Now, Play the India Card

By Richardson, Lloyd | Policy Review, October-November 2002 | Go to article overview

Now, Play the India Card


Richardson, Lloyd, Policy Review


THE U.S. WAR in Afghanistan drives home this point: We can no longer afford to analyze U.S. security policy in Asia pursuant to paradigms developed to fit the realities of the Cold War. Many of these realities have changed. For example, in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union was still the principal threat to the U.S., we played the China card. The Chinese were happy to oblige, confronting the Soviet threat as they did along their common border in Central Asia. For almost two decades, that reality -- the threat posed to China by the Soviets -- ensured a degree of alignment in U.S.-China strategic interests. Through this experience we came to see our relationship with China as valuable in its own right, not simply as a foil to Soviet power. The strategic reality in Asia changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. But over a decade later, that same Cold War paradigm still makes us tend to analyze our relationship with China as though it were the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy in Asia.

By contrast, by the time we played the China card in 1971, India had been relegated to a lesser role in our strategic thinking. That was not always the case. In the first two decades of the Cold War, India and Pakistan both had been viewed as frontline states, critical to containing the expansion of Soviet and (after 1949) Chinese communism in South Asia. By the late 6os, however, India had proved to be a feckless partner -- a would-be great power, with neither the military nor the economic strength to enforce its utopian foreign policy. Worse, India in 1971 abandoned its preachy neutrality to become a full-fledged member of the Soviet camp. Pakistan, for its part, had been a more loyal ally in the Cold War, but was fractious in its relations with India. By the late 6os, both countries had come to be considered in Washington as "too difficult" to deal with. This development coincided with doctrinal changes that had begun to downplay the strategic importance of South Asia generally.

This is where the paradigm got stuck. What has evolved since is a pattern in which we ignore South Asia, including India, as irrelevant to U.S. interests --until crisis strikes. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979, South Asia suddenly became important to us again, but at that point U.S. attention was focused primarily on Pakistan as a conduit for military aid to the Afghan mujahideen. Once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, South Asia returned to the back burner.

Nuclear testing by both Pakistan and India in May 1998 provoked renewed U.S. concern with that now-nuclear rivalry, and nonproliferation economic and military sanctions followed. As a result, in the last two years of the Clinton administration, the India relationship enjoyed an unusual high-level focus, culminating in President Clinton's May 2000 trip to India, the first presidential visit in 2.2. years (perhaps fittingly, the last visit having been made by President Carter on his nonproliferation crusade).

The September 11 attacks on the United States have kept South Asia in the limelight, as we have recruited both India and Pakistan to the war on terrorism. That very war on terrorism, however, has exacerbated tensions between Pakistan and India over continuing political violence in Kashmir. The result? Another flurry of high-level diplomatic activity by the United States, seeking to defuse these tensions between our two allies. But this most recent round of activity -- successful as it was -- still fits the pattern of crisis management with India that evolved during the Cold War. What is clearly needed is a more sustained level of engagement with India. This will only happen if we begin to appreciate India's long-term strategic value to the United States. For this purpose, Kashmir, Pakistan, and even the war on terrorism are distractions. In the long term, our strategic interest in the region is plain: India is a major Asian democratic power with the potential economic and military strength to counter the adve rse effects of China's rise as a regional and world power.

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