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India Fast Becoming Asia's 'Swing State'

John Lee

The choice of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as President Barrack Obama`s first state visitor in late November is enormously significant. India was President George W. Bush`s big strategic play in the twilight of his presidency. New Delhi is now confirmed as one of Obama`s strategic priorities early in his administration. But the courtship of India has much broader consequences. If India`s unpredictable political parties remain committed to continue reforms, and the bilateral partnership between Washington and New Delhi continue to deepen, a rising India (along with a still-dominant America) could be the “swing factor” in this so-called “Asian Century.”

For hard core liberals, it makes sense for the world`s most powerful democracy to offer a strategic hand to the world`s most populous democracy. But India is not only democratic. For realists, the enemy of my potential enemy (i.e., China) is my friend. New Delhi has been warily balancing and competing against Beijing from the very moment of India`s creation in 1947. Even now, a low level conflict is simmering in the disputed Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China`s nuclear weapons stationed on the neighboring Tibetan Plateau are frighteningly real for India. New Delhi as well as the rest of Asia is carefully watching Beijing`s naval buildup as it far exceeds what is needed to prevent Taiwanese secession — the official reason given in Beijing`s defense white paper. Although Pakistan is on India`s immediate radar, China is the clear strategic competitor.

Notably, India has capabilities built on the back of a population that will be larger than China`s in several decades with a much better age demographic; and an economy that has been booming since 1991. India has the second largest military in the world after China; it has a world-class navy including a fully operational aircraft carrier with plans for several more that will be indigenously designed and built; and it is a nuclear armed power. A strategic partnership with India solidifies a formidable structural and strategic constraint against Chinese ambitions and actions in Asia.

Importantly, The U.S.-India partnership is getting good “buy in” from key states in Asia who do not feel nervous or threatened by India`s rise. For example, New Delhi already conducts extensive naval exercises with Jakarta, and increasingly with Tokyo, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Traditionally known for diplomatic aloofness, India is now a full ASEAN dialogue partner. New Delhi is planning to create over 500 new positions in its Ministry of External Affairs over the next 10 years.

After an initially churlish reluctance to take up the baton — demonstrated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton`s shunning of New Delhi on her inaugural trip to Asia — the Obama administration has seen the irresistible logic of nurturing the extremely promising strategic relationship with India. Criticized for incompetence in other areas of foreign policy execution, the Bush administration had done too good a job in forging enduring institutional, bureaucratic and personal links between Washington and New Delhi for the Democrats to change direction and scupper any good work done.

But the Obama administration is no longer looking to change policy as it has caught on to the importance of India. For example, the administration has approved the sale of six Lockheed Martin Hercules military transport planes worth $1 billion and eight Boeing Co. P-81 maritime reconnaissance aircraft worth $2.1 billion to the Indians. The United States has also sold the “futuristic” shipboard Hawkeye E-2D aircraft for Airborne Early Warning and battle management to India. The U.A.E. is the only other country that has gained State and Defense Department approval to purchase this technology.

Meanwhile, the annual Malabar naval exercises between the two navies initiated during the Bush administration took place in April-May with Japan also taking part. Significantly, the exercises involved anti-submarine warfare maneuvers — clearly undertaken with an eye to China`s growing submarine fleet. India has also been looking to cooperate with the United States in building a ballistic missile defense system in Asia. Finally, U.S. companies are competing with rivals from Russia and France to sell the Indian air-force $12 billion worth of fighter jets. If Lockheed Martin or Boeing were to win the contract, this would decisively shift New Delhi`s planned $50 billion military upgrading away from its traditional reliance on Moscow and towards Washington.

The continued success of India`s economic reform program — they key to its continued rise — is far from assured. Yet, the same could be said of Asia`s other rising power in China. But already India has a vibrant and thriving middle class of 300 million people. This means it has a critical mass of people generating economic resources needed to entrench New Delhi`s status as not just a South Asian colossus but a major center of power within the entire Asian continent.

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