Getting India Right

By Khanna, Parag; Mohan, C. Raja | Policy Review, February-March 2006 | Go to article overview

Getting India Right


Khanna, Parag, Mohan, C. Raja, Policy Review


FOR THOSE WHO missed the symbolism of Indian flags draped from the White House's Old Executive Office Building, President George Bush's words on the morning of July 18, 2005, while standing next to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, drove home an emerging reality with trademark pithiness: "The relationship between our two nations has never been stronger, and it will grow even closer in the days and years to come." Combined with the Bush administration's visible push to strengthen Japan's hand in managing Asian security, the Indian prime minister's visit to Washington cemented a growing de facto strategic partnership between the United States and India.

Numerous American officials already used the term "irreversible" to describe the course of Indo-U.S. relations. No U.S. president visited India between January 1978 and March 2000, when President Clinton made a historic trip to the Subcontinent. Cabinet-level exchanges have since become routine, and President Bush's planned visit in early spring 2006 will reflect an agenda that has come to encompass shared global interests and concerns ranging from Iran and China to nuclear cooperation and biotechnology. Some have begun to see Bush's visit to India as similar, in both intent and consequence, to that of Richard Nixon to China in 1972--which transformed Sino-U.S. relations and the global balance of power for the next three decades.

Given the bilateral tensions over nuclear proliferation in the 1990s, such strong relations are in themselves remarkable. When viewed through the prism of geopolitical shifts, however, Indo-U.S. alignment is if anything long overdue. American military and diplomatic movements from the Middle East through Central Asia to the Pacific Rim are in a state of flux for reasons ranging from the Iraqi insurgency to the Iranian nuclear crisis to the rise of vocal new regional institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and East Asian Community. Asia, where two-thirds of the world's population resides, is the new geopolitical stage. It is the principal source of the global power shift and will also face most of the political consequences. Yet the constantly shifting loyalties and alliance patterns in Asia confound both historians and experts in geometry. There is the patron-client dyad from Beijing to Islamabad, routine Russian-Chinese-Indian summitry with declarations affirming the need for multipolairty, joint Russo-Japanese and Sino-Russian military maneuvers, talk of a three-cornered nuclear calculus in the U.S.-China-India triangle, and America's attempt to transcend its historical "tilting" between India and Pakistan. The only clear inference from these asymmetrical configurations is that most Asian states continue to subscribe to an adage common to their cultures: to be polite especially to one's enemies. While all Asian powers are wary of American preponderance, they have also sought good relations with Washington. None of them was at the forefront of the worldwide criticism (led by Europe) of the American occupation in Iraq.

Historically, the U.S. has viewed the Middle East and Pacific Rim theaters as separate policy realms, with India falling in between and viewed through the exclusive prism of South Asian politics. But India lies at the crossroads of Asia, a factor which was at the heart of British policy towards the East. Only after the Second World War and the partition of the Subcontinent was India's position weakened, a shift accentuated by India's socialist and inward-looking policies. Yet as India's weight grows in the international system, it can become a strong anchor in support of America's ambition to pursue a liberal order across Eurasia. Indeed, if the U.S. should welcome the emergence of any one Asian power, it should be India, which shares America's concern over the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, sub-state nuclear proliferation, and China's ambitions. Furthermore, each Indian election entrenches its status and credibility as the world's largest democracy, and its growing economic clout and diaspora presence in the U. …

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