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Overseas Talk

“India is the single-most important defence partner for US”

Issue Date - 15/03/2012
William H. Avery, who served in the US diplomatic service as an Economic Officer, is a master at trade development and commercial advocacy, and is a three-time recipient of the US State Department's Meritorious Honour Award. A prolific writer on international affairs, Avery tells Mayank Singh how India needs to start thinking beyond just Pakistan and China and take interest in building a strong military base in the Asian region. India has the potential, he says!

B&E: Asia is constantly represented on the international fora and its position is factored-in by different countries in their policy making. Your assessment?
William H. Avery (WAH): All the action is in this part of the World. We are seeing a shift of economic activity, which will be followed by military activity and military strength from the trans-Atlantic to the Pacific region, including China and India and all the regions that fall in-between. With regard to the subcontinent, principally, India and China are the places that are going to be significant. US also because it is a continent with 300 million people. So I think a new structure is emerging where there are three potential centres of power – US, India and China.

B&E: You have been talking of India becoming a superpower. Yet, you say that it will have to ‘achieve’ this position. What shortcomings on India’s part do you observe here?
WAH: I think India has many natural advantages. It has a demographic advantage. It has skill base, which is not just a technological skill base. What is missing in India is a recognition of how you build power in this World which requires military and economic strength, not just at home but overseas. And it requires a willingness to use power. If you look at India’s experience with Sri Lanka, it is very instructive. I think Rajiv Gandhi knew that for India to get to the next level, it had to be willing to play a strong regional role. But the problem is that when the LTTE assassinated Rajiv, India withdrew. So what you had for the past 20 years was not only India not becoming a global power but also failing to become a regional power! Another element is a kind of obsession with Pakistan. Pakistan, a barely functioning State, is quite clever in a way to bring India down to its level. India fell into that trap. And it was with the advent of the Indo-US Nuclear deal that India began to rise above it and perhaps only because of India’s economic growth was it was able to pull away from Pakistan. So some things are beginning to happen. But India needs to take a more activist approach to becoming a strong military power.

B&E: You have called the withdrawl of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from Sri Lanka as India's mistake. Also, you say that it should have been redeployed after the unfortunate assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Your thoughts...
WAH: I do feel it was a mistake. I understand why it was made. And it is always easy to go back 20 years and look at it in retrospect, but the fact that a country allowed a former prime minister to be assassinated on its own soil and then nearly asked for the extradition of the assassins is pretty amateurish. And there’s nothing we can do to change that. However, it should serve a lesson. We should look at it critically and make sure that India does not make the same mistake again. I think the IPKF episode was one that pushed back India’s emergence as a global power by many years. However, it should be acknowledged that India did recover by 1998 – the series of nuclear tests was a huge step forward. So where India has been conventional in defence matters or rather meek, its nuclear diplomacy and its nuclear policy have been much stronger.

B&E: Do you see a bigger ploy of China in keeping India busy with Pakistan while increasing its arsenal and technological knowhow and economic opportunities, and then using them as pressure tactics?
WAH: It could be a Chinese strategy. I don’t know whether it is a conscious strategy or not. Having said this, I believe that India should not remain busy with Pakistan because there is a much wider world out there. The cross-border terrorism issue is significant and has to be monitored by India. At the same time however, India’s emergence as a global power will not come true if the Indo-Pak equation remains the key agenda on the diaries of India’s foreign policy agents for ever.

B&E: China is helping India's neighbours build ports. It is providing them support in building infrastructure. Shouldn’t India be more proactive when it comes to building stronger ties with its own neighbours?
WAH: Look at the China-Taiwan relation. Do you think China will let India build a port in Taiwan? China doesn’t even let people recognise Taiwan as a country. Forget them being allowed to have a foothold in Taiwan. So China has a much more aggressive approach when dealing with its neighbours. As far as India is concerned, it should understand that maintaining good strategic relationships with neighbours is important. The case with Sri Lanka is easy because of the trade potential. However, India should look at the good and bad examples of relationships between neighbours – be it Taiwan and China, Canada and America, Cuba and America – learn from them and implement the lessons in its dealings with its own neighbours. Ultimately, there are only two paths to follow as far as India and its neighbouring countries is concerned – one is integration, and the other is estrangement and that will only lead to poverty. Look at the Cubans. Their main strategic partner was half a world away and since Russia fell into trouble, they let the Cubans go.

B&E: You mentioned Russia. Where is Russia in this global dynamics?
WAH: Russia is destined to be a second-tier power in the 21st century. Putin may wish to rebuild an empire but the country's demographics – low birth rates and high mortality rates, especially among males – mean that Russia is in its twilight as a major power. But Russia will always have a strong military and, thanks to its resources, some economic weight as well. And, as it showed in Georgia in 2008, it will not hesitate to flex its muscles in its neighbourhood. India can learn from Russia in this respect. But as an ally, with regard to the US, India and China, the Russians are not likely to be a close friend of any of these. We hope that it doesn’t become an enemy either.

B&E: There have been occasions when US has stopped the supply of arms to countries. Can India rely on US?
WAH: Considering the foreseeable future, India is the single most important defence partner for US. My book 'China's Nightmare, America's Dream: India As The Next Global Power' makes it clear. Therefore this defence partnership is in the interest of both nations. The notion that the US would ever halt arms sales to India is inconceivable. The challenge for India is to develop its own sophisticated defence industry. India has all the ingredients to become a major defence supplier. It has the raw materials, the manufacturing base, and most importantly, the engineering and IT talent. But these pieces will not just come together on their own; the Indian government has to make it happen.
Mayank Singh           

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