Special Report

The Battle for India

The U.S.-India partnership is not a done deal by any means, as the U.S. must contend with efforts by Russia and China to win over our new best friend.

By 8.28.06

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With the conflicts and disorder of the Middle East consuming the attention of much of the civilized world, there is yet another battle raging on -- though few in the West are even slightly aware of its potential consequences or that it is even taking place. This one involves the world's great powers and will likely shape the international environment for the foreseeable future. The Bush Administration's early March nuclear deal with New Delhi has set the United States on the proper course in this struggle, but if Washington is to emerge victorious, it must not let any short-term success come to be understood as the ultimate triumph and simply move on.

Much has been made about both the rise of China and a burgeoning India. Their elevated importance in a globalizing world has drawn commentators in both the East and West to predict that the 21st Century will ultimately become the Asian Century. A notion welcomed by both Russia and China as an avenue to create "multi-polar world order," this potential shift in power has embroiled the Bush Administration in an unspoken competition for future primacy in Asia.

Right after the July 17 conclusion of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an effort to strengthen their trilateral partnership. Initially articulated by former Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov in a moment of frustration during NATO's 1999 bombing campaign in Kosovo, the strategic triangle, as it is now frequently called, has progressed in its development yet maintains the vision of its architect.

Primakov was one of the pioneers of those with influence in Russia who advocated a foreign policy aimed at balancing the United States. Moscow has teamed with Beijing in this endeavor and together the two have recently come to view New Delhi as the key to success. Shih Chun-yu wrote in the Chinese state-owned Ta Kung Pao: "The Sino-Russo-Indian trilateral cooperation is only at its initial stage," but when "the three nations agree to join forces, the consolidation will generate [an] unmeasured impact on international relationships." Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko explained that this alliance is only natural as "Moscow, New Delhi and Beijing have common positions on many issues and support a multi-polar world order system."

Indeed, there are numerous factors that could compel the Indians to join in this eastern bloc. Russia possesses both the natural resources and technology that New Delhi covets. Bureaucratic inertia -- almost synonymous with India-- in arms purchases from Russia is something the Bush Administration must counter if the United States is truly to build closer military-to-military relations with India, and organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are presently unmatched by what Washington can offer Singh. India was granted observer status in the SCO last year and while its intentions regarding full membership are unclear at this time, the Russia and China led alliance would allow New Delhi a greater influence in Central Asia, which it desires, and at least ostensible cooperation in counterterrorism efforts.

India, like China, is also rapidly seeking to fulfill its expanding energy needs. While recent competition between Beijing and New Delhi for hydrocarbons resulted in benefiting the sellers as it only increased prices, the two have found a channel to cooperate in this regard that has proven mutually beneficial. On August 16, the Wall Street Journal reported that China and India -- through their respective state-owned companies, Sinopec Group and Oil & Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) -- acquired a fifty percent stake in the Latin America-based Omimex de Colombia. In late 2005, national oil companies from both countries joined to purchase stakes in Al-Furat Petroleum Company in Syria. This concentrated partnership will likely help alleviate the traditional hostility long existent between these Asian giants.

With all that the Russians and Chinese have going for them in their pitch to India, the United States has done remarkably well as of late. The Bush Administration inherited few initiatives that Washington could build on, but the president has taken advantage of some inherent qualities that both the United States and India possess and some burdens that each must address.

The United States and India are both longstanding democracies that happen to be fighting Islamic fanaticism and facing the prospect of China's uncertain intentions that accompany its ever-expanding regional and global influence. Despite an increase in economic cooperation between Beijing and New Delhi -- according to some analysts, China should become India's largest trading partner next year -- geographic and historical factors continue to contribute to mutual suspicion. Less than helpful in this situation has been the strengthening of the traditional alliance between Beijing and Islamabad. Compounding this problem is China's construction at the Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, which essentially gives Beijing a naval presence on both sides of the Indian subcontinent.

Fortunately, a majority in Congress understand the implications of nuclear cooperation between the United States and India. On July 26, the House of Representatives passed the United States and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006 recognizing India as a nuclear weapons state. The Senate is expected to pass its own version of the bill next month, but it is imperative that excessive additional conditions are not placed on New Delhi as such an alteration of the original text of the agreement could jeopardize the entire bilateral strategic partnership. Although ties are consistently improving between Washington and New Delhi, setbacks this fall could push the Indians to conclude that the politically homogenous governments in Beijing and Moscow are more reliable partners than the politically tempestuous United States.

However, in the end it most likely that the nuclear agreement will become law and President Bush and Prime Minister Singh will continue to strengthen their relationship. While New Delhi has yet to sign on to the Proliferation Security Initiative, the biennial American led RIMPAC naval exercises held this summer included India as an observer nation for the first time. India's desires to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council should also play to Washington's advantage. While this is unlikely to occur in the near future, the United States could highlight the actual roadblocks in this effort as both China and Russia strongly oppose Japan's -- who along with Germany and Brazil would likely have to accompany India in any addition -- request to be admitted as a permanent member.

Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in an extremely influential piece last year: "Unlike his predecessors, President George W. Bush has demonstrated a strong desire to transform relations with India, guided by his administration's understanding of the geopolitical challenges likely to face the United States in the twenty-first century." The Bush Administration has not yet won what the CIA has described as the most important "swing state" of the century, but the same demonstration of commitment and resolve that the president has displayed in Iraq should ensure that no Asian bloc arises to threaten the new American Century.

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About the Author

Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.