Multipolar’s the Way to Go for US

One of the first stories I covered as the Business Times correspondent in Washington in the early 1990s was the post-Cold War transformation of the relationship between the United States and India.

India was beginning to shed the vestiges of its earlier policies of socialism at home and nonalignment abroad. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Russia’s presence in Afghanistan eroded the foundations of the U.S. strategic alliance with India’s rival Pakistan.

In the new global realities of the 1990s – when Washington was placing a major emphasis on searching for trade and investment opportunities, and against the backdrop of the rising political power of the Indian-American community – it was inevitable that the world’s two largest democracies would start a process of strengthening their diplomatic, military, and business ties.

Even the decision by India to become a declared nuclear military power in 1998 and the close military cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan in the aftermath of 9/11 have not impeded the move toward growing links between Washington and Delhi.

A "Natural Alliance"

If anything, the recent visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington and the announcement he and U.S. President George W. Bush made on July 18 of a new agreement for the U.S. to cooperate with India’s civilian nuclear industry suggest that the relationship between these two nations is acquiring all the characteristics of a “natural alliance.”

At the geo-economic level, the U.S. has become India’s largest trade partner while investment in India has totaled close to $37 billion in 2005. Like China, India recognizes that it needs infusions of U.S. technology and investments in order to become a major global player. But as in the case of China, the rising U.S. economic ties with India have also ignited protectionist pressures on Capitol Hill as the Bush administration resists calls to restrict outsourcing of service jobs to India.

At the geo-strategic level, the two countries agreed on the “New Framework for U.S.-India Defense Relations” signed by their defense ministers last month, which commits them to combat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to develop a defense-strategy dialogue and intelligence exchanges. There have also been discussions between Washington and Delhi of plans to launch joint military operations.

These geo-economic and the geo-strategic agendas reflect the common interests of India, which wants to become a great power, and of the U.S., which wants to maintain its position as a great power.

In fact, American officials have stressed that the U.S. wants to “help India become a world power in the 21st century.” The approach could be regarded as an example of how a reigning power that is interested in preserving the status quo can co-opt an up-and-coming power whose rise could potentially pose a revolutionary challenge to the international system.

But it’s important at this early stage of the evolution of the partnership between the two nations to apply realistic expectations, especially when it comes to the U.S. side, where some observers are already assigning to India a role as a junior partner in an alliance aimed at advancing U.S. global interests, and in particular, in counterbalancing Chinese power in Asia.

From their perspective, India, not unlike Japan, should be encouraged to strengthen its military only under the umbrella of U.S. leadership.

Hence, some of the neoconservative policy wonks who have been the driving force behind the American imperial policy in the Middle East and the tough approach toward China have been toying with the idea that a strategic alliance between Washington and Delhi could help the Americans establish stability and implant democracy in the Broader Middle East and that India should join the U.S. in containing Chinese power in Asia.

In that context, India’s navy could become a bulwark against aggressive Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean, its troops could serve in peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its nuclear military power could deter a nuclear Iran.

In one of those strategic fantasies concocted by the neocons, the U.S. and India, together with Britain and Australia, could become the nucleus of a new geo-strategic axis of democratic and free-market-oriented Anglo-American nations – the so-called Anglosphere. Joined by Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, and the New Europe, the Anglosphere would help deal with the major threats facing the democratic West: radical Islam, communist China, authoritarian Russia, and a weak Old Europe.

Reflecting similar views, officials in the Pentagon have also been advancing the notion that India could help the Americans contain the Chinese. A 2002 report commissioned by the Pentagon concludes that both the U.S. and China regard India as a “strategic threat” and that “India will create a countervailing force to China.”

But there is a more realistic way of looking at the developing partnership between Washington and Delhi: not as a way to co-opt a rising India into a U.S.-led alliance to contain China and help preserve the hegemonic role of the U.S. in a unipolar system, but instead as part of a process in which the U.S. takes steps to encourage India to join an evolving multipolar system in which the Americans would be willing to share power with new rising players, including India and China.

From that perspective, India and the U.S., sharing some common values and interests, could adopt a cooperative strategy in some geo-strategic and geo-economic policy areas. Hence, the presence of India’s navy in the Malacca Straits benefits U.S. interests, while U.S. efforts to prevent the emergence of a radical Islamic regime in Afghanistan fits with India’s strategy.

The two countries could occasionally cooperate in keeping in check China’s influence in Myanmar and other parts of Asia where they share common interests. But that should not mean that the two nations are allied against China.

If anything, the rise of India as a great power can only be understood in the context of a trilateral relationship between the United States, India, and China.

Indeed, this is the view that Indian policymakers apply in their dealings with Washington and Beijing: They are aiming at establishing geo-strategic and geo-economic partnerships with both the U.S. and China, reflecting the shift toward a multipolar international system.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that just as it was strengthening its defense ties with Washington, Delhi also launched a historic “strategic partnership for peace and prosperity” with China on April 11 as part of an effort to end the Sino-Indian border dispute on Aksai-Chin, as well as to boost their economic ties.

At the same time, both Washington and Beijing maintain strong ties with Pakistan, India’s traditional rival, while the U.S., India, and China work together to contain the spread of radical Islam in South and Central Asia and to ensure security in the sea lanes to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf.

Junior Partner

And while the U.S. hopes that India will help it in establishing security in and exporting democracy to the Middle East, including by isolating Iran, India insists on strengthening its ties with Iran, an important source of energy resources.

At the same time, India’s large Muslim population – not to mention the sense of nationalism and independence shared by its political elites – place major obstacles on any strategy in which the Indians play a role of a junior partner in helping manage U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.

Moreover, while officials and business executives are now celebrating the expanding economic ties between India and the United States, one should expect that as India becomes a stronger economic power, protectionists in Washington will start to scapegoat it in the same way that they are treating China these days.

It’s quite possible that the neoconservative religion – that believes that democracies are destined to establish everlasting strategic bonds as a way of dealing with non-democratic players – may be coloring the views of officials and analysts in Washington with regard to the U.S. relationship with India and China. Instead, they should understand that national security and economic interests are and will be the main driving force in international relations, and it is in the American interest to find the right balance in Washington’s relationship with Delhi and Beijing.

The U.S. should not try to put all its eggs in India’s basket while alienating China – in the same way that the Indians are certainly going to hedge their strategic and economic bets when it comes to Washington and Beijing.

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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