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India Seeks Co-existence in Troubled Region

April 9, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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The Indian government says it wants harmonious relations with neighboring countries but concerns about security are forcing it to build up its Navy fleet. NewsHour special correspondent Simon Marks reports on India's foreign policy challenges and military efforts.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next tonight, the final report in our four-part series on India, an emerging superpower in a rough neighborhood.

Special correspondent Simon Marks has the story.

SIMON MARKS, NewsHour special correspondent: You are listening to the official soundtrack of India’s foreign policy, relaxing, therapeutic music recorded for the Indian government on four CDs. They’re given to people who visit the imposing foreign ministry building in New Delhi; it was built by the British back in 1913.

We were handed our copies by Anand Sharma, the country’s minister of state for external affairs. India’s foreign policy, he says, is just like the music: smooth and easy.

ANAND SHARMA, minister of State for External Affairs, India: We believe in creating a better understanding so that we can co-exist in harmony. We want this region to be a region of stability, peace and progress. That’s what India’s endeavor throughout has been.

SIMON MARKS: But India faces enormous difficulties achieving foreign policy harmony, at a time when the country is increasingly allying itself with the United States, competing regionally with China, and acquiring some of the trappings of great-power status.

A glance at a map of the region shows the challenges. To the south, there are tensions in India’s relationship with Sri Lanka over that country’s handling of an uprising by Tamil separatists.

To the east, there are border security issues with Bangladesh.

To the north, Nepal is an ongoing inspiration for Maoist insurgents waging a violent campaign against India’s economic development.

China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, both rapidly developing, are in an open competition for power and influence.

And then there are the greatest sources of local instability: Afghanistan, where the struggle continues against Islamic extremism; and Pakistan, like India, armed with nuclear weapons. The two countries have already fought three wars and remain toe to toe in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

ANAND SHARMA: Historically, we have had problems in finding a harmonious environment in our neighborhood. Now, it’s not a situation of our creation; no country chooses its geographical neighbor. We also do not.

Attacks derail dialogue

SIMON MARKS: For example, says the Indian government, look at the trouble Pakistan caused last November when militant terrorists based on Pakistani soil launched three days of deadly attacks on Mumbai. They came after months of gradually warming relations between New Delhi and Islamabad, a process that the Indians say the attacks derailed.

ANAND SHARMA: There cannot be the pretense of talks in the tragic backdrop of what we are talking. There has to be trust. Talks can proceed, confidence can be built when the trust quotient is high. Here, they have just knocked that trust quotient completely.

SIMON MARKS: But you don't sound like a man who thinks that that relationship is going to get back on anything approaching a positive track any time soon?

ANAND SHARMA: Well, it can only get back onto a positive track if there is sincere and demonstrated action and the perpetrators are brought to justice. We cannot have these attacks and talks, and we cannot just be smiling at each other, saying that the peace process is on and you come and kill our people and don't act against the perpetrators. That's not on.

Bolstering military forces

SIMON MARKS: As the direct result of last November's attacks, the Indian government says it's improved shoreline security, but it was already in a broader process of beefing up its military forces.

India has two additional aircraft carriers on order, is building three nuclear-powered submarines, and has negotiated more than $1 billion of procurement contracts with Israeli defense suppliers.

Government supporters argue that, as the region's leading democracy, India has to raise its military profile in the neighborhood.

Shashi Tharoor, a former undersecretary general of the United Nations, is now running for a parliamentary seat in India's general election.

SHASHI THAROOR, parliamentary candidate, Congress Party: People naturally tend to see it a little bit as Goliath, but it hasn't conducted itself as Goliath. Indeed, there are many Indians who would like India to flex its muscles more in the neighborhood than it's done. But to say that India is responsible for every one of the dysfunctionalities in these relationships is simply not fair.

SIMON MARKS: The flexing of muscle, even symbolically, in the Republic Day military parade that rumbles through the heart of New Delhi every January is a projection of power that Indian officials and analysts say they want the world to notice.

SWAPNA NAYUDU, Center for Land Warfare Studies: Especially in India there is a perception that we are an important global player and we feel the need for the rest of the world to recognize that.

SIMON MARKS: Swapna Nayudu is with the Center for Land Warfare Studies, the Indian army's own think-tank. She argues the country's growing power on the world stage can be a positive force, encouraging the resolution of conflicts that have dominated the region for 60 years.

SWAPNA NAYUDU: Absolutely, but I think it also propels where Indian foreign policy is going now. I think this resolution to these conflicts is the first step towards anything positive. And a lot of these conflicts are seen as intractable, and the fact that that perception has been there for so long, that view with the Indian public is almost as old as India's independence.

Public opinion drives policy

SIMON MARKS: The views of the Indian public do help drive the country's foreign-policy-makers. Demonstrations against Pakistan after last November's attacks influenced the government's response.

And on a daily basis, many Indians exude confidence and pride in the country's growing prowess. The lowly paid car park attendant in New Delhi's Conort Place spends his day nudging hundreds of vehicles into parking positions like a contortionist, but he also dreams of Indian greatness.

CAR PARK ATTENDANT (through translator): Our country is still No. 2 in the world. We're fighting to be No. 1, and we will be No. 1.

SIMON MARKS: India, we asked him, could it really be No. 1?

CAR PARK ATTENDANT: No. 1.

SIMON MARKS: That, of course, would entail becoming a full-fledged superpower. And last October, the U.S. took one step that many analysts argue encouraged that type of thinking in Delhi.

President Bush signed into law a deal that ended a 34-year ban on U.S. nuclear trade with India, a country that has never agreed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Critics contend the agreement not only undermines the global nonproliferation regime, but also encourages India to think great power thoughts and view itself as a regional counterweight to Chinese expansionism.

DUNU ROY, social activist, The Hazards Center: I do not think that India is lacking in terms of an imperialist mentality.

Tension with the West

SIMON MARKS: Dunu Roy, a New Delhi-based social activist, argues that the new pro-Western trends in Indian foreign policy are at odds with the non-violent principles of Mahatma Gandhi, who led the Indian struggle for independence.

DUNU ROY: So much for our Hindu way of life, for our traditions that we want to make friends with the Western democracies. I don't think the two match.

Who's exporting all their toxic waste to India? It's France, Germany, all those Western democracies we admire so much. We are getting their waste. The U.S. Pepsi shipload of waste comes into Chennai so that it can be dealt with here. Why not in the U.S.?

SIMON MARKS: But other prominent Indian voices argue that's old-style thinking, rooted in a time when India was a close ally of the Soviet Union.

Today, as the country's economy expands and India expresses a new confidence on the world stage, novelist and author Gurcharan Das argues it needs a close relationship with Washington to balance the pressures it faces in its own region.

GURCHARAN DAS, author, "India Unbound": I value it because our two neighbors, Pakistan and China, are allies. They're military allies. In fact, they're nuclear arms allies, where China has given nuclear technology to Pakistan.

So as just a prudent citizen of India, I worry. I worry. And I feel we do need friends in a world where -- when both your neighbors are in this kind of an alliance.

SIMON MARKS: The Indian government says it seeks to create a world of justice, equity, security and hope, but it's a global ambition that is being pursued in one of the world's unruliest neighborhoods.

The foreign ministry's soundtrack of therapeutic music remains an expression of harmony that has not yet been realized in many of India's changing global relationships.