Why Obama needs to play his cards right with India
November 24, 2009 / Daniel Twining
What should we make of the kerfuffle over the Indian Prime Minister's state visit to Washington today? Manmohan Singh's summit with President Obama, scheduled in part to offset the president's unfortunate decision not to visit India on his first Asian tour, has been plagued by disappointment in Delhi. India does not enjoy the pride of place in America's foreign policy agenda granted it by President Bush and even by President Clinton in the last years of his administration. Why not?
This U.S. administration, unlike its predecessor, appears to disfavor values-based cooperation as an organizing principle of American foreign policy, diminishing policymakers' appreciation of India as the world's largest democracy and subjecting cooperation with both India and China to an unsentimental cost-benefit calculation as to whether Asia's largest democracy or soon-to-be-largest economy should be Washington's privileged partner on any given issue. Yet this interest-based calculus itself reflects a misreading of the many congruent national objectives and ambitions between Washington and New Delhi. Even an Obama-esque judgment of American interests over the coming decade -- one that is cool, hard-headed, and dispassionate -- argues in favor of elevating India to the top tier of American partners in Asia and the world.
Let's briefly, and unsentimentally, review the main facts and trends. The CIA has labeled India the key "swing state" in international politics. It predicted some years ago that India would emerge by 2015 as the fourth most important power in the international system. Goldman Sachs predicts that, within just a few decades, the world's largest economies will be China, the United States, India, and Japan, in that order.
The United States has an enormous stake in the emergence of a rich, confident, democratic India that shares American ambitions to manage Chinese power, protect Indian Ocean sea lanes, safeguard an open international economy, stabilize a volatile region encompassing the heartland of jihadist extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and constructively manage challenges of proliferation, climate change, and other global issues. And even by purely material standards of market access and national security, the United States has a definitive interest in investing in India's success to prove to all those enamored of the Chinese model of authoritarian development that democracy is the firmest foundation for the achievement of humankind's most basic aspirations.
India possesses the world's second fastest-growing major economy and has defined a compelling interest in preserving the gains from globalization by liberalizing international flows of trade, investment, services, and human capital. India's rapidly expanding middle class, currently the size of the entire U.S. population, is expected to constitute 60 percent of its billion-plus population by 2020. Domestic consumption constitutes two-thirds of India's GDP but well under half of China's, giving it a more sustainable, less export-dependent economic foundation for growth. While India's 400-milllion strong labor force today is only half that of China, by 2025 those figures will reverse as China's population "falls off a demographic cliff," in the words of the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, with dramatic implications for India's economic development. India is expected to bypass Japan in the 2020s as the world's third-largest economy, and to bypass China in the early 2030s as the world's most populous country.
India is the kind of revisionist power with an exceptional self-regard that America was over a century ago. America's rise to world power in the 19th and 20th centuries is, in some respects, a model for India's own (peaceful) ambitions, partly because both define their exceptionalism with reference to their open societies. As Indian analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, Indians have "great admiration for U.S. power" and want their country to "replicate" rather than oppose it. How many strategists -- in China or among Washington's European allies -- share such sentiments?
So let's put to bed the myth that America has more in common with China, or Washington needs Beijing's interest-based cooperation more than New Delhi's, on issues as diverse as Afghanistan and Pakistan (both countries in India's backyard whose destabilization hits India first and hardest), terrorism (which has killed more Indian civilians than those of any other nation not at war), the international economy (whose primary structural imbalance results from China's manipulation of its currency and the trade distortions that result from it), nonproliferation (China actively assisted another state, Pakistan, in developing its nuclear arsenal, which India has never done), energy security (the basis for the unprecedented Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear partnership as well as for greater Indo-U.S. naval cooperation), space (where the countries' ambitions and technology-trade arrangements argue for expanded joint cooperation), and even the difficult issue of climate change (which is predicted to hit India harder than any other major Asian economy).
It goes without saying that Indo-U.S. cooperation promises to reshape the Asian balance of power in ways that conduce to America's hard security interests. As Singaporean elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew has cogently asked, why is no one in the Asia Pacific fearful of India's rise even as they quietly shudder at the implications for their autonomy and security of a future Chinese superpower?
President Obama would do well to ponder that question today as he sits down with Prime Minister Singh to sketch out what we must hope is an ambitious and sustained agenda for expansive Indo-U.S. cooperation over the coming years.