May 9, 2001


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G Parthasarathy

The new order

Four decades ago, President John Kennedy made the momentous announcement that it was America's goal to place a man on the moon within a decade. Sceptics were proved wrong when the United States actually succeeded in doing so.

Kennedy's vision set the path for the United States to emerge as the unquestioned world leader in technology development and military prowess. Speaking at the National Defence University President George Bush Jr made an equally momentous announcement. He recalled that during the Cold War, the principal adversaries depended on a nuclear and missile capability for Mutually Assured Destruction, MAD. The United States would, however, now rely on both offensive and defensive forces. He asserted that unlike in the days of the Cold War, the United States no longer regarded Russia as an enemy but a "country in transition with an opportunity to emerge as a great nation".

What are the threats that Bush now envisages to American national security? He has spelt out these threats as emerging from some countries now possessing technologies for the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He has accused such countries of spreading these technologies around the world and described them as including the "world's least responsible states" that "seek weapons of mass destruction to intimidate their neighbours" and for whom "terror and blackmail are a way of life". He has referred to such countries as hating democracy and freedom and caring very little for the lives of their own people. These are attributes that could very easily describe the body politic, policies and values of some in our neighbourhood.

How does Bush propose to safeguard American security in the post-Cold War world? He is clear that nuclear weapons will continue to play a vital role for American security. He is determined to develop missile defence shields and significantly and unilaterally reduce the size of America's nuclear arsenal from the currently agreed START II level of 3,000 to 3,500 warheads to around 1,500 warheads.

More importantly, ever since May 23, 2000, Bush has spoken of the need for measures to de-alert nuclear weapons. We have consistently been urging that nuclear powers should de-alert their nuclear weapons and remove their warheads from missiles, in order to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict -- accidental or otherwise. Though over one hundred countries have supported resolutions that we have co-sponsored in the United Nations on this subject, the Clinton administration and its non-proliferation surrogates opposed us. We now have an opportunity to work together with the United States on this issue of crucial importance to us, especially given the volatility of some of our neighbours.

Recognising the inevitability of the United States adopting missile defenses, President Vladimir Putin has very carefully nuanced Russia's response to the emerging strategic scenario. While the Russian reaction to strategic missile defences was initially hostile, Putin soon changed direction and announced Russia's readiness to cooperate and work together with the United States in developing such defences, including the development of highly advanced and sophisticated missile systems to interdict incoming missiles at the boost stage.

More importantly, Russia has now shown flexibility on the provisions of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, by indicating that it wants not just "preservation", but also "strengthening" of the provisions of this treaty. The Russians would obviously be at a strategic disadvantage if they did not arrive at a mutually agreed framework on the issue of missile defences with the United States. One hopes that the Bush administration will not only address Russian concerns on this score, but also refrain from giving the Russians the feeling that measures like the expansion of NATO are aimed at containing Russia's influence, especially in its immediate neighbourhood.

China has come out strongly against the Bush missile defence plans. A missile defence shield over the west coast of the United States would neutralise China's ICBMs. Further, American plans for developing theatre missile defence systems that could be transferred to Japan and Taiwan would seriously erode China's defence posture in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Bush envisages the use of existing technologies to develop anti-missile systems on land, air and at sea. It will, however, take a decade or more for the United States to develop and deploy strategic anti-missile systems that can intercept missiles before re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, or even earlier at what is known as the "boost stage". But, if its space programme spurred technology development in the past, the missile defence plans will enable the United States to remain the world leader in technology development in the foreseeable future.

The reaction of American allies in Europe has predictably been guarded. This is not surprising. The Europeans invariably wait for the Americans to take the lead and then join in. The Russians do have genuine concerns about the missile defence plans, but are keeping their options open and hoping to strike the best possible deal with the Americans. They know that is going to take several years before the sophisticated anti-missile systems are developed and deployed.

China alone feels that the American move will, in the long-term, erode its power in the Asia-Pacific region. While we can take note of this fact, we should never forget that it is China that has caused the greatest damage to our long-term security interests, by its continuing assistance to Pakistan's nuclear and missile programmes -- assistance that has emboldened Pakistan to resort to nuclear blackmail, by constantly referring to the subcontinent as a "nuclear flashpoint".

Some of us also conveniently forget that whether it was the Bangladesh conflict of 1971, or in the Clinton-Jiang Declaration in the aftermath of our nuclear tests, China has never hesitated to use its leverage with the Americans, to undermine our security. While we certainly need to engage our northern neighbour in an effort to reconcile our security perspectives, it would be na´ve to assert that we should first be sensitive to Chinese concerns, real or imaginary, before reacting to initiatives taken by great powers like the Americans or Russians. China would certainly not consult us before fashioning its response to such issues.

New Delhi has rightly chosen to acknowledge that there are positive elements in the Bush anti-missile development plans. For over five decades the United States has looked at us in adversarial terms and sought to exclude us from consultations on issues of vital national security interest.

Just a few years ago, President Clinton seemed hell bent to "cap, roll back and eliminate" our nuclear capabilities. The Bush administration today looks at us positively and seems ready to engage us on a wide range of security issues in a manner that recognises our power and potential across the Indian Ocean region. But, diplomacy is as much about style as of substance. It is obvious that issues pertaining to missile defences have been discussed with the new US administration over the past few months and especially during Mr Jaswant Singh's "unscheduled" meeting with "Dubya" at the Oval office.

It is a pity that no effort was made by the government to keep parliamentary and public opinion informed of the positive elements in the Bush proposals. More importantly, we made a mockery of our references to Russia being a "strategic partner" by the hasty and ill-advised timing of our announcement welcoming the American move, just a day prior to the arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Delhi.

We surely could have welcomed the positive elements of the Bush proposals after taking Mr Ivanov into confidence about our thinking. But, in an ultimate analysis, one cannot but welcome the fact that we are now fashioning our responses in a manner that recognises the realities of the post-cold war world, instead of repeating mantras that were primarily relevant to a bygone era.

G Parthasarathy

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