Behind the scenes, Madhav Das Nalapat is transforming diplomacy
CLEO PASKAL | Mar 11, 2005
While China is hogging the headlines, the other billion-plus Asian giant is quietly making friends and influencing economies. Once-sleepy India has visibly changed in the last decade as it begins the process of joining up with the global marketplace. Its economy is opening up, it is a declared nuclear power, its software and biotech industries are booming, and it is increasingly being seen as a safe investment alternative to China. But India's new diplomatic initiatives are also leading to some dramatic shifts in the global balance of power, and a case in point is the evolving relationships, watched over by a mysterious backroom matchmaker, between India and the United States and Israel.
Ties were once strained because of the Cold War: India was close to the Soviet Union; Israel and the U.S. were allies(until 1992, the Jewish state was not even allowed to set up an embassy in India). Washington's enduring coolness toward New Delhi after the collapse of the Soviet Union didn't help. But there were individuals who saw the need for closer relations. Among them was Martin Sherman, a lecturer in political science at Tel Aviv University. He recalls being at a conference in New Delhi in 1998, just after the Indians had exploded their first nuclear device. "The American ambassador for non-proliferation and I were the only non-Indians attending," Sherman says. "He was very harsh with the Indians. I just applied the basic principles of balance of power and profitability of the Indian sector." In other words, the increasing geopolitical weight of India could be used to advantage by the West, even as the country's growing middle class was becoming a desirable market.
In Sherman's eyes, Israel and India had much in common. Both were concerned with Islamic fundamentalism, both were developing high-tech economies, and both were democracies among autocratic states. But in part because of the Cold War past, it was difficult to bring the two countries together, and also warm relations between New Delhi and Washington. Enter the matchmaker: Madhav Das Nalapat.
Formerly the editor of the Times of India, and now a professor of geopolitics at Manipal Academy of Higher Education(an elite private university in southern India), Nalapat has no formal role in government, although he influences policy at the highest levels. During the days when India was frozen in the Cold War block, there was not much attention being paid to his view that closer economic ties with the U.S. would be better than ties to the U.S.S.R. But in 1991, one of his mentors, P. V. Narasimha Rao, took over as prime minister and put together an informal "kitchen cabinet," including Nalapat, to develop new ideas on economics and national security.
Nalapat knew, as he now recalls, that "the only countries that made rapid economic progress in the 1980s were those friendly to the U.S." But with the U.S. and Indian foreign policy establishments still allergic to each other, an icebreaker was needed. The Indian diaspora in the U.S. -- one of the most prosperous and educated groups in that country -- was seemingly made-to-order, not only in helping convince Washington to forgive India's pro-Moscow Cold War tilt, but also using networks of family and friends in India to chip away at the hostility of several key officials toward a warming of ties with the U.S.
Nalapat started promoting the creation of formal networks among Americans of East Indian descent in 1992. By 1995, Indian-Americans had formed lobbying organizations in Washington that were modelled -- not accidentally -- on the successful Jewish-American groups. Here also was a backdoor way to encourage closer relations between Israel and India: Nalapat saw Jewish-Americans as the perfect ally for Indian-Americans in Washington. "Indians and Jews shared a sense of humour and slightly chaotic minds," he says. "They were born to be close." By 1999, the alliance between the two diasporas had begun to resonate on Capitol Hill.
The relationship became so strong that, in 2003, they played a large part in successfully lobbying the American government to allow Israel to sell Phalcon airborne early warning radar systems to India. In fact, in a decade India and Israel have gone from the skimpiest official relationship to Jerusalem being the second largest defence supplier to India(after Russia). The new Indo-Israeli-U.S. security trio came out of the closet in 2003, with Nalapat hosting a high-level trilateral conference in New Delhi. The following year the conference was held in Herzliyya, Israel; a third will be held this month in Washington.
Nalapat has also turned his gaze toward Taiwan, a country he considers important to the balance of power in Asia. Because of a hesitation to provoke China -- which shares a 3,400-km border with India -- New Delhi had gingerly avoided closer contact with the island powerhouse whose exports are more than double India's. However, because of concern about China's growing might, several policy-makers in New Delhi are appreciative of Nalapat's call to develop close scientific and business links with Taiwan. Since 2003, some key officials from both countries have been quietly visiting each other, and more than 5,000 Indian high-tech personnel now work in Taiwan.
To the Taiwanese, Nalapat has stressed commonalities: India and Taiwan are both democracies, something important to the Americans; India excels in software, Taiwan dominates in hardware; India needs investment, Taiwan is looking to diversify. Some of that investment would be in India's high-tech sector. And there is also the lure of India's $150-billion infrastructure market: India needs roads, ports and the like -- projects in which the Taiwanese have much experience.
But the matchmaker is playing an even larger game. His new proposal, pitched to Pentagon officials in September 2003, is for a North America-Asia Treaty Organization(NAATO), anchored by the U.S. and India, that would serve as a security system for Asian democracies. Canada would also be a partner, along with Japan, Singapore, Australia and South Korea.
The Americans may be listening. The "core coalition" announced in December 2004 by George W. Bush to fight the effects of the killer tsunami was comprised of the very same countries intended to form the heart of NAATO: the U.S. and India, along with Japan and Australia. While the latter two are no surprises, the presence of India, and the exclusion of China, is indicative of the future direction of alliances between North America and Asia. This is the first time that India has been at the core of a U.S. alliance. And the announcement of the tsunami coalition was closely followed by the visit of a U.S. delegation to New Delhi to discuss integrating India into the Bush administration's missile defence plan.
That India has a vital role to play in U.S. strategic interests is clear. "Who controls the Indian Ocean is very important," Sherman notes. "It is a major passage for smuggling arms and equipment for terrorist activity. It is preferable for India to control it than Iran. A strong Indian navy in the Indian Ocean is important for Israel and the United States. India is a strong source of stability in the area."
Informally, NAATO is already starting to come together. The Singaporean military now trains in India. American warships refuel at Indian ports. Indian ships escort U.S. vessels through parts of the region. Both Japan and Australia have begun joint military exercises and intelligence sharing with India. Anything seems possible, as long as the matchmaking continues.