India's Path to Greatness: After Decades of Dormancy, India Has Blossomed into One of Asia's Two Emerging Powers and an Important Strategic Partner of the United States. How-And Whether-It Navigates Its Rise Could Well Determine the Future of the Whole Region

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WHEN THE U.S. AIR FORCE SENT ITS PROUD F-15 fighter pilots against the Indian Air Force in the Cope India war games two years ago, it received a shock. The American pilots found themselves technologically outmatched by nimbler warplanes; tactically outsmarted by the Indian mix of high, low, and converging attack waves; and outfought by the Indians, whose highly trained pilots average more than 180 flying hours a year--roughly the same as their U.S. and Israeli counterparts and slightly more than those of NATO allies such as France and Germany. U.S. general Hal Homburg said that the results of the exercise, against Indian pilots flying Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30 and French Mirage 2000 fighters, were "a wake-up call." According to testimony in a House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing, the U.S. F-15s were defeated more than 90 percent of the time in direct combat exercises against the Indians.

But beyond the evidence of India's military expertise and its possession of state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, the real significance of the Cope India war games is that they demonstrated the extent of the cooperation between the Indian and U.S. militaries. Their mountain troops now train together in the Himalayas and Alaska, and their special forces mount joint exercises in jungle and underwater warfare. Their aircraft carrier task forces have conducted exercises in the Indian Ocean, and joint antipiracy and antisubmarine drills are routine. Indian and U.S. forces are working together with an intimacy once reserved for the closest NATO allies. The goal--that the militaries of the two countries be able to operate in lockstep--would have been inconceivable in the Cold War era, when India, with its Soviet-supplied military, was seen as a virtual client of Moscow.

The foundation Of this new relationship was laid before George W. Bush took office in the White House. In the spring of 1999, Bush, then governor of Texas, was briefed for the first time by the team of foreign-policy advisers that became known as the Vulcans, after the Roman god of fire and iron. Bush began with the frank admission that he knew little about foreign policy. The Vulcans, led by Condoleezza Rice--later to be his national security adviser and then secretary of state--delivered a broad-brush survey of the world, its problems, and its prospects, and recommended muscular American leadership in cool-headed pursuit of American interests. When the group finished, Bush had one question: What about India? Another Vulcan team member who was present, future ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, recalled asking Bush why he was so interested in India: "He immediately responded, 'A billion people in a functioning democracy. Isn't that something? Isn't that something?'"

Bush's curiosity had been stirred by a number of Indian supporters living and prospering in Texas, including some businessmen who helped build the state's high-tech corridor, dubbed Silicon Canyon. One of those businessmen was Durga Agrawal, born in Lakhanpur, a central Indian village without water or electricity, who had earned a master's degree at the University of Houston and stayed on to found a highly successful company called Piping Technology & Products and to raise more than $100,000 for the Bush presidential campaign in the local Indian community. After Bush became president, Agrawal was invited to the White House as a guest at the banquet for visiting Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, where Bush introduced him as "my good friend from Texas."

Bush's question to his Vulcans prompted Rice to include a highly significant paragraph in her January 2000 Foreign Affairs essay "Promoting the National Interest," which was widely studied as the blueprint for a Bush administration foreign policy. She contended that China should be regarded as "a strategic competitor, not the 'strategic partner' the Clinton administration once called it," and suggested that America should redirect its focus. …