India in the Balance

June 16, 2001 • Commentary

India is being courted by several great powers, including the United States. America would be wise to gain India’s favor.

During a recent visit to New Delhi, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage spoke warmly of India’s growing economic strength and its significant political and moral influence in world affairs. He indicated that the United States took India seriously as a rising great power. Armitage also hinted that the Bush administration was likely to lift the remaining economic sanctions (imposed when India conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998) within the next few months. For its part, New Delhi seemed receptive to Washington’s position on ballistic missile defense.

Armitage’s approach was consistent with the attitude of the Bush administration. Indeed, Bush himself signaled an interest in India as a possible U.S. strategic partner in his first major foreign policy address as a presidential candidate in late 1999.

There is good reason for viewing India in that fashion. Not only is India the world’s second most populous country, but in recent years it has begun to discard the shackles of socialist economic planning and adopt the market reforms that have spurred economic growth in several other countries. India’s economic growth rate the past two years has hovered near 6.5 percent, and according to International Monetary Fund estimates, India may have the world’s fourth largest economy by 2020.

India is also rapidly emerging as a serious military player. It is a member of the exclusive global club of nations with nuclear weapons. India’s conventional forces are being modernized, as well. Last year, New Delhi increased its military budget by some 27 percent and followed with another 14 percent this year. Also, last year, New Delhi dispatched a naval contingent to the South China Sea to participate in maneuvers with a number of Southeast Asian countries. An underlying motive, however, was to show the Indian flag in a region that Beijing has regarded as being within its sphere of influence. India could help serve as a strategic counterweight to China if Beijing should ever begin to pursue expansionist ambitions.

Unfortunately, some obstacles stand in the way of the Bush administration’s goal of making India a de facto strategic partner. During the Clinton administration, America’s actions often made New Delhi nervous. The U.S.-led NATO attack on Serbia raised fears among Indians that someday the United States might give New Delhi an ultimatum regarding the Kashmir dispute. One important reason for the recent surge in India’s military spending is to make certain that Washington can never treat Kashmir as it did the Kosovo problem.

Washington’s imposition of economic sanctions in response to India’s nuclear tests also annoyed Indians across the political spectrum. Those sanctions, reflecting the influence of the arms‐ control faction in the United States, were a monumentally bad way to treat a rising great power.

Another problem is that Moscow is again cultivating economic and strategic ties with New Delhi. Indeed, the two countries recently concluded a major arms sale agreement. More important, Russia apparently sees India as an important component of a coalition of major powers to thwart U.S. global hegemony. Three years ago, then‐ foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov openly proposed that India join a “triangular alliance” with Russia and China to promote a “multipolar world.” Even China has sought to improve relations with India. A few weeks ago, Indian and Chinese naval forces engaged in joint maneuvers.

India is clearly keeping its options open. The Bush administration would be wise to overrule the arms‐​control fanatics in middle ranks of the State Department and lift sanctions against India immediately. It should also enthusiastically support India’s ambition to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Finally, the administration should make clear to New Delhi that it has no intention whatsoever to interfere in the Kashmir dispute.

India should be a natural de facto strategic partner for the United States. With wiser diplomacy on Washington’s part, there are no serious issues on which the interests of two countries are in conflict. Conversely, there are numerous areas in which Indian and U.S. interests coincide. Chief among them are stability in the Persian Gulf and placing a limitation on China’s ambitions. A continuation of the inept diplomacy of the Clinton years, however, could drive India into the waiting arms of Russia and China.

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