PARIS – “Do not forget India.” That warning made sense 10 or 15 years ago; not any longer. India is now impossible to ignore, much less forget, owing not only to its rapid economic growth, but also to the country’s increasing geopolitical stature.
Europeans often speak of an emerging “G-3,” implying an international system dominated by the United States, China, and the European Union. But this ambition, however legitimate, looks more presumptuous and unrealistic every day, particularly given the choices that Europe just made in naming its new “President” – Belgium’s Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy – and “Foreign Minister” – the never been elected to anything Lady Catherine Ashton from Britain. How can Europe pretend to stand for an ambitious message when it picks such low-profile – indeed, practically anonymous – messengers to deliver it?
Given this demonstration of Europe’s Lilliputian instincts, if a G-3 ever becomes a reality, the only serious contender nowadays to join the US and China is India. The very warm greeting and State Dinner given to India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by US President Barack Obama in Washington two weeks ago is ample testimony to India’s new international status.
That reception was, of course, intended to nurture India’s collective ego, which had sensed a Sino-centric tilt to American policy ever since Obama became president. But there is much more to it than that. In 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union presented for India a serious strategic test, which the country has passed with flying colors. Partly in response to the Soviet collapse, India embraced capitalism without reservation, which has produced spectacular economic progress. And, like the economy, India’s self-confidence has boomed.
India today sees that the wider world, particularly the West, regards it with growing respect, not only for the country’s performance, but also for its essence – a young country and that is also an ancient civilization. A little more than 60 years ago, India remained the crown jewel of the British Empire. Fifty years ago, if you sought to read about India in the West, you would mostly find books about spirituality. Today, the books about India include topics like management and nuclear strategy.
Of course, contrary to China, India still finds it difficult to fully perceive itself as a world power, though it is well aware that it has become a regional giant. At least for the foreseeable future, however, this status is highly dependent upon India’s relationship with the US. The great diplomatic success of George W. Bush’s presidency (and maybe the only true one) was to construct a strategic partnership with India.
One of the indirect consequences of this privileged relationship, however, has been the deepening of Japan’s identity crisis. Forty years ago, Japan represented the “Asian West.” Today, the emergence of Chinese-style and Indian-style modernity is mentally destabilizing Japan. After all, if China is America’s main economic partner in Asia, and if India is America’s main diplomatic partner, what is left for Japan? Its aging population watches resignedly as the new, younger Asia, becomes as important for the US as Europe was during the Cold War.
George W Bush’s approach was to view India as the “anti-China,” and thereby to balance the “biggest democracy in the world” against the “oldest civilization in the world.” As a result, India’s leaders seem not to have understood the shift towards China in US diplomacy in the first months of Obama’s presidency. Why, Indian officials seemed to wonder, change what works, and at a time when the US needs India more than ever?
In terms of democracy, there is no competition of course between India and China. But India is also increasingly aware that nothing can be done without its help on issues from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Iran to global warming. For example, if Pakistan is to dedicate all of its forces to the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, India must convince the Pakistani Army that it need not fear a stab in the back.
The time has come for India to recognize that with power comes responsibility, and to act like the indispensable nation for regional and world security that it has become. The period when India was forgotten or an afterthought is at an end, and with it the period when India could forget about the world.