On Point: America's Evolving Passage to India

by Austin Bay
October 26, 2010

President Barack Obama's looming post-election state visitto India is another indication of evolution and maturation -- the incrementalbut genuine change measured in decades that marks the coalescing of U.S. andIndian global interests.

Media coverage has thus far portrayed the trip as either apresidential escape from an anticipated midterm electoral defeat or amultibillion dollar weapons-peddling expedition with the president as salesmanin chief.

These near-term interpretations both contain a grain oftruth, but they shouldn't obscure the truly compelling story: the greatU.S.-India rapprochement is one of the early 21st century's major historicevents. To illustrate, let's go to the 21st century map of India, and view itand President Obama's visit from the perspective of a Chinese admiral sittingin Beijing.

The Indian subcontinent physically dominates the IndianOcean. China, seeking to assure a steady supply of raw materials and energy forits expanding economy, has invested a lot of time and money in Africa and theMiddle East. Tankers carry oil from Sudan and merchant vessels cobalt from theCongo to Chinese ports. These ships pass through waters patrolled by the IndianNavy, which is a rather formidable and increasingly modern force.

Our Chinese admiral knows his history. China's 1950 invasionof Tibet riled India. China's military support of Pakistan and its clandestineencouragement of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program also irritate New Delhi. In1962, India and China fought the Sino-Indian War along their Himalayanfrontier. That war remains something of a "frozen" conflictpolitically, and given the altitude, literally. Despite negotiations, theborder dispute is not quite resolved.

Should another conflict erupt, the Indian Navy is positionedto damage if not strangle China's economy. Moreover, India just might haveAmerica on its side. For over two decades, American strategists have touted thelogic of an Indo-American alliance based on linguistic and cultural connections,accelerating economic cooperation and -- well, here's the gist of it -- anincreasing interest in curbing Chinese hegemony in Asia.

Sept. 11 and Islamist terrorist attacks in India forgeanother common cause. As for mutual economic interests, an Indian technicianfixing an American computer from a call center in Bangalore is a tellingindicator. The Indian government, unlike China's, does not fear globalconnectivity.

Chinese admirals aren't the only ones who see theimplications of this strategic merger. Diplomats in New Delhi and Washingtonare quite aware of it.

Mention "alliance" and the U.S. in the samesentence, however, and India's left-wing parties go berserk. Indianultra-nationalists who still rail about British colonialism remain deeplysuspicious of political entanglements with the U.S. -- though there seems to belittle objection to cooperating with other former British colonies likeAustralia and Singapore.

So "alliance" is a word Indian and Americandiplomats intentionally avoid. Three years ago, I interviewed James Clad -- atthe time the Department of Defense's deputy assistant secretary for South andSoutheast Asia -- about the prospects for a formal U.S.-India defense alliance.Clad demurred. "We're not looking for an alliance with anyone. ... It (theword "alliance") sends a wrong signal," for alliances"figure a real or potential opponent." It was a deft answer. Whyprovoke the Chinese admiral?

Clad now teaches at the National Defense University. Thispast week, he told a Reuters reporter, "The maturation of U.S.-Indiadefense ties is steady ... ." That was another deft answer, and accurate.

The relationship between India, the developing giant, andthe U.S., the developed giant, is maturing -- and Obama's presidential visit ispart of this long, involved and delicate diplomatic process that begandeveloping as the Cold War ended. It is in both India's and America's long-terminterest that this process continue. 

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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