Why is India America's Natural Ally?

December 3, 2004 Topic: Rising Powers Tags: Diplomacy

Why is India America's Natural Ally?

Let me answer in this way.

Let me answer in this way. Imagine a matrix, with America's most important national security concerns along one side, and the world's major countries along the other. What emerges may come as a surprise to many Americans-and perhaps to plenty of national security pundits as well.

Think first of the vital national interests of the United States: prosecuting the global War on Terror and reducing the staying power and effectiveness of the jihadi killers; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including to terrorist groups; dealing with the rise of Chinese power; ensuring the reliable supply of energy from the Persian Gulf; and keeping the global economy on track.

Now consider the key countries of the world. Which share with us these vital national interests and the willingness to do something about threats to these interests-in an unambiguous way, over the long term-for their own reasons? India may lead the list.

Henry Kissinger argues that a cooperative U.S.-Indian relationship is in the cards because of "the geopolitical objectives of India, which they are pursuing in a very hard-headed way, [and] which are quite parallel to ours."

With respect to terrorism, India in the past fifteen years has lost more people to jihadi killers than any other nation in the world. Though cross-border terrorism has now receded significantly in Kashmir, India remains an abiding target for terrorists and their supporters in governments who view it as a historic oppressor of its Muslim population, particularly in Kashmir. Thus, India will not relent in its determination to do everything it can to eliminate this threat. Indeed, the Indians recognized the dangers of Islamic extremism long before the United States. As Steven Coll brilliantly documents in his book, Ghost Wars (2004), the United States in effect subcontracted its Afghan policy in the 1980s and most of the 1990s to Pakistan's intelligence service, which in turn fostered the growth of Islamic zealotry across the border in Afghanistan and with it, the rise of the Taliban. While we were looking at our shoelaces, the Indians saw the menace coming. New Delhi doggedly tried to warn us during these years that the Taliban were not exactly social reformers, but to no avail. So India will need no urging from Washington to be with the United States in word and deed to the end of the Global War on Islamic extremism. Will all of our European allies, some with large unassimilated Muslim minorities, be as steadfast over the long term? One wonders.

Weapons of mass destruction are a pressing shared danger as well. Picture the following: A group of terrorists have obtained a nuclear weapon and are debating where to detonate it. The number one target would almost certainly be in the United States. But what would be the second most likely destination? Perhaps Israel. Maybe Britain, although over time its saliency will fade as the war in Iraq winds down. But New Delhi and Mumbai, India's financial capital, will remain pre-eminent potential WMD targets for these mass murderers because of the hateful place India occupies in jihadist ideology. This too will surely put India at America's side in the period ahead. There is no continental European city that faces this same threat at anywhere near the same magnitude.

Like some in Washington, India is enormously attentive to the rise of Chinese power. Let me make clear, however, that this will not lead to joint U.S.-Indian containment of the PRC. Worrying that this could be self-fulfilling, no Indian politician of any consequence supports such a policy. But it does mean this: Behind the elevated rhetoric that emits from New Delhi regarding relations between India and China, the Indians understand better than most that Asia is being fundamentally changed by the weight of PRC economic power and diplomatic skill.

In the short term, the Indian military is not alarmed with China's military buildup because it is primarily focused on the Taiwan Strait. However, the Indians have noticed that China is also constructing airfields in Tibet, which is not especially near the Taiwan Strait. China is also assisting in the construction of a major port in Pakistan and is deeply involved in Myanmar. So India's military leadership has to be concerned about what might happen if China were to move in a hostile direction. They earnestly hope that it will not-and expect their political leaders to craft a strategy that makes any sort of confrontation unlikely. This was an important consideration for India during the successful April visit of China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to India.

All the same, as the Indian military thinks strategically, its contingency planning concentrates on China. It is partially in this context (as well as energy security) that India plans a blue-water navy with as many as four aircraft carriers. India will also eventually have longer-range combat aircraft and is working on extending the range of its missile forces. What other U.S. ally, except Japan, thinks about China in this prudent way? On the contrary, witness the current widespread eagerness within the European Union to lift its arms embargo against China. As a Chinese general said to me a few years ago, European policy toward China can be summed up in a six-letter word: Airbus.

With respect to energy security, both the United States and India are hugely dependent on foreign sources for our energy needs. About a quarter of the crude oil imported by the United States is from the Middle East. India meanwhile imports nearly 75 percent of its crude oil, much of which also comes from that region.

And then there is the world economy. Right now, U.S.-Indian trade figures are small, but India today has a larger middle class than combined population of France, Germany and Britain. And that middle class is rapidly increasing. Despite the modest trade figures, the United States is India's largest trading partner. U.S. exports to India grew by 25 percent in 2004 and are no longer, as I used to say in India, "flat as a chapatti." The United States is also the largest cumulative investor in India, both in foreign direct investment and portfolio investment. More than 50 percent of America's Fortune 500 companies now outsource some of their information technology (IT) needs to Indian companies. The market is on track to send 15 percent of U.S. IT jobs to India in the next six years.

Both India and the United States need high and sustained rates of economic growth in order to reach their domestic goals and promote their vital national interests, so the prospects for the rapid expansion of U.S.-Indian trade are bright. In 2004, India's GDP growth was over 8 percent. Today there are more Indian IT engineers in Bangalore than in Silicon Valley. This is despite the fact that approximately 30 percent of the software engineers in Silicon Valley are Indian or of Indian extraction, and that the region boasts 774 companies owned by Indian-Americans. Moreover, 41 percent of H1-B visas-designated for temporary employees in specialized fields-go to Indians each year.

Not only do our vital national interests coincide, but we share common values as well. The policies of United States and India are built on the same solid moral foundation. India is a democracy of more than one billion people-and there are not many of those in that part of the world. Indian democracy has sustained a heterogeneous, multilingual and secular society. In the words of Sunil Khilnani, the author of The Idea of India (1999), India is a "bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent." George W. Bush fastened onto the genius of Indian democracy very early on, long before he was president. This has now become an even more central element of American foreign policy, given the march of freedom across the Greater Middle East and the president's emphasis on the growth of pluralism, democracy and democratic institutions in that region. At 130 million people, India's Muslim population is the second-largest of any nation in the world, behind only Indonesia. Yet, it is remarkable for the near absence of Islamic extremism in Indian society. For instance, there is no record of a single Indian joining Al-Qaeda, no Indian citizens were captured in Afghanistan, and there are no Indian Muslims at the Guantanamo Bay military detention center. This all says something important about democratic processes and how they are a safety valve for extremist currents within societies.

So on these major issues connected to vital national interests and the values of liberty, India and the United States will find themselves together over the long term. They are natural allies not because of any current or future organizational connection; there will be no formal alliance between the two countries. But I cannot think of another nation with which the United States shares in such a comprehensive way, and with the same intensity, these vital national interests and democratic values, and which must face threats to them in the decades ahead.

Let me hasten to add that this does not mean that Washington and New Delhi will always agree on specific policies or tactics. That will not happen. The Indian bureaucracy can be as maddeningly slow and recalcitrant as that in the United States. India's colonial history makes it particularly sensitive to what it perceives as overbearing policies from abroad. Some remnants of the Cold War-era "non-alignment" movement still exist within the Indian government. India has its own strategic perspective based importantly on its geographic location. And Indian domestic politics will sometimes constrain the actions of governments in New Delhi. But in spite of this, the United States and India will always eventually be pulled back together by these common fundamentals.