, a region of forced dyads – the lesser power trying to equate itself with the greater power in the dyad and claiming all the rights that accompany the greater position. The US can choose to accept these realities on the ground, or continually become frustrated when its theories turn out wrong and its initiatives go nowhere.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on September 02, 2013.