Debating India

OPINION

Off-Key Techno Notes

Raja MENON

Monday 19 April 2004, by MENON*Raja

Indo-US technology relations, despite go-aheads from the top, is still rudderless

The cold war left most foreign policy analysts mystified on why the two largest democracies spat and snarled at each other, a period when the sons and daughters of the best families of India were gradually building up the Indian diaspora in the United States to its present two million-strong, accomplished, rich and most prosperous community. Why, asked the analysts, couldn’t the two countries interact profitably at every institutional level independently, and reduce the diplomatic biting and scratching to irrelevancy? The analysts may yet get their wish. India and the US now run their relationship through five major channels-economic, science and technology, military-to-military, diplomatic (including arms control and multilateral issues) and Indian interest groups acting directly through Congress. But no one in Washington or New Delhi is quite clear who is driving.

In the new relationship, it’s science and technology that’s running the show because a majority of Indians believe that’s what the US has to offer most. It may actually be the American University system, or the research culture, or social equality or equal opportunities that’s at the heart of American science, but to most Indians, American technology is the one commodity to aspire for. Conversely, it’s the denial of this technology that marks the milestones of the earlier failed relationship-from the F-104 Starfighter to the Patton tank to the Cray supercomputer to the cryogenic engine, and finally the 1998 technology denial sanctions.

The simultaneous statements of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and President George Bush on American assistance to India on space technology, civilian N-reactors and missile defence should have changed all that. But on the ground things are exactly as they were. The technology denial is administered by the US department of commerce and enforced through the US Customs. For these bureaucracies, the law has not changed. American companies must seek permission to export items on the ’banned’ list to India. True, the president can issue an exemption notice, but exemptions are an exception. The US commerce department says it’s all a storm in a tea-cup. Seventy-five per cent of the applications from US companies are returned as ’not required’. Of the rest, about 15 per cent are approved; only 10 per cent refused. So what’s the fuss, ask the Americans.

Not so, say Indian experts. An Indian entity that wants high technology doesn’t even apply for it from the US, for fear of attracting the American government’s attention. US companies in high technology are even more terrified of their government. So the department of commerce statistics are meaningless. American companies consistently refuse to bid for Indian tenders for defence and high technology equipment. Those that do often get approval only in 60 days, which is the expiry time of the Indian tender.

True, the ’next steps’ require that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspect India’s firewalls for leaks-from the civilian programme to the military one, and India has to come up with an export control list at least as rigorous as the Chinese one. If Indians thinks this is hilarious, Washington has an even funnier one. To understand the Indian system better, a US science and technology delegation visited the Indian commerce minister who was completely baffled on why he had been so honoured. His secretary was equally mystified.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has come and gone, but no one is the wiser on what their report contains.

Have we passed? Similarly, a US delegation on missile defence has also visited India, but they have probably met the wrong people since no missile defence simulation has been done in India so far. Neither side has done its homework, but in fairness to the Americans, they admit it, while the Indians don’t.The Americans say that there will eventually be a mechanism, but the Indians don’t know, in Rumsfeldspeak, what they don’t know.

The military-to-military relationship is supposedly a success. But years of being isolated from the decision-making loop in Delhi have left the generals with no vision for converting the military links into a pro-India lobby in the Pentagon for politico-military purposes. By refusing to publicise the exercises and gain public approval, and by ’dumbing down’ the political and diplomatic objectives at the Defence Policy Group (DGP) discussions, these exercises are now heading for a tactical dead-end. The Indians feel the Americans are not serious enough at the tactical level, in a way that, for instance, the French are, who have arrived with an aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine. On the commercial front everyone agrees things are fine-but that’s because neither government can get a handle on that funny hi-tech stuff going back and forth, to regulate it.

This may all look like a comedy of errors, but if the play continues, there will soon be accusations of malign intent. It would become a tragedy if the structural inadequacies in Washington, which are bad, and in Delhi, which are catastrophic, are permitted to ruin what the leaders have started with so much hope. The inadequate staffing at the Indian MEA, its inexperience with economic and technological issues, and its adherence to a 1960s structure are well known to every foreign embassy in India. The dreams of a multi-channel relationship between two prosperous democracies will never materialise if turf wars force all movement through a foreign office ’choke’.

P.S.

The author is a former naval officer, and writes on strategic affairs.

in Outlook India, Monday, April 19, 2004.

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