When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives as U.S. President Barack Obama’s first official state visitor this weekend, Washington will be pulling out all the bells and whistles to welcome the leader of the world’s largest democracy. Many already fear that the meeting will begin with a bang only to end with a whimper—in the form of a communiqué filled with little more than platitudes about shared values’ and a desire to deepen strategic cooperation.
Forget the worriers—let’s hope that this is the case. A clichéd, public declaration is what both sides should hope for. Because when it comes to India, the less said about what Washington and New Delhi are doing and plan to do, the more likely the two countries are to build a genuine, strategic relationship that will endure.
I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second, but first: Why does India matter? In Washington, the India-U.S. relationship is a bipartisan win-win. For liberals, it makes sense for the world’s most powerful democracy to offer a strategic hand to the world’s most populous one. But India’s charms are not only its democratic ways; realists like the country for its unquestionable position as the enemy of a potential enemy, i.e., China. New Delhi has been warily balancing and competing against Beijing from the very moment of India’s independence 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. And New Delhi, like the rest of Asia, is carefully watching Beijing’s navy build up to a point that already far exceeds what would be needed to prevent Taiwanese secession (the official reason given in Beijing’s defense white paper.)
There are other important reasons to think India will matter in Asia in coming years, too. The country’s economy,which has been in near-constant boom since 1991, is built on the backs of a population that will be larger than China’s in several decades, with a much better age demographic. To be sure, the continued success of India’s economic reform program—the key to its continued rise—is far from assured. (The same could be said of 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 the economic resources needed to entrench New Delhi’s status as not just a South Asian colossus but a major center of power within the Asian continent.
Then there’s its military, where size still matters most of all, and India has the world’s third largest force. New Delhi is developing a highly effective navy, including a fully operational aircraft carrier with plans for several more. Of course, it is also a nuclear armed power. But most importantly, India’s political leaders have shown that they are not afraid to use their military. India rarely runs from a fight. As its generals boast, they have been in a constant state of war in Kashmir for decades. Neither conflicts nor casualties faze Indian politicians and elites.
The mere existence of a confident and formidable India acts as a formidable structural and strategic constraint against Chinese ambitions in South and Southeast Asia. But again, that’s just the icing on the cake. India is ready to engage with the world, after years of standing aloof. New Delhi is planning to create more than 500 new positions in its Ministry of External Affairs over the next 10 years. The country has become a full dialogue partner of ASEAN, a regional economic grouping. And the U.S.-India partnership is getting good “buy in” from key states in Asia that do not feel nervous or threatened by India’s rise. For example, New Delhi already conducts extensive joint naval exercises with Jakarta, and increasingly with Tokyo, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur.
This is where the virtue of subtlety comes in. Indian political, strategic, and social elites prize strategic “independence,” or at least the appearance of it, above all else. India will not allow itself to become perceived as a dutiful and secondary player in any grand U.S. strategy—one that is designed, for example, to manage China’s rise. Joint statements declaring a grand bargain with the superpower would create domestic suspicions within India. After all, the era of British colonization, which left behind an enduring fear of subjugation by foreign powers, only ended in 1947. Any suggestion of a grand alliance with Washington would simply be too much too soon.
There is also another important reason why boring public statements are good. The security dynamic in Asia is still in a precarious flux, as many states try to hedge against the chance that China will rise, the United States (and Japan) will decline, and India will stagnate. And though almost all Asian states do not trust China, they do not feel comfortable with any arrangement that is explicitly designed to “contain” it. China is simply too important to the regional economy, and Beijing’s diplomatic response to such a strategy is hard to predict. A case in point is the 2007 Quadrilateral Initiative involving ministerial level meetings between the United States, India, Japan and Australia in order to deepen military cooperation between the four countries. The Initiative raised Chinese hackles and made Southeast Asian states nervous, reluctant to explicitly choose’ between China and other great powers. And just a year later, the project was subsequently abandoned by the incoming Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Meanwhile, the emergence of India as a significant strategic player in East and Southeast Asia took Beijing by surprise, as did the rapid conclusion of a U.S.-India nuclear deal signed in 2008, which effectively legitimized India as a nuclear power and allowed it access to nuclear materials and technology. Beijing is watching Washington’s blossoming relationship with New Delhi with greater interest than ever before. Many within the Chinese Communist Party and the Peoples’ Liberation Army desperately want irrefutable and public evidence that the U.S.-India relationship is a provocative one designed to prevent China from rising. This would provide Beijing with a convenient opening to justify its rapid military buildup, not to mention an excuse to escalate border tensions with New Delhi. When Obama and Singh emerge from the White House doors to give their public remarks, they should ensure that no such excuse becomes available.