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3 April 2000

How Clinton began a new love affair

Not long ago, China was America's big friend in Asia. All of a sudden, it's India

By John Elliott

India is euphoric about President Clinton’s visit. Headlines like “Wowing India” dominate the covers of news weeklies, and the Indian government cannot quite believe that it all went off so well.

Not only did Bill Clinton repeatedly praise India’s democracy, he also said that he knew it must be difficult to be “bordered by nations whose governments reject democracy”, thus firmly distancing himself from both China and Pakistan.

As if that was not enough, he welcomed “India’s leadership in the region and the world”. A joint US-India “vision” statement said the two countries were “partners in peace” with a “common interest in and complementary responsibility for ensuring regional peace and international security” – a job that China thought it shared with the US through its membership of the UN Security Council.

China is furious. It regards itself as America’s main Asian interlocutor, apart from Japan. Two years ago, it stood alongside the US, condemning the nuclear tests staged by India (and Pakistan) and demanding that India should cap its nuclear weapons programme. Its regional role was emphasised by Clinton when he went to Beijing later in 1998.

Clinton’s visit shows that the lines of America’s Asian diplomacy have been firmly redrawn, even though the trade sanctions imposed after the Indian nuclear tests still stand. In the cold war, the US succoured Pakistan – a buffer state after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan – and regarded India as a difficult Soviet ally best left in Britain’s care. It then courted China, first as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and later as a big potential market and an emerging military power.

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Now, the balance is changing. American companies find China a corrupt, lawless, unrewarding and often unprofitable place to invest, with the added irritant of human rights abuses. The US is also increasingly concerned about China’s hi-tech investments in sensitive security areas and its dumping of goods. And internationally, there is the long-running dispute over China’s aggressive claim to the South China Sea, its active support of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and now its warnings of war with Taiwan.

India on the other hand, while still a difficult and corrupt place in which to invest, looks more acceptable and useful: it has an established rule of law and a largely open economy with a growing band of more or less contented US investors.

Further, the US population includes about one and a half million people of Indian origin. They play a big role in the technology industries, running more than 750 companies in Silicon Valley and founding pace-making businesses such as Cyrus Logic, Sun Microsystems, Hotmail.com and Amazon.com, as well as running established businesses such as Citibank, Arthur Andersen, McKinsey, and United Airlines. Politically, they are beginning to organise themselves into an effective lobby.

On top of all that, India is a nuclear power with which the US needs dialogue, even if the two countries have to agree to disagree on India’s determined and irrevocable weapons programme. (Clinton lectured parliament on these matters as if he were telling difficult teenagers, who were old enough to make their own decisions, that it would be better if they improved their behaviour.) The question now is how far the relationship will go. India’s nuclear stance prevented it receiving guarantees of high technology co-operation during the visit. But, attached to the “vision” statement, is the “architecture” for closer relations in a number of areas – for example, new “dialogues” and joint working groups on subjects ranging from counter- terrorism and Asian security to trade and the environment. Influential voices in Washington are urging the administration to strengthen further its pro-India tilt.

But there are dangers arising from the Clinton visit, which means that America’s Asian policy is likely to look more muddled than it has in the past. First, the US will have to guard against either pushing China too far into a corner or antagonising the new Russian government of Vladimir Putin. Second, Clinton’s tough line against Pakistan may strengthen the influence of its anti-west Islamic forces, which include senior military officers. That could easily push Pakistan into a closer and even more dangerous alliance with Islamic fundamentalists in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as with China.

Meanwhile, there are lessons here for other countries’ diplomacy and economic co-operation. European countries in particular might find that India will one day welcome a parallel dialogue with the EU, which it might find a more flexible and less dogmatic partner than the US.

But the main lesson is that Clinton’s visit was a personal triumph, not just because of his devastating personal charisma, but also because he gave India and Indians the respect for which they yearn (something that Britain in particular has yet to show). India sees itself as one of the world’s three great civilisations, along with China and the west, so was bowled over when the leader of one of those other civilisations came visiting and said such nice things.

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