The rise of a strong India

Thursday, December 29, 2011

While the past decade has brought forth many negative developments in the world, from the brutal attacks of 9/11 to Russia's revived assertiveness to the increasing military power of China, there is at least one strategic change that has been positive: the rise of a strong India, with a free market, growing military power and a convergence of interests with the United States.

During the Cold War, while democratic and officially neutral, India was more aligned with the Soviet Union. As one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, it frequently criticized the United States, while remaining much quieter over the far more brutal and anti-democratic actions of the communists.

India's armed forces were almost entirely equipped with Soviet equipment as well, and there were close cultural, economic and political ties between the USSR and India, both of whom implemented the dreary economics of state-run socialism -- much to the detriment of India's people.

With the end of the Cold War, the collapse of socialism worldwide, and the patent failure of Soviet weapons during the Gulf War, however, India's leaders began to re-evaluate the policies that had guided its nation since independence from the UK in 1947.

Major economic reforms after 1991 led to dramatic economic growth, a vast new middle class (almost the size of the entire U.S. population) and membership in the World Trade Organization.

India's formerly stagnant and closed economy is increasingly open. Indian companies compete worldwide, and the U.S. is now one of India's leading trading partners.

In its foreign policy, India retains close ties to Russia but now refers to its ties with the U.S. as a "strategic partnership," a term once reserved for Moscow.

Perhaps surprising to many, India also counts Israel as a close economic, cultural and military partner, and is now a primary (and welcoming) destination for Israeli tourists and technology companies, surrounded as they are by an increasingly hostile Muslim world.

India shares many security imperatives with the United States: concern about Iran's nuclear weapons program, military and economic rivalry with China, uncertainty over the viability of Pakistan, and a fierce determination to oppose radical Islamic terrorism, having been even more of a victim of these groups than the United States.

The Indian armed forces are an increasingly capable component of India's foreign policy, developing a modern fleet, upgrading its army and air force and -- funded by its growing economy -- recently becoming the world's largest importer of weapons.

There are also significant opportunities for cultural and economic cooperation between India and the U.S., with the widespread use of English -- one of India's official languages -- and the 100,000 students from India studying at American colleges and universities.

The U.S. should continue to welcome the rise of India and build on the progress made by the past three administrations to collaborate ever more closely with India, as we have done recently with a nuclear agreement and military exercises.

Indeed, given the neighborhood of South Asia, we should consider a stronger India as an indispensable partner, making every effort to improve this relationship.

The world's two largest democracies are natural allies, but this convergence will only continue with increased focus by the United States on a nation that deserves our attention and interest.

With more substantial efforts, such as through ardent support for permanent U.N. Security Council status for India, improved intelligence collaboration, expanded visa opportunities for Indian nationals, and wider trade agreements, the U.S. could build stronger ties with this indispensable democracy and regional power.

Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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