As the world’s largest democracy, economic behemoth and nuclear power, India’s continued emergence as a bulwark of stability in Southeast Asia is pivotal to Barak Obama’s foreign policy portfolio. Since George Bush brokered the U.S.-India nuclear agreement in 2006, the U.S has decisively tilted toward an expanded strategic relationship with New Delhi over Pakistan. Vital to America’s containment strategy of China and serving as an integrating force for Asia’s bulging regional economies, India’s stability is paramount to the U.S. and the west. When Barak Obama takes the Oval Office, ratcheting down the long arc of tension between India and Pakistan and preventing any destabilizing chaos caused by insurgencies, civil war and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, Nepal and Bengladesh will be core to his strategy of maintaining India’s viability as a major power.
India’s challenges as an emerging global power are formidable and complex. With one billion people speaking 22 official languages in 1,656 dialects, India’s democracy is rent with tension between its Hindu majority and numerous ethnic groups. India’s 130 million Muslims constitutes the second largest Muslim population of any country in the world and makes India an inviting target for Muslim extremists and Salafists. In 2007, over 1000 deaths were attributed to terrorists attacks as India has the 4th highest terrorist related death rate internationally.
The siege of Mumbai by extremists with Pakistani ties nearly provoked an Indo-Pakistani confrontation and caused outrage among the Indian people at its government’s failure to prevent the attack. The attacks underscored how India’s combustible domestic and regional issues can lead to dangerous confrontations with its volatile neighbors. Add to the equation an internal Naxalbite insurgency in 13 provinces, a civil war in neighboring Sri Lanka that has inflamed its own Tamil population for three decades and sporadic Sikh breakaway movements that have prompted deadly violence in Northwest India and Afghanistan, and you have a recipe for domestic turmoil.
As a reliable U.S. ally in a region where America has few friends, Obama’s relationship with India will begin with a strong foundation. India voted for U.N. sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program at the risk of jeopardizing its pending 25 year multi-billon dollar proposal to secure oil from Tehran. India also launched an Israeli over-watch satellite to monitor Iranian nuclear development activities. New Delhi has contributed more peacekeeping troops to international hotspots than any other nation, and grants American access to its naval ports that are critical to patrolling strategic waterways in the Indian Ocean. In 2005, India and the U.S. signed a 10-year defense agreement that expanded joint military exercises, increased defense-related trade and established a defense procurement group. The U.S. and India have conducted more than 50 military exercises since 2002, demonstrating how far the military partnership has progressed in a relatively short period.
Ironically, if not tragically India’s 911 moment in Mumbai could be the most important development since the 2006 nuclear agreement that will cement U.S.-Indian relations. When pressed on India’s right to strike Pakistan after Mumbai, Obama said “every sovereign nation has a right to defend itself.” Fortunately, India’s decision not to seek retribution against Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks marked a major step forward in its ascendency as a responsible power. An attack on Pakistan may have satisfied domestic calls for revenge but almost certainly would have led to armed clashes with Islamabad and possibly dragged other nations and non-state actors like al Queda into a regional conflagration.
However, India is stepping up its profile in Afghanistan and its virtual proxy war with Pakistan. Increasingly both countries view Afghanistan as part of its own security perimeter and India is determined to prevent a full blown Taliban resurgence. Indian embassies are up and running in Afghanistan. India is also creating stronger alliances with Kharzi and Northern Alliance forces and stirring the waters of Baluchistan resistance against Islamabad. On January 13, Khazi and Prime Minister Singh signed a joint letter urging Pakistan to stop its support of terrorist groups. India must tread carefully in Afghanistan, as many in Pakistan already subscribe to the notion that the U.S. and India are conspiring to encircle Pakistan and carve it up into small principalities.
Obama has expressed his clear support for strengthening America’s relationship with India. He has stated without reservation that Pakistan’s main threat is not India; but the growing Taliban/al Queda axis spreading in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Kashmiri terrorists. In his September 23 letter to Indian Prime Minister Singh, then Presidential candidate Obama voiced strong support for the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and called for redoubling U.S.-Indian military, intelligence and law enforcement cooperation. But Obama has also made some initial missteps with India.
Although India shares strategic interests with the United States, the Obama administration must recognize that India has its own universe of national security considerations. Kashmir is a case in point. Obama’s suggestion that he would appoint a special envoy to help resolve the Kashmir border dispute with Pakistan was well intentioned, but not well received in New Delhi. India’s government balked at the notion of an special envoy, saying Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. On November 15, Obama dispatched the new Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry to New Delhi to acknowledge that Obama had no intention of interfering in the Kashmir issue. India is open to a political settlement but is not ready to give up territory in Kashmir or surrender its independence of action. India was also alarmed at statements Obama made during his campaign that America outsourced too many jobs to India. After the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Obama and Prime Singh’s telephone conversation seems to have eased some of New Delhi’s apprehension.
Similarly, although India voted for sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, the Bush administration attempted to bully New Delhi to revoke its oil deal with Tehran. But strongarming India didn’t prevent the Chinese from underbidding India for global oil contracts, and the U.S. isn’t providing oil to heat homes in Bangalore and New Delhi. Obama will have to be prepared to accept similar tradeoffs with India, especially concerning its relationship with China.
Despite its four wars and nuclear standoffs with Pakistan since the 1947 partition, it is India’s contentious relationship with China that has enormous global implications. China is Pakistan’s most powerful ally and sponsored its drive to go nuclear. The two countries with world’s largest populations are engaged in a heated rivalry for energy resources, economic markets in Southeast Asia, and military advantage across continental Asia. India and America are both peacefully engaged with China, but both countries are troubled by China growing military strength. Neither India nor America wants Asia to be dominated by a single country. Indeed it’s hard to imagine a peaceful Asia in which there is not cooperation between India, the United States and China.
India’s $40 billion trade package with China is a promising sign of cooperation between the two economic titans, but the list of explosive issues between Beijing and New Delhi is long. Movement toward a settlement of its 1,300 mile border dispute with China has slowed to a crawl. In the meantime China’s military has breeched the border of the Indian states of Sikkim and Arunchal Pradesh on several occasions. China has also been busy developing strategic naval and trade port facilities in Sittwe, Burma; Chittatong, Bangladesh; Hambantota, Sri Lanka and its new port in Gwadar, Pakistan. Connect the dots and China’s aggressive agenda has the look and feel of a military encirclement campaign, rather than protecting sea lanes and ensuring the delivery of energy supplies as China contends.
For Barak Obama, monitoring developments between India and China will be important. The U.S. must avoid putting New Delhi in any awkward situation in which it appears that India is being pitted against China for the benefit of the United States strategic interest. The U.S. must find creative ways to support India, not intervene on its behalf. India will balk at such moves and China will react with hostility. The more India and China broaden their ongoing diplomatic talks and the U.S. engages Beijing, the greater the chances that flashpoints of conflict can be peacefully resolved.
By continuing to help India integrate its economy with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the smaller Southeast Asian nations, the United States can greatly assist in promoting stability in the Pacific Rim. With the development of India’s civil nuclear power program and working jointly on environmental issues, America and India can build a very special relationship between the largest democracies in the Western and Eastern hemispheres. India’s road ahead will be filled with twist and turns, and the avoidance of open conflict between Pakistan or China is indispensible to India’s ascent. The fact that India has come so far in building democracy in the world’s most diverse society is part of the new story of the 21st Century. A smart, nimble and patient American foreign policy toward India under the Obama Administration can truly help change the face of the Asian continent.