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
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.