Jewish World Review July 28, 2003 / 28 Tamuz, 5763

Daniel Sneider

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India: America's new partner | NEW DELHI, India - Two decades ago, when I was reporting from this South Asian giant, the watchword of Indian foreign policy was non-alignment. With countries being pressed to line up on one side or another of the Cold War divide, India stood for a third path of avoiding alignment with either superpower.

Today, in talking to policymakers from across India's wide political spectrum, it is strikingly clear that India's foreign policy is undergoing a radical reshaping. In the words of one prominent Indian analyst, India is ``crossing the Rubicon'' to a close partnership with the United States and the West.

The Bush administration has embraced this shift and opened previously closed doors to cooperation with India, including military ties. U.S. policy toward India had been almost entirely preoccupied with the fear that India and neighboring Pakistan, both of which tested nuclear weapons in 1998, might use those weapons in a war with each other. While this remains a serious concern, it no longer totally dominates our relationship.

Now there is an opportunity to turn a growing partnership into an alliance comparable to the one the U.S. enjoys with Japan.

It's about time. The divide between our two countries - the world's two largest democracies - has never made sense.

Indians bear some responsibility for this gap. Their knee-jerk anti-Westernism, a legacy of the struggle for freedom from British colonial rule, often has been irritating. But it's even harder to understand the way the U.S. has systematically ignored democratic India, a nation of 1 billion people, while tilting toward military regimes in Pakistan and pursuing the favors of communist China.

India came to rely on the Soviet Union as a source of weapons and international backing, balancing American support for Pakistan and offering protection against China, with whom India fought a war in 1962. But the end of the Cold War in 1991 meant that India had to rework its relations with the great powers.

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That coincided with India's decision to open up its economy to global competition. India had tried to cope with poverty and the legacy of colonialism with a large public sector and by protecting Indian capitalists from foreign competition. The move to deregulate and ease restrictions on foreign imports and investment has led to a decade of high growth, sparked by the boom of a computer software industry that is a global high-tech player.

These two changes not only affected Indian thinking but also American perceptions of India. Americans concerned about the rise of China as a power began to think of India as a vital strategic ally in Asia. And the image of India as a land of villages and bullock carts was replaced by that of Indian entrepreneurs and software engineers working in Silicon Valley-style complexes dubbed Cyberabad.

C. Raja Mohan, author of an insightful new book on the transformation of Indian foreign policy, points to a third crucial event - the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998. This forced the United States to pay attention to this region, he argues, and gave India the confidence to forge new ties with the United States.

The Clinton administration deserves credit for giving India a new priority. Clinton's visit to India in 2000, the first by an American president in two decades, still comes up frequently in conversations here. But Clinton was still largely fixed on the danger of the nuclear flashpoint in the region.

The Bush administration, led by U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill, who is winding up a highly successful tour here, has moved beyond that focus. Blackwill has pounded away, both here and in Washington, on the need to free our relationship from the nuclear issue and from the prism of the India-Pakistan rivalry. He has emphasized the broader strategic goals we share - solidified after Sept. 11 by the common threat we face from Islamist terrorism.

But the prospects for alliance ultimately rest more on global economics than on geopolitics. As Blackwill pointed out in a farewell speech, India has become the second largest source of legal migration to the United States, after Mexico, and the largest source of foreign students.

The movement of people reflects the flow of capital and trade in both directions. As we see here in Silicon Valley, India and the United States are increasingly vital partners in one global economic space.

There will be tensions as the two countries learn to work closely together. But the foundation for alliance has been created, and now we have to build upon it.

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Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, San Jose Mercury News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.