Thursday, March 09, 2006

Editorial: Bush walks tightrope in South Asia

President George W. Bush is not much inclined to participate in flag-waving exercises outside the United States. It takes matters of considerable importance to pry him from the White House or his Texas ranch. Thus it would be foolish to underestimate the significance of his just-completed visit to South Asia. This was not a tour designed to boost the stocks of the US, courtesy of images of an American President trying to play cricket. It was about a policy realignment that would strain the capabilities of the most skilled of statesmen.

The tour encompassed Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, each vital to American interests but each with its own peculiar concerns in a region of great rivalry and little rapport. President Bush's daunting task was to forge a strategic alliance with India without alienating its traditional rival, Pakistan, and while chiding the Pakistanis to pursue the war on terror more diligently. Equally, he had to paint rapprochement with a previously non-aligned India in terms that did not alarm China.

Already, there have been repercussions. President Bush's gee-up seems to have been the catalyst for bickering between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the conduct of the war against al Qaeda and the Taleban. This is hardly conducive, since the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating quickly. In the face of a resurgent Taleban, President Hamid Karzai's power is increasingly centred on Kabul. A more effective prosecution of the war and, ultimately, the survival of his Government demand co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, not quarrelling over areas of responsibility.

The focus of President Bush's trip, however, was a deal to share nuclear technology with India. At a time of huge concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions, this gives India access to banned technologies without its having signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Washington, again showing scant regard for international strictures, deems it worthy of a special exemption while seeking to force Tehran, a treaty signatory, to work within the accepted nuclear framework.

More important than such niceties to the Bush Administration is its determination to make India its strategic ally in Asia, and a counterweight to China's burgeoning power. As well as the pact to provide American technology for India's civilian nuclear programme, the US is developing military and trade relations with Delhi. China, which can hardly be accused of demonstrating aggressive tendencies in South Asia, has, so far, not reacted. But it can hardly fail to be unsettled.

The same is true of Pakistan, which, like India, fell foul of the international community when it tested nuclear weapons eight years ago. It has been granted no comparable acquittal by Washington. The reason, ostensibly, is that it is still tarred by the role of its top atomic scientist in a nuclear proliferation scandal. But, quite clearly, India's rapidly expanding economy makes it the obvious candidate for an alliance aimed at containing China. Pakistan remains important in the war on terror, but much of its special relationship with the US has been ceded to India.

Managing the rivalries and nuances of South Asia would require a statesman of Bismarck-like proportion. President Bush may struggle even to persuade a sceptical Congress to ratify his deal with India. Defeat there would doubtless cheer the hundreds of thousands who protested vociferously against his visit in both India and Pakistan. But the die is cast in terms of a US policy realignment in South Asia. The outcome of that will reverberate around the region, and the world, for years to come.

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