Pres. Barack Obama’s speech to the Indian parliament contained a benign untruth: “In Asia and around the world, India is not simply emerging; India has already emerged.”
As a statement of fact, this is dubious. India accounts for a little more than 2 percent of world GDP and basically can’t project its power. As diplomatic flattery and as aspiration, though, Obama’s line hit the mark.
After spending the early part of his administration kowtowing to China and neglecting India (the two weren’t unrelated), Obama delivered on the first leg of his Asia trip. He forged closer ties to the robustly democratic nation of 1 billion people, partly as a hedge against the rise of a China resistant to his blandishments.
Obama’s speech to India’s parliament was a long mash note. He called India and America “indispensable partners.” He said that “the United States not only welcomes India as a rising global power, we fervently support it.” He hailed its contributions to civilization, including the invention of the number zero. (How else could we denote our national debt?)
All of this was the logical follow-on to the civil nuclear accord forged between the U.S. and India during Pres. George W. Bush’s second term. That agreement signaled a new turn after decades of tensions when India headed the “nonaligned movement” during the Cold War and when the U.S. imposed sanctions after India’s 1998 nuclear-weapons tests. The embrace of India was one of Bush’s most important moves on the geopolitical chessboard.
Although Obama hosted Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh at his first state dinner, the administration seemed to consider Bush’s India play as too provocative to Beijing. In Tokyo last November, Obama gave a speech about Asia that didn’t mention India. On the same Asia jaunt, he signed a communiqué in Beijing that suggested a Chinese role in South Asia. All of this belittled the Indians without easing Chinese belligerence.
Obama’s trip reflects a less naïve approach. He lifted restrictions on U.S. technology transfers to India, opening up potentially lucrative sales of sophisticated U.S. weaponry. He endorsed India as a permanent member of a reformed U.N. Security Council, leaving only China openly opposed among permanent members. And he was as critical of India’s adversary Pakistan as he possibly could be while on Indian soil.
As former Bush administration ambassador to India Robert Blackwill wrote in 2007, “the alignment between India and the United States is now an enduring part of the international landscape.” It is cemented, Blackwill notes, by our democratic systems, by the growing, highly successful community of Indian Americans in this country, and by a wary eye on China.
The last factor will never be explicit. “There is no way to clear a drawing room in India quite like saying we’re going to ‘contain’ China,” Blackwill says. But no one knows how China will evolve. If the U.S. has strong relationships with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, it can raise a barrier to China’s seaward expansion.
We shouldn’t romanticize India. It is prideful and suffers from a hangover of nonaligned attitudes. One wag comments that if India ever gets on the Security Council in a reform displacing older powers, “we’re going to miss France.” For all its economic success, about a third of India’s population lives on less than $1 a day, and it lags China on key market reforms. In his book Rivals, Asia expert Bill Emmott quotes an Indian journalist saying of his sprawling country: “Everything you think you know about India is correct. But the opposite is also true.”
Yet the opening of the Indian economy during the past 30 years is a global success story. The loosening of the “license raj” that smothered the energies of the Indian people proved that democracies, too, could experience the wondrous growth of the authoritarian Asian tigers. We should hope that India continues to emerge, its status as a friend now blessed by both President Bush and President Obama.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.