India Rising

By Cohen, Stephen P. | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

India Rising


Cohen, Stephen P., The Wilson Quarterly


In the wake of dramatic nuclear tests, quickening economic growth, and a highly publicized American presidential visit, India seems ready to take its place among the world's leading nations. But for that to happen, India will need to act like a major power, and the United States will need to recognize how much India has changed.

Since its birth as a nation more than 50 years ago, India has seemed poised on the edge of two very different futures. On one side lay greatness; on the other, collapse. That drama has now ended and a new one has begun. The specter of collapse has passed and India is emerging as a major Asian power, joining China and Japan. The 1998 nuclear tests in the Rajasthan desert that announced India's entry into the nuclear club only served to underscore the nation's new stature. India has begun economic reforms that promise at last to realize its vast economic potential. It possesses the world's third largest army. It occupies a strategic position at the crossroads of the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. Its population, which crossed the one billion mark this year, may surpass China's within two decades. It is the site of one of the world's oldest civilizations, a powerful influence throughout Asia for thousands of years, and for the last 53 years, against all odds, it has maintained a functioning demo cracy.

For most of those 53 years, the United States and India have maintained a strained relationship -- a relationship that has not been helped by years of American neglect and misunderstanding. Now there are signs of change. Despite the administration's anger over India's nuclear tests, Bill Clinton in March became the first American president to visit the subcontinent in more than two decades. Addressing the Indian Parliament, he acknowledged the richness of Indian civilization, noted the country's economic and scientific progress, and praised its adherence to democratic norms. "India is a leader," Clinton said, "a great nation, which by virtue of its size, its achievements, and its example, has the ability to shape the character of our time." Yet he tactfully noted areas of American concern and expressed alarm about Kashmir, India's relations with Pakistan, and nuclear proliferation. Speaking less guardedly before his visit, he had called the Indian subcontinent "perhaps the most dangerous place in the world."

Before winning independence in 1947, India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, an important military resource in a location of great geostrategic significance. But the Cold War diminished India's importance. Because it did not play a significant role in the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the Western alliance, the superpowers often took India for granted. At most, the two sides saw India as a potential counter to the People's Republic of China on the international chessboard -- but only one of several.

American and Indian interests in China did briefly run along parallel lines. In the late 1950s, when the United States tried to weaken the Chinese hold on Tibet, the Indians provided a refuge for the Dalai Lama. When the short India-China war broke out in 1962 over what remains one of the world's longest contested borders, Washington sent a military mission to India and supplied the country with small arms and a defensive radar system. This was a period of intense cooperation, with joint military exercises, U.S. military assistance, and U.S. help in setting up India's foreign intelligence service. President John F. Kennedy saw the competition between India and China as a struggle between the world's largest democracy and communism for the future of all of Asia; he continued the shift toward India that had begun in the last years of the Eisenhower administration. Kennedy praised the "soaring idealism" of Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister from 1947 to 1964 (although his contacts with Nehru were to prove disillu sioning). …

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