Says Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution, Washington: "Strategic relations are like big ocean liners, they take a long time to change courses. Clinton thought that by being nice to China, he could soften and melt it from within. It took him a long time to realise that the old strategic relations with China no longer existed (In the Cold War era the US and China came together to contain the Soviet Union). The change in Washington’s policy towards Beijing was on the cards. I think relations are not necessarily going to get worse but may not get better."
However, William Triplett II, a former Republican counsel to the senate foreign relations committee and well-known China expert, thinks there will be a substantial change in the US policy towards China in the next six months. "The change is going to be rough since Beijing still has friends in Washington. They will unleash a campaign against President Bush," warns Triplett.
He also feels Washington’s policy could have changed under Clinton had it not been for the massive Chinese funding of his presidential campaign. Says Triplett: "It’s embarrassing for an American to admit to a foreigner that the Clinton government was corrupt in handling China. But corrupt acts like poll-funding were precisely why relations between the US and China remained cosy even after the Cold War. Those times are gone and we are happy about it."
But the moot question is: why has Washington become increasingly paranoid of China? Is it yet another case of searching for new enemies? Triplett says Asia is going through a dangerous phase in which the growing Chinese military capability has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in factional fights within the Chinese Communist Party. "So," says Triplett, "we have military capability and a likely scenario of political instability after President Jiang Zemin. As of today, no one knows who his successor will be."
Given this, Washington fears one of the possible contenders to power could appeal to the People’s Liberation Army for support. Such a person could have the potential of becoming a Hitler and posing a serious threat to countries like Japan, South Korea and India. nmd is thus part of US strategy to obviate destabilising possibilities post-Jiang.
US analysts here believe China’s threat of annexing Taiwan could become real under a "Chinese Hitler". And once Taiwan becomes part of China, Beijing could lay claim to the first chain island stretching from Japan, Taiwan and Philippines to the south. The South China Sea could then become a communist lake imperilling Japan and South Korea.
But where does India figure in Washington’s scheme? Analysts feel Beijing’s relation with Myanmar and its forays into the Bay of Bengal—more particularly the radars it maintains on the Coco island near the Andamans— could persuade Washington to build strategic ties with New Delhi. They also feel India’s expertise in handling diverse cultures and languages could help prevent a possible break-up of Indonesia.
Agrees Triplett: "India has cultural links with almost all countries in the Indo-China region. To begin with, the cooperation between India and the US would aim at forging closer ties with other countries in the region, instead of establishing military-to-military relationship. I don’t think India is yet ready for a military relation with the US even as the two countries move towards a convergence of minds. We recognise common problems facing us and are prepared to take joint steps to tackle them."
Cohen, too, cautions about expecting Indo-US cooperation on security matters. "The two countries had a love affair after China attacked India in 1962. But, in the next three years, Russia took over as New Delhi’s major ally. We must pursue and develop the present relationship with India but shouldn’t oversell it," he says.
There are, however, vital differences between the ’60s and now. For one, India and the US have established a strong economic bond that continues to grow. Two, the 1-million-strong Indo-American community in the US could act as a bridge between the two countries. "We’d no longer have high ups and downs we saw in the relations between the two countries in the past," says Cohen.
Most analysts, though, do agree that India’s support to nmd marks a dramatic shift in stance for New Delhi. Three years back, the US and China had together criticised India’s nuclear tests. Today, a top US official, Richard Armitage, is visiting India in what is decidely an anti-China exercise. Says Sumit Ganguly, professor of Asia Studies in Texas University, Austin: "The US also must start easing up on the plethora of sanctions it has imposed on India. Without such reciprocity, the government in New Delhi will open itself up to charges by America-baiters that India is making unilateral concessions to the US with no compensation whatsoever."
New Delhi’s support to nmd may have excited or agitated many here, but the US seems in no tearing hurry to perceive India as its ally. Says Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program in the Woodrow Wilson Centre at Washington: "For all the talk about a new partnership between Washington and Delhi, much hard work remains to be done. This was acknowledged by India’s new ambassador in Washington when he said he would be concentrating on four Cs—commerce, the US Congress, the Indo-American community and culture... An emphasis on culture, rather than providing the foundation for closer ties, is an admission that the political, strategic and diplomatic underpinnings for a full-fledged partnership are still lacking."
Given India’s present exuberant support to nmd, what remains to be seen now is whether it could become one of the underpinnings of establishing a strategic relationship between Washington and Delhi. Or would nmd incur India the wrath of China without any concomitant returns?