Courtship of India: A Strategic Match

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

Is the United States beginning to play an India “card” against China? Or, if not, what’s driving Washington’s recent and growing fascination with India?

Sure, India is the world’s second most populous country--and by far its largest democracy. Sure, it’s potentially a huge market for American goods. Sure, Indian Americans (now more than 1.2 million) are an important constituency with growing political clout in California and other states.

But you could have listed all these factors eight years ago and, back then, they didn’t matter much.


The incoming Clinton administration, like its predecessors, dealt with India shabbily, if at all. India was deemed too distant for travel by presidents or secretaries of State. Its leaders were thought to be too querulous and demanding. In the official Washington viewpoint, Russia and China were serious business; India was a sideshow.

Now the policy is rapidly changing. Last March, President Clinton became the first American president to visit India in more than two decades. And last week, he welcomed Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for a state visit, the second summit meeting between the two governments in seven months.

Indeed, Clinton’s overtures to India have been one of the most significant policy shifts of his final year in office.

What Clinton has accomplished, to his credit, is to begin treating India as one of the world’s leading powers, rather than thinking of India merely as a rival to Pakistan within South Asia. The new U.S. policy is finally recognizing that India is more important for American interests than is Pakistan.

The Indians are delighted. “The earlier [American] idea of maintaining a parity between India and Pakistan has been broken, and that’s all to the good,” Indian National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra said in an interview Sunday.

Ironically, the Clinton administration’s romance with India has blossomed forth two years after Vajpayee’s government incurred Washington’s wrath with its series of nuclear tests.

“This is an acknowledgment that we can’t roll back those tests,” observes Jonathan Pollack, a specialist on Asia at the Rand Corp.

Still, the nagging question remains: Why is this happening now? And to answer that, you have to look at the broader U.S. effort to foster a balance of power in Asia.

China has the biggest and fastest-growing military in Asia. At the moment, Washington doesn’t know how it should deal with China. So far, at least, the official American policy is to “engage” China, not to contain it; Tuesday’s vote in the Senate to grant China permanent normal trade relations stands as testament to that fact.

But Washington also is hedging its bets, carefully cultivating ties with the other Asian military powers, just in case engagement with China doesn’t work.

India is a component of this strategy, but not the only one.

Look at Clinton’s planned visit to Vietnam in November. It will no doubt be portrayed as a warm story, a journey of personal and national reconciliation for America and its president. But underlying the trip will be hard strategic calculations as well.

Of course, U.S. officials regularly insist that the new amity between Washington and New Delhi has nothing to do with the rising power of China.

“The relationship with India is not a zero-sum game with our relationship with China,” said Bruce Reidel of Clinton’s National Security Council at a press briefing last week. “We believe that both of these countries are countries we have to have strong ties of engagement with.”

Maybe. Yet it’s worth recalling that a quarter-century ago, American officials used to make similar claims about the U.S. courtship of China--that it had nothing at all to do with offsetting Soviet power.

“I knew that, publicly, one had to make pious noises to the effect that U.S.-Chinese normalization had nothing to do with U.S.-Soviet rivalry,” wrote Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security advisor, in his memoirs. In truth, he confessed, he thought about the anti-Soviet elements of China policy “a great deal.”

For their part, the Indians also try to downplay the China factor in their warming ties with America. Mishra acknowledged, however, that “India is now regarded as a country that provides a balance in Asia.”

At the moment, New Delhi’s biggest worry seems to be that the United States will go ahead with a missile-defense system without thinking about how that might indirectly affect India.

China might respond to American missile defenses by rapidly increasing its offensive missile capabilities, the Indians fear. In addition, a U.S. missile-defense system could conceivably deepen the already growing military relationship between Russia and China.

“If Russia and China were drawn into strategic cooperation because of U.S. decisions on missile defense, that’s got to be an Indian nightmare,” observed Pollack.

In short, there are broad strategic concerns propelling the United States and India into a new relationship with one another.

The last two years, said Mishra, have demonstrated that “even a nuclear India is a responsible India.” The Clinton administration seems to have swallowed hard and then accepted, nervously, this new reality.