by Austin Bay
October 26, 2010
President Barack Obama's looming post-election state visit
to India is another indication of evolution and maturation -- the incremental
but genuine change measured in decades that marks the coalescing of U.S. and
Indian global interests.
Media coverage has thus far portrayed the trip as either a
presidential escape from an anticipated midterm electoral defeat or a
multibillion dollar weapons-peddling expedition with the president as salesman
These near-term interpretations both contain a grain of
truth, but they shouldn't obscure the truly compelling story: the great
U.S.-India rapprochement is one of the early 21st century's major historic
events. To illustrate, let's go to the 21st century map of India, and view it
and President Obama's visit from the perspective of a Chinese admiral sitting
The Indian subcontinent physically dominates the Indian
Ocean. China, seeking to assure a steady supply of raw materials and energy for
its expanding economy, has invested a lot of time and money in Africa and the
Middle East. Tankers carry oil from Sudan and merchant vessels cobalt from the
Congo to Chinese ports. These ships pass through waters patrolled by the Indian
Navy, which is a rather formidable and increasingly modern force.
Our Chinese admiral knows his history. China's 1950 invasion
of Tibet riled India. China's military support of Pakistan and its clandestine
encouragement of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program also irritate New Delhi. In
1962, India and China fought the Sino-Indian War along their Himalayan
frontier. That war remains something of a "frozen" conflict
politically, and given the altitude, literally. Despite negotiations, the
border dispute is not quite resolved.
Should another conflict erupt, the Indian Navy is positioned
to damage if not strangle China's economy. Moreover, India just might have
America on its side. For over two decades, American strategists have touted the
logic of an Indo-American alliance based on linguistic and cultural connections,
accelerating economic cooperation and -- well, here's the gist of it -- an
increasing interest in curbing Chinese hegemony in Asia.
Sept. 11 and Islamist terrorist attacks in India forge
another common cause. As for mutual economic interests, an Indian technician
fixing an American computer from a call center in Bangalore is a telling
indicator. The Indian government, unlike China's, does not fear global
Chinese admirals aren't the only ones who see the
implications of this strategic merger. Diplomats in New Delhi and Washington
are quite aware of it.
Mention "alliance" and the U.S. in the same
sentence, however, and India's left-wing parties go berserk. Indian
ultra-nationalists who still rail about British colonialism remain deeply
suspicious of political entanglements with the U.S. -- though there seems to be
little objection to cooperating with other former British colonies like
Australia and Singapore.
So "alliance" is a word Indian and American
diplomats intentionally avoid. Three years ago, I interviewed James Clad -- at
the time the Department of Defense's deputy assistant secretary for South and
Southeast Asia -- about the prospects for a formal U.S.-India defense alliance.
Clad demurred. "We're not looking for an alliance with anyone. ... It (the
word "alliance") sends a wrong signal," for alliances
"figure a real or potential opponent." It was a deft answer. Why
provoke the Chinese admiral?
Clad now teaches at the National Defense University. This
past week, he told a Reuters reporter, "The maturation of U.S.-India
defense ties is steady ... ." That was another deft answer, and accurate.
The relationship between India, the developing giant, and
the U.S., the developed giant, is maturing -- and Obama's presidential visit is
part of this long, involved and delicate diplomatic process that began
developing as the Cold War ended. It is in both India's and America's long-term
interest that this process continue.