President Barack Obama’s trip to India is getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere for its size and cost—and with an estimated 3,000 people in the presidential entourage, it’s easy to understand why—but there are more significant reasons that the summit in India should command the American peoples’ attention and support.
India is emerging as a crucial partner for the United States in this new century. It’s a partnership built on shared values, shared economic interests and shared threats.
First, the two countries have strong democratic credentials. After all, India calls itself the world’s largest democracy, and the U.S. considers itself the world’s oldest continuous democracy. India and the U.S. embrace similar views on freedom and free enterprise. And even as other countries wax and wane in their support for the U.S., India’s 1.1 billion people have been remarkably consistent in their pro-American views: more than 65 percent held a favorable opinion of the U.S. in 2002, 71 percent in 2005 and 76 percent in 2009.
The past decade has seen India step up to become an important cog in regional and international security. And today India is primed to play what military thinkers call a force-multiplying role, buttressing U.S. goals by helping to expand the zone of peace and prosperity in the Indian Ocean and in South Asia.
The U.S. is encouraging this. Defense Secretary Gates has labeled India “a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.” Increasingly, the operative word here is “beyond.”
The convergence of India and Japan—and India and Vietnam—is being fueled by one of the very same factors fueling the U.S.-India partnership: the rapid emergence of China.
India and the U.S. view one another as a helpful counterweight to China, each providing strategic depth vis-à-vis China in the global chess match.
While sidestepping any direct reference to China, Obama says India is helping shape “a stable, peaceful and prosperous Asia” and calls America’s relationship with India “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”
This spirit of partnership is a dramatic change from the Cold War period, when India and the U.S. were usually at odds. But today, China’s emergence and Islamist terrorism have forced the U.S. and India to work together.
India is a stalwart partner in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan. In fact, India is pouring $1.3 billion in development aid into Afghanistan. To be sure, this is partly a function of India’s desire to counter Pakistani influence over Afghanistan. However, India’s commitment to a more stable Afghanistan is a function of something more than regional rivalry. India knows firsthand the deadly danger of terrorism.
To borrow the parlance of the Cold War, India is a frontline state in the war on terror, weathering a relentless barrage of terror attacks in the past decade. The State Department places India “among the world’s most terrorism-afflicted countries.”
Terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in 2001, commuter-trains and taxis in 2003, outdoor markets and schools in 2005 and 2006, and trains, mosques and an amusement park in 2007.
And then there was 2008, a year that proved to be a bloody turning point for India. After a terrorist attack on India’s embassy in Afghanistan killed 54 people, the jihadists launched what amounted to a seaborne invasion of Mumbai, India’s financial center. The siege of Mumbai killed 183 people, including six Americans.
Spurred by the Mumbai attacks, India has begun strengthening its coastal defenses and modernizing its military. Already the fifth-largest navy and fourth-largest air force on earth, India is in the midst of a $50-billion spending binge between now and 2015. India plans to build more than 100 new warships in the next 10 years. Recent and planned acquisitions include new aircraft carriers, a U.S.-built amphibious docking ship, new subs, heavy-lift cargo planes and 126 fighter-bombers.
If the past is any indication, Obama will likely leave us with the strong impression that the deepening U.S.-India relationship is a result of his deft global outreach. In truth, it was the Bush administration that made the farsighted decision to build a strategic partnership with the world’s biggest democracy. Early on, President George W. Bush recognized that “U.S. interests require a strong relationship with India.” Joint U.S.-India military maneuvers began in 2002 and continue today, usually under the codename “Cope India.” Calling the U.S.-India security relationship “indispensible,” Gates says the “number and complexity” of these exercises have increased in recent years. In 2004, for example, the U.S. and India conducted air combat exercises. In 2005, they focused on counterinsurgency and jungle warfare. Cope India 2009 was the largest U.S.-India war games ever. And just last week, elements of the Indian army were conducting joint airborne exercises with the U.S. Army (in Alaska of all places).
Under Bush, Washington and New Delhi also inked a landmark agreement on nuclear energy and opened the door to an explosion in U.S.-India trade. Consider that total U.S.-India trade was $14.3 billion in 2000 and $43 billion by the end of the Bush presidency—a 300-percent increase.
In short, Obama has a strong foundation on which to build. And that’s a good thing: Given the threats posed by global jihadism and a rising China, the U.S-India partnership will be essential to America’s long-term security.
Alan Dowd writes on defense and security issues.