The lead-up to the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue is tense and a closely followed affair befitting a showdown between a superpower fighting to maintain its pre-eminence against its unco-operative and often vituperative primary challenger.
In contrast, media outlets and commentators in the US and Australia have barely raised a pen in covering the inaugural US-India Strategic Dialogue taking place today in Washington and being co-chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna.
Why the lack of general interest on the eve of such an important summit between the most powerful and most populous democracies in the world?
Prior to undertaking reforms in the 1990s, a democratic but socialist India was derided and viewed with contempt.
Having embarked on a hitherto successful economic reform process, its long-standing democratic traditions and constitution means that India’s re-emergence is eagerly welcomed by most regional states as an important member of the evolving “democratic community” in Asia and a significant counterweight to authoritarian China.
Moreover, Indian politics and society seamlessly meet regional and global standards of modern and legitimate social and political systems in what the professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins, Michael Mandelbaum, calls “democratic exemplarism”. Unlike the intolerance for transparency and pluralism in China, other states feel reassured that India will seek a multilateral order based on the equality of sovereign nations, large and small, rather than a future hierarchical order based on size, civilisation and tribute. In the current age where realism is once again fashionable, India is proving that domestic political practices and values can have strategic significance.
Then there is the matter of how India is choosing to rise through full and unembarrassed participation in the American-led regional order. Although India is not seeking to become an American security ally, the strategic objectives of India are remarkably aligned with those of the US and Washington’s security partners in the region.
The overall result is a strategic boon for India: political and strategic elites increasingly see India as a muscular, but also predictable, stabilising, co-operative and attractive rising power. The notable lack of apprehension of India’s re-emergence is demonstrated by the remarkable speed with which regional militaries are conducting extensive exercises with the Indian navy.
If political and strategic elites are convinced about India’s worth, multiple surveys such as the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index and Chicago Council reports indicate that the same cannot be said for the economic and social elites in the US and in other regional countries. India’s economy and society is a combination of the truly modern and cutting edge on the one hand, and the medieval on the other. It has the largest middle class in the world, alongside the largest numbers of people living in poverty. The vibrant reputation of the country’s entrepreneurialism exists alongside a discriminatory caste system that is still strong in rural regions and small towns.
Moreover, unlike the more closed and controlled nature of Chinese society and media where information is restricted and social failings largely hidden from foreign eyes, India’s social ills are openly displayed, talked about and debated. The lack of control over India’s media rightly regarded as a liberal virtue means New Delhi cannot devise or shape consistent messages about Indian successes to the foreign audience.
Finally, even though India has world-class strengths in industries such as information technology, telecommunications and biotechnology, its record in achieving widespread and enduring macro-economic and structural reform is still unproven.
India still needs land and education reform, and has severe infrastructure flaws. Populations throughout Asia are yet to be convinced that India has forever left behind its anemic “Hindu rate” of economic growth, that it has truly left behind its idealistic Nehruvian traditions of socialism, passivity and stagnation.
Economic and social elites “like” India, but in the unforgiving world of international politics and popular opinion, earning the respect that comes from achievement is the greater virtue. The lack of interest in the US-India Strategic Dialogue indicates we are at ease with India’s re-emergence and diplomats in both countries have gone about their work effectively, quietly and subtly. But it also tells us that unlike Beijing’s energy and intent in accumulating “comprehensive national power,” India’s rise has yet to capture the US and even much of Asia’s imagination.
If New Delhi proves the naysayers wrong and succeeds in placating the scepticism of US and regional elites, then the attractiveness of India’s rise means it is powerfully placed to help shape the “Asian century.”