The Magazine

The New Great Game

Why the Bush administration has embraced India.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By DANIEL TWINING
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New Delhi

Three recent events illuminate the contours and fault lines of Asia's emerging strategic landscape, amid the lengthening shadows cast by China's growing power.

First, the United States and India consolidated a wide-ranging military, economic, and diplomatic partnership on December 9, when Congress passed legislation enabling U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation. Then, at a summit in Tokyo on December 15, the leaders of India and Japan declared their ambition for a strategic and economic entente between Asia's leading democracies. This stands in sharp contrast to the intensifying rivalry between India and China: Tensions over territory and Tibet simmered at a summit on November 21, where Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh's assertion that "there is enough [geopolitical] space for the two countries to develop together" sounded more like hope than conviction.

As its relationships with the United States, Japan, and China show, India has reemerged as a geopolitical swing state after decades of marginalization as a consequence of the Cold War, its own crippling underdevelopment, and regional conflict in South Asia. Although its status as a heavyweight in the globalized world of the 21st century is new, India's identity as a great power is not: It was for centuries one of the world's largest economies and, under British rule, a preeminent power in Asia. Today, a rising India flush with self-confidence from its growing prosperity is determined not to be left behind by China's economic and military ascent. "The [Indian] elephant," says an admiring Japanese official, "is about to gallop."

The United States has an enormous stake in the success 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 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 is the world's biggest democracy, a nuclear power with the world's largest volunteer armed forces, and the world's second-fastest-growing major economy. Few countries will be more important to American security interests and American prosperity in the coming decades, as five centuries of Western management of the international system give way to a new economic and security order centered in the rimlands of the Indian and Pacific oceans.

India has been a factor in the global balance of power since at least 1510, when the establishment of a Portuguese trading colony at Goa broke a seven-century monopoly on the Indian Ocean spice trade by Muslim empires, unlocking the wealth of the East to European maritime states, which used it to build global empires. Possession of India propelled Britain to the peak of world power in the 19th century. "[T]he master of India," argued Britain's Lord Curzon, "must, under modern conditions, be the greatest power in the Asiatic Continent, and therefore . . . in the world."

During World War II, an Indian army under British command halted the Japanese army's relentless march across Asia, inflicting on Imperial Japan its first military defeat. India's location as an Indian Ocean and Himalayan power, its massive production of armaments, and its armed forces--which fought in Europe, North Africa, and Southeast Asia--contributed decisively to the Allied victory over the Axis powers.

Lord Curzon celebrated India's importance in The Place of India in the Empire (1909):

The central position of India, its magnificent resources, its teeming multitude of men, its great trading harbors, its reserve of military strength, supplying an army always in a high state of efficiency and capable of being hurled at a moment's notice upon any point either of Asia or Africa--all these are assets of precious value. On the West, India must exercise a predominant influence over the destinies of Persia and Afghanistan; on the north, it can veto any rival in Tibet; on the north-east . . . it can exert great pressure upon China, and it is one of the guardians of the autonomous existence of Siam.

Possession of India gave the British Empire its global reach. Britain lost its status as a world power when it lost India.