India starts to look beyond Pakistan

Posted in Other | 14-Dec-04 | Author: Philip Bowring| Source: International Herald Tribune

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (L) shakes hands with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the 10th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Vientiane.
NEW DELHI Vladimir Putin and Donald Rumsfeld have been here this month. In November, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Vientiane, Laos, doling out goodwill to East Asian leaders, notably Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China. India is courting, and being courted.

India's international engagement is gathering momentum. It is happening partly because the country is beginning to escape its preoccupation with Pakistan, which has often blinded it to wider strategic and commercial interests. A nation that seeks to be a global player has been locked in an obsession with a much smaller country, which many here are now seeing as at worst a persistent nuisance rather than a major threat.

Even if the current thaw with Islamabad is short-lived, the change in India's own mind-set should ensure that it cultivates its relationships, particularly in Asia, with a view to interests other than Pakistan. And if the thaw lasts, India will be at the center of enhanced regional prosperity based on trade.

There is a newfound self-confidence here stemming from the success of economic reforms, the prestige of Indian engineers and entrepreneurs in information technology and pharmaceuticals, and a realization that Indian firms can compete on the world stage, even with China. India now wants to be engaged, and is now trying to play a tough but, for once, essentially positive role in the Doha round of trade negotiations.

At the same time there is growing acknowledgment that economic interaction and faster growth are bringing new demands on its international relationships at a time when China is occupying an ever increasing amount of global, and particularly Asian, space.

India is now as dependent as China on hydrocarbon imports, and its needs may increase even more rapidly in the future. But it is lagging in the development of relationships, and military capability, aimed at securing supply. For sure, its closer ties to the United States owe something to the U.S. role in protecting Gulf oil flows as well as to mutual concerns about Islamic fundamentalism and China's forward posture. India needs U.S. investment and market access, and its successful migrants to the U.S. have created strong, permanent bonds between the two nations.

But the relationship is currently being complicated not just by America's arms sales to Pakistan and its support for General Pervez Musharraf's bogus democracy but also by what India sees as Washington's ideologically driven obsession with Iran. India wants closer relationships and energy deals with its large, strategically important energy-rich near neighbor.

Meanwhile, however, China seems to be stealing a march on India, being involved in major construction projects in Iran and currently negotiating the details of a $100 billion gas deal. Nor can India entirely forget its old friend Russia, which is likely to remain its main arms supplier even as India continues to buy more from Israel, France and perhaps the United States.

Direct relations with China are now as cordial as they have been since the 1950s, and two-way trade is expanding. But border problems are on ice rather than moving toward a solution. India views with disquiet the further Sinicization of Tibet, which seems likely to follow the railway China is building to Lhasa.

India needs to present a friendly face toward China, with which it shares common trade interests, if it is to engage with the countries of Southeast Asia. But here it lags far behind a China whose flag has closely followed the growth of trade.

It has negotiated some bilateral deals but is kept at a polite distance by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a group. It has yet to develop a meaningful relationship with gas-rich Indonesia, an immediate neighbor, and it worries about China's access to the Andaman Sea through Myanmar without being able to do anything to supplant Chinese influence with the ruling generals. How long will it be before China's nuclear-powered submarines patrol the Indian Ocean?

In short, India has begun to look east, but it needs to do so more vigorously.

Yet if India is increasingly aware of its own weaknesses in the face of a booming China, others in Asia are beginning to recognize the attractions of India. Japanese and Korean companies are waking up to the nation's longer-term trade and investment potential. On a 20-year view, its demographics are much more attractive than those of China and commitment to private capital more assured. Just as India needs strategic partners who can supply capital or resources, there are those in East Asia, notably Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia, who remain wary of China's ambitions and are looking for ways of balancing power in Asia in the likely event that the U.S. role as benign hegemon gradually diminishes.

India lags behind China by 15 years or so in both economic development and its relations with the wider world. Its internal complexity, messy democratic politics and private-dominated corporate sector may prevent it from duplicating China's single-minded pursuit of long-term national interests. But India is back on the world stage.