July 1999 News

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Kashmir crisis draws United States closer to India

19 July 1999
Reuters
By: Carol Giacomo

WASHINGTON- India's restraint in the recent Kashmir crisis has created an opportunity for Washington and New Delhi to forge a more productive relationship.

The Clinton administration was making progress toward that goal when India tested a nuclear weapon in May 1998, raising fears about a South Asian arms race and short-circuiting U.S. attempts to move beyond old Cold War hostilities.

Now, even though India has moved only partly toward accepting nuclear curbs the United States has championed as a benchmark for improved ties, the administration is using the peaceful outcome in Kashmir to reengage New Delhi.

After the nuclear tests, which drew near-universal condemnation, U.S.-India dealings were conducted largely by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and focused on nuclear and security issues.

Contacts will be elevated next week in Singapore when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright holds talks with Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh on the fringes of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's annual meeting.

It will be Albright's first meeting with Singh since he became foreign minister.

"What this represents is that we've got a relationship with India that's becoming more complicated and richer and more mature. We have more business to do with each other than in the past," one U.S. official told Reuters.

Added another U.S. official, "We've reestablished a good rapport with the Indian government which had been somewhat damaged following the Indian nuclear tests."

The worst Kashmir-related fighting in 30 years, begun when Pakistani-backed forces crossed over the disputed province's Line of Control into Indian-held areas, provided the impetus.

Instead of backing Pakistan, its Cold War ally, the United States warned Islamabad to withdraw to its own side, sent a senior military officer to Islamabad to press Pakistan to pull back and helped organize a statement by the Group of Seven industrial nations criticizing the Pakistani incursion.

President Bill Clinton became directly involved, inviting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Washington for a visit that produced an agreement by Sharif to withdraw his forces.

The president, mindful of the acute sensitivities of the two nuclear rivals, telephoned India's prime minister and invited him to the White House at a future date.

"I think it's fair to say that for a long time the Indians assumed the United States would be opposed to India and its interests and the fact that we took an objective look at this situation was something of a surprise for the Indians," one U.S. official said.

U.S. perceptions were also favorably influenced.

"The Indians handled (the crisis) with a high degree of responsibility and prudence by not crossing the Line of Control" cease-fire line, the official said.

Officials were also impressed when Indian troops buried the bodies of a number Pakistani militants killed in the fierce fighting on the steepest Himalayan peaks.

Because Pakistan long denied it controlled the invasion force, it could not claim the bodies. "That kind of maturity and respectful behavior (by India) colors how a relationship develops," one U.S. official said.

The United States long looked at South Asia through a Cold War prism. During the years of U.S.-Soviet rivalry, India was close to Moscow while Pakistan was a critical base and partner for U.S.-backed Afghan militants resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979.

Increasingly, however, American experts and officials have argued for a more robust U.S. engagement in South Asia.

India, the world's largest democracy, was judged especially attractive because of its enormous commercial potential and the fact that, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, "it has the potential to emerge as a full-fledged major power."

Some analysts said the upturn in U.S.-Indian ties came at the expense of U.S.-Pakistani ties. But some U.S. officials insisted relations with Islamabad were also strengthened, in part due to Clinton's dealings with Sharif.

Albright will not meet Pakistan's foreign minister in Singapore because his country does not belong to the ASEAN regional security group, officials said.

India and Pakistan, after both testing nuclear weapons, agreed in September 1998 they would try to sign an international test ban by September 1999.

While both states made some progress toward accepting nuclear curbs, U.S.-led negotiations were stymied by the Kashmir crisis and new Indian elections called for September.

Because of the Indian polls and the mistrust created by Pakistan's Kashmir incursion, U.S. officials said it was unlikely India and Pakistan will sign the test ban this autumn. Reviving a direct India-Pakistan dialogue might also take time, they said.

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