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Diplomatic Negligence

The Obama administration fumbles relations with India

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By DANIEL TWINING
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China’s elevation over India in Washington’s hierarchy of foreign policy priorities ignores the advantages to American interests that would accrue from India’s success. For one, India puts the lie to the myth that China’s model of directed authoritarian development is the wave of the future. This year, India’s economy is projected to grow about as fast as China’s, and its trend rate of economic growth is expected to surpass that of its Asian neighbor over the coming decade. Moreover, domestic consumption comprises two-thirds of India’s GDP but well under half of China’s, giving India a more sustainable, less export-dependent economic foundation for growth.

In two decades, India’s population—70 percent of which is under age 35—will surpass China’s to make it the world’s most populous country. Its rapidly expanding middle class—currently the size of the entire U.S. population​—should constitute 60 percent of its 1.3 billion-plus people by 2020. While India’s 400 million-strong labor force today is only half that of China, by 2025 those figures will reverse as China’s aging population “falls off a demographic cliff,” in the words of Nicholas Eberstadt, with dramatic implications for India’s economic trajectory. 

The character of a country’s foreign policy cannot be separated from the nature of its internal rule. As one Asian statesman has asked, why does no one in Asia fear India’s rise even as they quietly shudder at the prospect of a future Chinese superpower? 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. 

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 ambitions, partly because both define their exceptionalism with reference to their open societies. As 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 other countries—including America’s closest allies—share these sentiments? It is therefore past time to put to bed the myth that America somehow has more in common with China, or needs Beijing’s interest-based cooperation more than New Delhi’s on issues as diverse as Afghanistan and Pakistan, terrorism, the international economy, and nonproliferation.


Despite the many affinities between the United States and India, the Obama administration risks putting India back into its subcontinental box, treating it as little more than a regional power, while it elevates China, through both rhetoric and policy, to the level of a global superpower on par with the United States. President Obama’s early flirtation with a Sino-American “G2” condominium raised alarm bells from Brussels to Bangalore. More recently, Indian officials were astonished and outraged when President Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao, at their November 2009 Beijing summit, issued a joint statement encouraging China to lend its good offices to resolve conflicts in South Asia. For Indians, China’s growing footprint in their neighborhood is a problem, not a solution.

China has armed Pakistan with nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missile technology, neutralizing India’s conventional superiority over a neighbor with which it has fought four wars. The top recipients of Chinese military aid are all India’s immediate neighbors in South Asia. China has built strong military-to-military ties with Burma, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as part of what Indians see as a strategy to tie India down, Gulliver-like, in its region. China is developing a range of deep-water ports in the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean islands like Sri Lanka and the Seychelles, portending the projection of blue-water naval power in what India considers its home seas. Despite resolving land border disputes with its other neighbors, China has taken the opposite tack with India, pressing its claims to vast tracts of Indian territory through strident rhetoric, punitive administrative measures in institutions like the Asian Development Bank, and localized military skirmishes.

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