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Ivan Eland: Rolling the Dice on India

Rolling the Dice on India

July 25, 2005
by Ivan Eland

President George W. Bush, undeterred by the abysmal failure of his risky gamble in Iraq, is rolling the dice for even higher stakes by agreeing to share sensitive nuclear technology and advanced conventional weapons with India to aid its ascent as a world power. Such a policy could prove to be disastrous.

The administration’s fear of a rising China is driving this major policy initiative toward India. It is probably no coincidence that the policy change was announced the week after a Chinese general declared that China should use nuclear weapons against the United States upon any U.S. intervention in a China-Taiwan conflict. And, according to a recent Pentagon report, China has been increasing its defense spending.

Under last week’s agreement between President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which must be blessed by Congress, the United States would share advanced conventional weaponry and sensitive nuclear technology that can be used for both civilian and military purposes with India. In return, India pledged to continue its self-imposed moratorium on atomic testing, open its civilian atomic program (but not its nuclear arms) to international inspection, and refrain from exporting nuclear technology or materials to aspiring nuclear states.

India’s concessions in the agreement are meager because it had already decided to give up nuclear testing and moved to secure its nuclear material. More important, the agreement does not preclude India from producing weapons-grade plutonium that could be used to expand the nation’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration has said that India should become “a major world power in the 21st century.” But India is rising as a great power fast enough—even without the Bush administration’s help in providing it with better conventional and nuclear weapons. During the last decade, India has experienced phenomenal economic growth that will likely continue well into the future.

At the same time the Bush administration is pursuing an unofficial policy of “containment” toward China. The United States has strengthened Cold War-era formal and informal alliances with East Asian countries that ring China—for example, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. It has also transferred military forces to the Asia/Pacific region, and now has increased military support for India.

Although it was already obvious that any conflict over Taiwan between China and the United States, both with atomic arsenals, could go nuclear, the jury is still out on how much of a threat China will become. While China has been increasing defense spending, much of those added expenditures have gone for increases in soldiers’ pay—to keep up with the rising salaries in the rapidly growing Chinese private sector—rather than advanced weaponry. Furthermore, even the highest estimates of Chinese defense spending place it many times lower than the U.S. defense budget, which has undergone phenomenal growth since the last years of the Clinton administration.

So, although both China and India are rising as great powers, the administration is betting that India will be friendly to the United States because it is a democracy and that China will be a threat because it is not. That may be a bad bet.

First, China could go down the road of Chile, Taiwan and South Korea by opening its economy first—which it has done—and becoming more democratic later. Average Chinese citizens are already more free, both economically and politically, than they have ever been before.

Second, contrary to conventional wisdom, democracies aren’t always friendly to countries with other forms of government or even to each other. History shows that democracies are just as likely to go to war as more autocratic governments. In fact, the record of democracies launching wars against non-democracies is abysmal. The British, French, German, and other European powers’ pursuit of empires during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and U.S. wars in the Philippines, Russia, Latin America, East Asia, and especially the Middle East during the last century are obvious examples.

And the theory that democracies don’t go to war with each other because they have the same values is belied by intra-democratic wars—such as World War I, the Boer War and the war between the United States and the Confederate States of America. To illustrate the unfriendliness of some democracies toward each other, we need look no further than India itself. India has been a democracy since its founding in 1947 but aligned during the Cold War with the communist Soviet Union and had very frosty relations with the United States. In contrast, the United States supported India’s archrival, the authoritarian Pakistan.

The bottom line is that arming a rising power—whether democratic or not—is dangerous. In the future, India’s economic growth rates may exceed China’s, and the United States might then be tempted to support China to stop an aggressive Indian juggernaut that was built, in part, with U.S. help.

A strategic alliance with India is also bad for U.S. security because of the potential rise of anti-U.S. militancy in Pakistan, which could cause that nation’s nuclear arms to come under the sway of radical jihadists. Finally, providing nuclear technology to a nation that developed atomic weapons in secret and never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty guts the treaty and provides an excuse for other nuclear nations to sell such technology to their favorite client states—for example, Russia selling to Iran.

To implement its new policy toward India, the administration will need to convince Congress to change a law that prevents exporting sensitive nuclear technology to countries that don’t allow full monitoring of all nuclear facilities. The Congress should block the arming of India.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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