The Linchpin

Why India needs to be at the center of the U.S. pivot to Asia.

Photo: EPA/STR
Photo: EPA/STR

World attention today is keenly focused on nuclear proliferation in Iran, the future force presence in Afghanistan, and percolating problems between China and Japan involving islands in the East China Sea. And while officials in Washington deliberate how U.S. influence can affect these potentially destabilizing flash points, they’re overlooking a country that could be a key contributor toward steadying the ship: India. While India is not part of the problem on these issues, it potentially can offer solutions on global nonproliferation, stability in Afghanistan, and adding a balanced voice in the region to China’s territorial aspirations. Indeed, U.S. vital national security interests around the world are increasingly linked to India’s success. Investing time, resources, and capital in India’s future will help the American economy, add to global peace, and pay dividends for decades to come.

Never in modern history has India been more important. Take the Iranian nuclear threat, for example. The United States and India have quietly and diplomatically worked together and discussed areas of mutual interest with regard to Tehran’s program. The United States has led the international sanctions efforts to penalize the Iranian regime. But India has also endorsed policies to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, and it subsequently reduced its energy dependence on Iranian oil exports from 16 percent to 10 percent — while delicately handling the domestic political implications. This level of cooperation has significantly helped increase the effectiveness and scope of international pressure.

Next door, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign the U.S.-Afghan bilateral security accord that would allow a small number of troops to remain in the country after 2014. Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice have engaged Karzai on the political problem. As the United States struggles to determine its activity in Afghanistan, India has selectively invested over $2 billion in economic, energy, and women’s empowerment programs to assist the Afghans in their difficult transition process. Indian investment projects range from building roads to the construction of the new parliament building.

Of course, this unnerves Islamabad. New Delhi’s relationship with Pakistan is volatile and complex, having fought three border wars over the past 50 years. However, there has been some recent modest progress between the two countries on visa, border, and trade issues. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has recently returned to power for the third time and tentatively reached out to India, much like he did in 1998 in attempting to build a better environment for peace and security. Transitions in key intelligence and military positions have stalled his diplomacy. Eventually, renewed efforts might lead to discussions and progress on disputed territories, such as Sir Creek, Siachen, and even Kashmir. And as the devastating and deadly 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai emanated from Pakistan, realizing some gains in negotiations could bring tremendous regional stability. Additionally, India and Pakistan should begin discussing the post-Afghanistan environment after the United States departs and work through these difficult issues.

The positive economic impact this could have on the larger region is important to note as well. As India gains in security, economic growth and foreign investor confidence will follow. In fact, influenced by China’s aggressive foreign policy, member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are increasingly looking to India in multilateral forums for economic and regional leadership. In this regard, New Delhi could be more vocal in forming consensus on issues such as the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are currently administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan. Several ASEAN countries are deeply troubled by China’s expanding exertion of territorial claims, and India could encourage China to exercise caution and restraint. Meanwhile, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh can learn from India’s diversity, respect for the rule of law, and democracy as they look for better paths toward growth.

Speaking of growing pains, it’s clear that a peaceful, prosperous China is in the interest of everyone. India and China traded goods worth almost $70 billion in 2012-2013, making China India’s second-largest trading partner. And the United States is China’s largest export market. All three countries are fundamentally linked in the global economy and have a number of common interests. Still, there will be strategic disagreements: India will object to China’s generous support to Pakistan; China disagrees with India’s decision to help the Dalai Lama; and the United States will disagree with China’s approach to the dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, currently in Asia, has been attempting to lower tension in the region, recommending the establishment of a "crisis management" protocol between Japan and China and suggesting improving communications between the two countries. Most importantly, leaders of the United States, China, and India should seek to identify areas where they might share mutual perspectives and open up dialogue, such as on water security and terrorism policies. Often, the United States and India see human rights and democracy issues through the same lens. And if the two democracies agree and work together on such matters as nuclear nonproliferation and environmental programs, their combined influence over the next 50 years will be profound and powerful, especially as younger generations step into their own in these societies.

India has a long tradition of working toward nuclear nonproliferation goals. Not unlike U.S. President Barack Obama, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi presented a visionary plan encouraging global support for nonproliferation. The 2008 U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement is viewed as a watershed in the relationship and introduced brand-new aspects to international nonproliferation efforts. Led by the United States, the Nuclear Suppliers Group has worked to control exports of nuclear materials, equipment, and technology. All this brings India into a more important global role and partnership in the nonproliferation regime. Building on the principles of the historic 1999 Lahore Declaration signed by Prime Minister Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India and Pakistan might further improve confidence-building measures to avoid accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

But we also must be cognizant of India’s unique geopolitical situation. India’s neighborhood is vastly different from that of the United States. While the United States has Canada to the north and Mexico to the south and is buffered by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, India is surrounded by countries it has fought recently in war — from China to Pakistan — and is threatened by vast networks and nests of powerful terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, not to mention internal threats from Naxalites and local mujahideen. India’s security and safety is a constant work in progress.

The United States has efficiently worked with India on counterterrorism and intelligence efforts. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans have assiduously collaborated with countries to prevent terrorists from reaching their shores. In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, India has recognized the urgent need to improve law enforcement, detection, and homeland security. The historic 2010 Counterterrorism Cooperation Initiative memorandum of understanding signed by both countries has made both societies safer. The new Homeland Security Dialogue is proceeding well and opening up cybersecurity as an area of cooperation.

On the bilateral economic relationship,
however, cooperation is not proceeding nearly as smoothly. The trend over the past 20 years is on a highly promising trajectory approaching $100 billion in two-way goods and services. However, India’s tendency to erect barriers for new foreign direct investment and its failure to protect intellectual property rights are fueling American anger and animosity. The recent announcement of a "new tax" on IBM in India will heighten the urgency of addressing economic issues. Yet if Washington or Wall Street pulls further away from India or invests less time in fixing these challenges, it’s only a recipe for even bigger problems. Instead, they should double down and work on an infrastructure and energy accord and outline the terms of a future free trade agreement. Both the American and Indian economies vitally need growth and jobs resulting in a win-win scenario.

Politics, of course, might complicate matters. India and the United States will both hold critical elections in 2014. The "largest election on Earth" will include an electorate of 800 million and 150 million first-time voters. While the two major parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) battle it out, the influence of regional leaders and coalition politics will likely determine the outcome. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist BJP, is respected for his success on economic growth issues, yet he is still controversial for his leadership in 2002 when communal violence in his home state resulted in the death of 2,000 Muslims. Depending on the message and platform of the BJP leadership, a major concern is Hindu-Muslim tension in the months ahead. But jobs and the economy will be the key issues in both the American and Indian elections, and voters in both countries are increasingly concerned about income inequality and government efficiency. Aspirational voters in India and angry voters in America have much in common.

Just as new voters will change elections in India, new demographics will challenge Indian economics. Currently, over 50 percent of India’s population is under age 26. This demographic statistic is both a blessing and a curse. In the long term, it provides a vibrant workforce for economic growth and support for seniors. In the short term, if economic growth fails to produce millions of new jobs for this workforce, it could result in social unrest or political turmoil. If India were to stumble, this would produce an extensive geopolitical crisis for the United States and the world.

There has been some media criticism about the U.S.-India relationship reaching a "plateau," as well as general speculation that America is in decline. Having recently lived in Asia and extensively traveled in the region, I can say both statements are off the mark. The United States is well positioned, even after two wars and a declining defense budget, to be the dominant 21st-century geopolitical power. America’s foreign policy must clearly define its strategic goals and partners and nimbly focus in diverse regions of the world. The "pivot" to Asia does not mean that Washington will choose to ignore the challenges of the Arab Awakening in the Middle East and not invest in European recovery, explore opportunity in Latin America, or help create new development models in Africa. But it does mean that Washington needs to find its natural partners in Asia and fully engage with them. If America is to truly be a Pacific power — as a new, emerging Asian middle class in China, India, and the ASEAN countries provides new opportunities in diplomacy and business — Washington must boldly utilize the traditional levers of power as peacemaker, balancer, and coalition builder.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, upon taking office when India won its independence in August 1947, said he would work "to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic, and progressive nation; and to create social, economic, and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman."

These are American goals as well. And in Obama’s second term, he must focus on achieving these aims — and investing more time and resources in the pivot to Asia would help build a vital and lasting foreign-policy legacy. India’s success is not simply necessary for the region; it’s a linchpin in America’s success in the 21st century.

Tim Roemer is a former U.S. ambassador to India and a former member of the U.S. Congress from Indiana.

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