Two-Way Strategic Bets

Another day, another foreign policy statement. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent oped piece in Foreign Policy magazine titled “America’s Pacific Century” helps put some perspective on where India fits into the US’s larger strategic view.

The key sentence, for me, was: “the United States is making a strategic bet on India’s future.”

She gets gushy after that, saying the bet is that a greater global role by India “will enhance peace and security,” that India’s science capabilities will make the world a better place, that Indian democracy will “inspire others to follow a similar path of openness and tolerance,” and so on.

But the strategic bet metaphor is a good one. While some Indians think otherwise, India is still a tier-two player on the global scene. Its enormous domestic problems mean its political class is consumed by the home front, its intellectual class is isolationist and its strategic class remains uncertain how much overseas wear and tear the social fabric of India can absorb.

India could/might/potentially be a major global player in the future. And, if so, it would be a force for the good, that being defined as liberal democracies. But it might also remain isolationist, preferring to free ride on an international system where the decisions and dirty work are left to others. It could also become a European Union type civilian power in which it is passive and non-military in its actions. It could also become an imperialist, fundamentalist, pain in the global neck.

On the surface and given the events of the past year, the US bet on India, sparked by Bill Clinton and really taken up a notch by George W. Bush, doesn’t seem to paying off too well. It isn’t so much that India won’t be buying nuclear reactors or US fighters. It is also the lack of evidence of any high level political commitment to the relationship in India, a waning of enthusiasm being reflected back in Washington. Every knows Manmohan Singh is big on America, but he also seems to be unwilling to invest any time or effort in the relationship either.

But underneath, argue both Indian and US diplomats, there is a fair amount of stuff going on. The two countries have never been so close in hard-core security issues like intelligence, counterterrorism and so on. India is buying or looking into purchasing so much US military equipment that even without the fighters, its military will be fundamentally changed over the next few decades into a much more US friendly structure. Trade is heading for $100 billion, visas are close to a million both ways each year, and the regional dialogues on East Asia and other parts of the world have been a surprising hit. The last reflects what is a broad truth: India and the US more or less share the same worldwide objectives; they differ only on tactics and, in some cases, because New Delhi just thinks some issues are too remote to worry about (India, thus, will not have a position on the political crisis in Cote d’Ivoire. Why should it?).

But the US takes its strategic bet on India more seriously than perhaps it lets on in public. Though Hillary Clinton only devoted a few paragraphs to India in her article, it was noticeable how few concerns were expressed about India per se. No worries about India’s military growth. No worries about it being an economic competitor. India’s rise, as it has been pointed out, doesn’t raise too many scare scenarios among many countries – and the US least of all.

Is India taking a strategic bet on the US? Don’t think it’s much of a bet. The real issue is whether India wants or does not want to be a major global player. That’s the choice it has to make in terms of getting its economy right, polity reformed and so on. If it does follow that path, then the US is the obvious– virtually the only— partner it can have in taking it.

India’s bet is on itself. The US side of things follows automatically afterwards.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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