Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Importance of India to America
Corriere della Sera - July 23rd 2009

When you are the world’s only true superpower, then every region is important to you. That is why, whenever President Barack Obama or his secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, makes a major overseas visit they always say their alliance or relationship with the region or country they are visiting is one of the most important in the world. In the case of India, where Secretary Clinton has just completed a five-day tour, the claim happens to be true. And, unusually, it is true both in terms of America’s immediate interests and its longer-term strategy.

            An American president, especially one whose predecessor was George W. Bush, always faces many more problems in foreign policy than benign and constructive issues and relationships. The problem list is dominated by Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, given the violent insurgencies that are taking place in all four countries and the American military forces that are active in three of them. To that list can always be added Israel and Palestine, to the west of Iraq, and the often tricky relationship America has with Russia, to the north, and China, further to the east.

In the middle of that collection of problems sits India—but it is also a rare example of a constructive relationship. The world’s biggest democracy, with more than one billion people and one of the fastest growing emerging economies, matters to America first of all because of its connections with Pakistan and the violent insurgencies of the region. It was a prominent victim of that violence last November, when Pakistani-trained militants committed their atrocity in Mumbai.

Such an event also makes India a potential complication in the region, because when atrocities occur on its soil the temptation to respond with military force against Pakistan is very strong. It was resisted last November. But if there were another attack like that in Mumbai, India would almost certainly retaliate with air strikes, at the very least.

That, presumably, is why Secretary Clinton made the symbolic act of staying at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, one of the targets of last November’s atrocity. It is also why she avoided the mistake made by Britain’s foreign minister, David Miliband, earlier this year of saying publicly during her visit that the long-running military confrontation between India and Pakistan in Kashmir was one cause of such terrorism. That may be true, but is hardly tactful. What America wants, given all its difficulties in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a stable, calm, resolute India, one that does nothing to stir up more violence and one that is not tempted, out of anti-American pique, to make more energy deals with the other thorn in America’s side, Iran.

So India plays a vital role in America’s immediate foreign policy actions. Yet its longer-term role is, if anything, even more vital. The rise of Asia is already a global cliché. The idea that economic and political power is shifting in Asia’s direction is also commonplace. But does this matter? Is it a threat to America? The answer is that it could be a threat if the rise of Asia actually meant the rise of China, ascending to a position of dominance in the region and capable of forming and anti-western alliance among the Asian nations. Or, if it were to consist of the rise of China, with China tempted to provoke military tensions with its neighbours or even to pursue territorial expansion. Since America has since 1945 been the main military power in the Asia-Pacific area, this would threaten to bring a direct confrontation between the new superpower and the old.

The bulwark against those outcomes is India. The stronger India becomes, in both economic and political terms, the less likely it will be that China can dominate Asia or bully its neighbours. The risk of a confrontation with India would be too great. That is why President Bush struck two seminal deals with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005: a framework for defence co-operation, and an agreement to supply technology and materials for civil nuclear energy. Given that India was an ally of the Soviet Union during much of the Cold War, these deals represented an enormous strategic change, on both sides.

Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are Democrats, not Republicans, and are opposed to almost everything George Bush did—except for his strategic deals with India, and thus his approach to the long-term changes under way in Asia. Hence Secretary Clinton this week extended the defence framework to allow and encourage sales to India of sophisticated American weapons and co-operation between the two countries’ space programmes. None of this is intended to pose a direct threat to China. But the Chinese leadership will certainly be taking note.


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