India: A Rising Power

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States underwent major strategic reassessments of its capabilities and geopolitical reach around the globe. As the threat of a single force -- the U.S.S.R. -- receded and then disappeared altogether, new challenges arose. One such challenge was the relationship with several countries that began to gain clout and importance on the world's political, military and economic scene. While Washington's attention has been fixed on the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, a country somewhat neglected by U.S. policymakers steadily gained in importance and has the potential of being one of the world's major geopolitical players -- India.

During the Cold War, India's interests and aspirations were largely subordinated to the strategies of its chief ally, the U.S.S.R. The checkerboard pattern of the Cold War alliances placed democratic, though socialist-oriented, India in the Soviet camp, while the U.S. supported its rival, Pakistan. India's relationship with the U.S.S.R. did not preclude it from pursuing its own policy towards China, with whom it fought a losing conflict in the early 1960s, or towards Pakistan itself, which was defeated twice and finally dismembered by India in 1971.

Its Cold War alliance gave India access to much-needed industrial and military technology. While home to the world's second largest population after China, India has remained backward and underdeveloped for decades after its independence due to the policies and approaches of its successive governments. While each government has attempted to enrich the state through various political and economic means, these developments have been hampered by the near-monumental task of lifting its people out of poverty through ways that would be acceptable to all strata of the population.

After 1991, as the U.S.S.R. fell apart, India's policies were no longer strongly tied or connected to any one country. Since that time, it has aggressively pursued its own independent agenda. And while Washington policymakers were keenly aware of the developments on the Eurasian subcontinent for decades, they "suddenly" discovered India in the post-1991 world as an energetic and driven country with the full potential of becoming a major player in world affairs in the coming decades.

India's future rise to prominence will not be a result of a Cold War-style alliance, but the culmination of several factors that will allow it to harness the full potential of the country. First, its emergence as one of Eurasia's chief economies will be both a combination of its economic improvement and the sheer numbers of its population. Since the late 1980s, India's economy has started on the slow, but inevitable, path towards marketization. This ongoing endeavor will take many more years to complete, as India's economy has been structured in order to grant the government a major decision-making role. This has inevitably given rise to a plethora of protectionist laws and subsidies, which now stand in the way of full market-oriented economic reform. Such a protectionist economy now employs hundreds of millions of people, and Western-style reforms and restructuring will affect them in profound ways. Still, India is slowly proceeding with market reforms, and these initial efforts are producing necessary results.

India's well-educated, young population has embraced state-of-the-art computer and information technologies, making their country one of the most important high-tech hubs in the world. Its information technology and computer companies in Bangalore have been named as the world's second Silicon Valley. These companies and their founders had a major part in the high-tech and Internet boom in the United States in the late 1990s. While they are earning India its much-needed currency, this success is mostly limited, as the rest of the country lags far behind -- nearly a third of India's population still lives below the national poverty line.

In 2003, the Economist did a comparative study of India and China, and although it concluded that, for the time being, China's state-sanctioned market policies are far ahead of India's in terms of internal development and foreign direct investment, India has the potential to economically catch up to its large neighbor. Its middle class, soon to number in the hundreds of millions, is growing, and its consumer needs are contributing to domestic economic growth. This might generate its own set of problems, as the growing consumer demand will push the country's natural resources to the limit.

For now, increased demand for foreign investment and technical expertise means that the United States stands to benefit from this trend, though certain detriments to this relationship can be generated. English-speaking India is a destination for many jobs currently being outsourced by the United States, an issue that might figure prominently during the November presidential elections. Nonetheless, while India's full economic recovery is years away, the conditions already exist for this process to bear fruit in the near future.

India's second contribution to its rise as a regional and global power is its military establishment. Already, India has one of the world's largest armed forces. Its indigenous military development is producing the desired results, fielding everything from tanks and armored vehicles to jet fighters and advanced naval vessels. The Indian Navy already has the largest presence in the Indian Ocean after the United States, and fields an aircraft carrier, which allows it to extend operations beyond its immediate landmass. Having fought several wars against Pakistan, India's current military is twice as large as its rival.

Both countries' acquisition and testing of nuclear weapons by 1998 has leveled the playing field in case of a war and has also focused international attention on the subcontinent. While both India and Pakistan are currently developing short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, the initial scare of the first nuclear showdown between the two states has passed. There does not appear to be that great a possibility of both countries exchanging nuclear strikes on each other's cities, though major tension remains between the two over Pakistan's support of militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir. At present, each country maintains a somewhat nervous finger on the nuclear trigger. To further dissipate this tension, India has recently engaged in public reconciliation moves, with its former prime minister traveling to Pakistan for a series of high-profile sports events.

The Indian Air Force has recently demonstrated that it can be counted among the world's top by besting American aircraft in a series of joint war games. Its air power not only includes twice as many aircraft as Pakistan's, but also is qualitatively better than the much-bigger Chinese air force. India has hundreds of modern aircraft in its inventory, including state-of-the-art Su-30, Mig-29, Jaguars and Mirage 2000. It also possesses long-range bombers that are capable of targeting most of China almost unchallenged. India maintains this lead by purchasing high-tech weapons systems from Russia, and augmenting them with domestically produced avionics equipment, as well as with equipment procured from other countries. As India begins to retire hundreds of its older aircraft, the modern replacements will strengthen its already powerful and battle-proven reach over the subcontinent and South Asia in general.

India has also been very active politically, strengthening its relationship with Russia through economic and military cooperation. The purchase of Russian military equipment is one of the ways India seeks to expand its influence. It is also active in the Central Asian countries through high-profile state visits and economic cooperation. India has a great interest in oil- and natural gas-rich Central Asia, and has expressed such interest in several pipeline projects that would give it access to much-needed energy reserves.

During the U.S.-led war against the Taliban, India maintained a limited presence in Tajikistan that allowed it to aid anti-Taliban forces and monitor the situation in the region. Given the growing Chinese and American influence in Central Asia, Russia might welcome India to serve as a counterbalance. India's trade with Russia is on the rise, and Indian economic presence and influence in Central Asia is expected to grow in the coming years.

At present, India is far from being one of the Eurasian superpowers, but all signs point to its coming emergence as such. The sheer numbers of its growing population that now stands at more than a billion, the expanding middle class, robust military establishment and the country's increasing sophistication in high-technology are shaping India as one of the rising political, economic and military powers. This rise is inevitable and has profound implications for U.S. foreign policy.

Unlike China, which is now seen by some U.S. policymakers as a potential rival, the U.S. will be gaining a powerful ally in India. India is the world's largest democracy and although its politics are often driven by nationalistic demands, in general, it aspires to similar democratic goals and principles as the United States. However, India views U.S. support of Pakistan with guarded suspicion. On the one hand, Pakistan gained pivotal importance to the U.S. in the "war on terrorism." On the other, the Pakistani military supports its own militants in Kashmir that attack India's security targets. It will be all the more important for the U.S. to maintain a careful balance between what it now regards as a short- to possibly long-term interest -- Pakistan's fight against al-Qaeda -- and its possible long-term objectives, such as India as a rising power with all the requisite clout.

Furthermore, in the emerging geopolitical picture, it is India, rather than Russia, that can check the rising Chinese influence in Eurasia, and Washington's closer cooperation with this subcontinental power can help enhance its own influence. India's proximity to Afghanistan and its own war against Muslim fundamentalists in Jammu and Kashmir make it a potentially powerful ally in the global fight against terrorism.

Most importantly, India's drive for greater power status is driven by intense domestic sentiment, which has viewed the last five centuries of foreign domination with growing contempt. It will not welcome foreign influence that will be viewed as limiting its own potential. In the near future, in order to strengthen its bonds with India, the United States will have to structure its own policies with this country on equal terms. Finally free from foreign restraints and largely bound by its own domestic agenda, India stands the chance of emerging as one of the main players in Eurasian and global affairs.

Report Drafted By:
Yevgeny Bendersky

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR)


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