Friendship with India emerges as key U.S. alliance

March 01, 2006|By KARL F. INDERFURTH

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will spend two days this week in India, his presence underscoring in U.S. eyes the South Asian nation's emergence as a significant economic and political player on the world stage.

It will mark the first time that two successive American presidents have visited the world's largest democracy. President Bill Clinton traveled to India in March 2000 for a five-day trip, ending a 22-year hiatus since a U.S. president had set foot in New Delhi.

Indian officials later described Mr. Clinton's visit as "the turning point" in relations between the two countries; their ties had been regarded by some as "estranged democracies."

Since then, Mr. Bush has built on that relationship and accelerated the warming ties. The agenda between the two countries continues to grow, as evidenced by the successful visit to Washington in July of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Eight major initiatives were announced. They included a "CEO Forum" made up of top U.S. and Indian business leaders to broaden economic relations, a Global Democracy Initiative to aid developing democracies, an agreement (still to be made final and a subject of controversy in both capitals) to develop India's civilian nuclear energy program, and cooperation in space (India will carry two U.S. payloads on its forthcoming unmanned moon probe).

India's ambassador to Washington, Ronen Sen, cites biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology as further "frontiers that our scientists can explore together."

There has been a quantum jump in U.S.-India defense ties in the past several years, with joint military exercises, increased interest in defense procurement and collaboration between defense industries, and the signing of a 10-year defense framework agreement.

Influential Indians such as K. Subrahmanyan believe that increased U.S.-Indian security ties - broadly defined - make sense: "The U.S. and India have a convergence in terms of the central security challenges they will face in the future, such as terrorism; proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear technologies; international crime; narcotics; HIV/AIDS; and climate change."

The progress in U.S.-Indian relations is reflected in a pre-Bush arrival survey commissioned by the Indian magazine Outlook. It found that 66 percent of those polled agree that Mr. Bush is "a friend of India," 72 percent believe India should link itself with the U.S. on trade and business issues, and a majority say that India can trust Washington for support in times of need.

At the same time, the survey found that a majority believe that India has compromised its foreign policy by moving closer to the United States, that America is a "bully" (reflecting widespread opposition to the war in Iraq) and that India should ignore Washington's objection to the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. India views the pipeline as a long-term energy necessity, while Washington wants to isolate Iran.

Fifty percent of those polled still believe that the U.S. is closer to Pakistan, India's neighbor and nuclear rival, than to India. Mr. Bush will visit Pakistan for a day after he departs New Delhi.

There is also expressed disappointment that the United States has not supported India's candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, something Mr. Bush will hear during his visit. This is where Washington is missing an opportunity. As the National Intelligence Council, the CIA's think tank, pointed out in its report "Mapping the Global Future," the likely emergence of India and China as new major global players "will transform the geopolitical landscape in the early 21st century."

China already has a seat at the table of the United Nations' most important body. So should India.

Chester Bowles, one of a long line of distinguished former U.S. ambassadors to India, lamented in an interview in 1969 that one U.S. administration after another "ignored a major nation which is going to have in the future a very big impact on the world. But I was never able to persuade the White House and the State Department of its key importance."

But the late Mr. Bowles can rest easy because the White House and State Department finally have recognized India's significance. Mr. Bush's visit will underscore New Delhi's having joined the ranks of major world capitals to which a presidential trip is imperative rather than merely symbolic.

Karl F. Inderfurth, a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, was assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs during the Clinton administration. His e-mail is

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