August 1, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

Cozying up to India

The Bush administration's most unheralded foreign policy success - besides Libya's WMD disarmament and freeing Lebanon from Syria's iron grip - is the dramatic upswing in U.S.-Indian relations.

As evidence, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush issued a joint statement deepening relations, including civilian nuclear power cooperation, during Singh's recent Washington visit. Ties with the South Asian giant haven't been better.

Strong relations with Delhi make sense for many reasons, including energy security and counterterrorism, but, perhaps, for no more important purpose today than balancing China's strategic rise in Asia.

China's emergence onto the world stage as a major regional - and global - power will define this century's international political landscape. Fortunately, India and the U.S. are natural, even well-suited, allies in managing and tempering China's ascendance.

In addition to being the world's second- and third-most populous nations (after China), India and the U.S. are the world's first- and second-largest democracies.

India, though still a developing country, has the world's fastest-growing economy (behind China) and the world's 12th-largest, posting an impressive 7 percent growth rate since implementing reforms in the early 1990s.

The U.S. is India's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade topping $18 billion per year. America is also the largest investor in India's economy, and over 40 percent of U.S. temporary work visas go to Indians - most for the IT sector.

On the security front, after China, India has the largest military in Asia with an armed force of 1.3 million - not to mention a nuclear arsenal. Concerned about its security environment, Indian defense spending is up by 33 percent.

Delhi has concerns about Beijing's rise - though, in general, India doesn't necessarily see China as an imminent threat. Although they fought a 1962 border war that remains unresolved, the Sino-Indian relationship is stable - and, perhaps, may even improve as trade ties increase.

Despite this, some Indians are increasingly wary of Chinese regional intentions. Nothing is more troubling to Delhi than China's security relationship with India's long-standing rival and nuclear neighbor, Pakistan.

China provided significant assistance to Pakistan's conventional, ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs over the years. Today, China's continued cooperation with Pakistan on these issues remains a thorn in the side of Sino-Indian relations.

India is also troubled by China's financing of a major port facility at Gwader in western Pakistan. Delhi fears that the Chinese navy will use the strategically located port (near the Persian Gulf) for future Indian Ocean operations.

Equally disturbing is China's robust military buildup - a development that is raising eyebrows in both Washington and Delhi. The Pentagon suggests in a recent report to Congress that China now has the world's third-largest defense budget (after the U.S. and Russia) at $90 billion per year.

While some dispute the ranking of China's defense spending, they don't contest that Beijing has the world's fastest-growing peacetime defense budget. In fact, Beijing recently announced a 13 percent addition to its defense budget, compounding more than a decade of double-digit increases.

While Indian strategists see China's military buildup as mainly directed at its neighbor Taiwan, they've taken careful notice of reports about Beijing building military airfields in southwestern China near India and its presence in nearby Burma - both far from the Taiwan Strait.

By most accounts, Delhi isn't interested in a confrontational relationship with Beijing at the moment, much less the notion of containing China. But Delhi - not to mention Washington - is keenly attentive to Chinese ambitions and the Beijing's rapid accumulation of political, economic and military power.

Both countries recognize China's potential for destabilizing an international system that has long favored balance. One has only to think of the disruptive effect that the emergence of a new major power, such as Bismarck's Germany or the Soviet Union, has often had on international peace and stability.

Beijing's emergence as a significant threat to the United States or India - or their interests - isn't a foregone conclusion by any means; China's trajectory is uncertain. But one thing is certain: China is intent on challenging both India and the U.S. for preeminence in Asia - even globally.

That likelihood makes it critical that both Delhi and Washington continue to develop an effective partnership for not only addressing regional/global challenges, but for building a strategy for peacefully balancing China's inevitable rise in the international system.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: International Organizations

First appeared in The New York Post.  Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org