Indian envoy Nirupama Rao urges stronger U.S.-India military ties
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nirupama Rao, one of India’s most dynamic diplomats, supports increased strategic relations between her country and the United States.
Given India’s $4 trillion economy and continuing instability in nearby Pakistan and Afghanistan, she said it is only natural that U.S. companies would look to India as a huge potential market for military hardware.
“India already has 1.2 billion inhabitants and our economy ranks fourth in purchasing power parity,” Rao said. “If we keep growing at 8 [percent] to 8.5 percent, we’ll be poised to become the third-largest economy in the world.”
India has gained such prominence worldwide that its currency, the rupee, has its own internationally accepted symbol — which combines a capital “R” with the Devanagari “ra” — alongside the dollar, the euro, the British pound and the Japanese yen.
The world’s largest democracy is the fifth-largest aid donor to Afghanistan and enjoys international support in its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Rao, who joined the Foreign Service at the age of 22, has served as her country’s ambassador to Peru, Bolivia and Sri Lanka, as well as its foreign secretary for two years prior to her current posting in the United States. The ambassador was recently interviewed at her official residence here, just as she began preparing for the visit of her boss, Foreign Minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna, for the next round of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue.
Krishna and his counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are expected to reaffirm their partnership on stability in Afghanistan following the planned 2014 pullout of U.S. troops and discuss joint efforts in counterterrorism.
“This dialogue has matured in the last few years and encompasses almost every field of human endeavor: health care, education, agriculture, monsoon forecasting, energy efficiency and climate change,” the ambassador said. “Increasingly in the last few years, we’ve seen the manner in which India and the United States have drawn closer.”
India among U.S.’s best customers for military hardware
That’s a far cry from the early 1970s, when the United States was a staunch ally of anti-communist Pakistan in its war with India, then an ally of the Soviet Union.
“The past is completely behind us,” Rao said. “Every country learns from history, and there is growing recognition here in the United States about India and its enormous potential. In addition, the contribution of the Indian-American community — which numbers close to 3 million — has served to reinforce our image as a very responsible global power.”
When it comes to business, the United States and India are tighter than ever. Bilateral trade has jumped from $9 billion in 1995 to around $100 billion today. Most of that growth is being driven by domestic demand and by India’s rapidly growing middle class, which is projected to include 583 million people by 2025.
“Our objective is to increase the share of manufacturing in our GDP to about 25 percent in the next 10 years,” Rao said. “If you go to cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad, you’ll find all the major Fortune 500 companies there, investing in software, IT, research and innovation.”
India also is one of the best customers of the United States when it comes to defense, having spent $8 billion on U.S. weapons in the last five years alone.
In fact, India, which has embarked on an $80 billion military modernization overhaul in the next three years, recently became the world’s top arms buyer, with companies from BAE Systems Inc. to France’s Dassault Aviation looking to cash in on the country’s defense market.
Rao: ‘Our right to defend ourselves cannot be questioned’
But India’s growing military might has sparked concerns of a regional arms race. The successful April launch of the Agni 5, a ballistic missile able to reach Beijing and Shanghai, propelled India into an elite club of nations that boast long-range nuclear weapons capability.
Days later, Pakistan launched its own intermediate-range ballistic missile, triggering fears of heightened tensions not only between New Delhi and Islamabad, but between India and China.
And even though India’s defense spending, as a percentage of its GDP, still less than its neighbors and its military apparatus is in need of upgrades, the steady rise in defense spending is drawing attention of other nations. A 2010 Deloitte study, for example, projected that India’s arms procurement could climb to $120 billion by 2017.
To those who question such enormous expenses in a nation where 500 million people still do not have access to electricity, Rao has an answer: “We have to safeguard our security interests. We’re a huge country and have borders to protect. We have not indulged in violence or irresponsible behavior, and India’s defense needs are very legitimate. Our right to defend ourselves cannot be questioned.”
One thing bringing the United States and India together is the common threat of terrorism by Islamic fundamentalist groups.
The November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai killed 166 people and injured another 308 around India’s financial capital, including two luxury hotels and a Jewish center.
“We want Pakistan to bring to justice those persons who were responsible for the Mumbai attacks,” Rao said. “It’s been established that the plot to attack Mumbai emanated from Pakistani soil. The trauma of Mumbai has not gone away.”
Ambassador urges Pakistan to come clean
Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving terrorist who was captured by Indian forces, later confessed during interrogation that the attacks were conducted with the support of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. Both India and the United States have been pressing Pakistan to take action against Hafiz Saeed, the militant accused of orchestrating the 2008 attacks [the U.S. recently offered a $10 million bounty for his capture].
In fact, India has suffered from cross-border terrorism since the 1980s, Rao said.
“Terrorist groups operate from the soil of Pakistan, targeting our cities, complicating the lives of ordinary civilians and destroying our economic progress. So we have firsthand awareness and knowledge of the havoc that terrorism can wreak on an innocent population,” Rao said. “In our dialogue with Pakistan, we have sought to emphasize that they must take effective action to remove the terrorist havens on their soil and eliminate those groups.”
As if that’s not clear enough, Rao rephrased her ultimatum: “We would like Pakistan to grow economically and be a stable, peaceful country. It is our neighbor and we cannot choose our neighbors. But Pakistan must understand that unless it deals with the violence and terrorism, its own progress will be affected.”
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since both countries won independence in 1947, although some tentative progress has been made since relations plummeted following the Mumbai attacks. In April, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the first visit by a Pakistani head of state to India.
During the stop, the two leaders discussed expanding trade ties and loosening visa restrictions, with Singh saying he would visit Pakistan at some point in the future. Kashmir has also been relatively quiet, although the disputed territory, claimed by both sides, remains the most serious issue that divides the two nuclear-armed adversaries.
“Jammu and Kashmir, as I’ve always told my American friends, is an integral part of India,” Rao said. “The situation there has been improving, although the threat of terrorism and infiltration from the Pakistani-occupied part of Kashmir continues. The people of Kashmir are citizens of India, and they want peace, development and a better life for their children.”