Stop Viewing India as a Threat

July 17, 2001 • Commentary

American policymakers often display a suspicious attitude toward India, but Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld apparently wants to outdo all of his predecessors. None of them managed to group democratic India with the likes of Iran and North Korea. But Rumsfeld recently did, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The offending comments came during the secretary’s criticism of Russia as “an active proliferator.” Rumsfeld accused the Russians of selling weapons to and assisting “countries like Iran and North Korea and India which are threatening … the United States and Western Europe.” Russia’s transfer of military technology to Iran and North Korea is a matter of concern. But what could have possessed Rumsfeld to include India in the same breath?

At the least, his comments suggest a familiar (and unhealthy) attitude toward India. Indeed, they are much more in tune with the policy pursued by the Clinton administration than that signaled by George W. Bush during the presidential campaign.

Under Clinton, the United States treated India primarily as a problem. American leaders saw India’s feud with Pakistan as a potential threat to peace, and they viewed New Delhi’s close ties to Moscow with suspicion. Most of all, India was considered an obstacle to Washington’s goal of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. When India tried to acquire a strategic deterrent by conducting a series of nuclear tests in 1998, the Clinton administration responded by imposing economic sanctions.

Candidate Bush seemed to hold a different attitude. In a foreign policy speech in 1999, he described India as a rising great power and stressed the potential for economic and political cooperation between the world’s most powerful democratic country and the world’s most populous democratic country.

Rumsfeld’s gaffe may damage the prospect for improved relations — at least in the short term. But the instincts Bush showed in his speech are sound. Indeed, Washington should give the highest priority to cultivating ties with New Delhi. India has the potential to be a major American economic partner. Equally important, India has the potential to be a major strategic player and alleviate some of the security burdens the United States is bearing throughout the long arc from the Persian Gulf to East Asia.

Economically, India appears to be about where China was in the mid‐​1980s: It is abandoning the command economy policies that retarded its economic growth since the country became independent. Privatization and deregulation steps are going forward. Growth rates have been between 6 and 7 percent the past two years. Given its larger reservoir of educated citizens and its niche in high‐​technology, India’s economic progress in the coming years may well equal or surpass the torrid pace that China has set since the onset of reforms in that country more than two decades ago.

India is also on its way to being a great power militarily. New Delhi increased its military budget some 27 percent in 2000 and intends to raise spending nearly another 13 percent this year. A large portion of that spending is going to modernize the air force and navy, including building aircraft carriers and submarines. In short, India is determined to have a first‐​rate military and is putting money behind that objective.

The United States should exploit rather than resist such developments. India has indicated its intention of being the leading power throughout the South Asia‐​Indian Ocean region. Among other things, that would mean taking an interest in the stability of the Persian Gulf — a thankless and frustrating task now undertaken by the United States.

India is also a logical strategic counterweight to China in East Asia. There is little doubt that New Delhi frets about China’s rising power and worries about possible PRC expansionism a decade or two from now. Indeed, Indian officials cited concerns about China as the principal reason for the decision to acquire a nuclear capability. Since then, Indian naval vessels have sailed into the South China Sea to participate in joint anti‐​piracy missions with the navies of various Southeast Asian countries. American leaders need to get past the obsolete images of India as the home of sclerotic socialism, feckless pacifism, or anti‐​American mischief making.

Whatever the truth of those images in the past, they do not resemble today’s India — much less the great power that it is becoming. Bush policymakers need to treat India with respect and recognize that Indian and American economic and strategic interests are likely to coincide far more often than they conflict. Rumsfeld’s comments aside, India is not an adversary of America — unless shortsighted U.S. actions turn it into one.

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