President Trump’s whirlwind trip to India is much more than a photo op in front of the Taj Mahal. It’s a calculated effort to deepen U.S. ties with the only nation that can serve as an Asian counterweight to China.
Unlike China, India is also a country with deep democratic traditions. It has, with a brief exception in the late 1970s, been a democracy since independence in 1947. The media is free and political competition is vibrant, with frequent changes in power at the national and state level. Far from a one-party state creating a techno-totalitarian “harmonious society,” India is a country with many languages, religions and ethnicities. It is often chaotic, but its differences help preserve its freedom.
These advantages make India an increasingly attractive option for business. China’s aggressive foreign policy and despicable human rights record make it a more unstable place to do business. One should expect the United States to place more, not less, pressure on China in coming years regardless of who wins this year’s election. A sensible U.S. policy to contain China must find a place for business to invest in that offers many of China’s advantages with few of its political liabilities. India is a perfect candidate to fill that role.
India has long recognized the potential threat that a strong China poses. The two nations fought a brief border war in 1962, which ended in India’s defeat and China’s seizure of territory as large as Switzerland. China has also sided with Pakistan in that nation’s decades-long conflict with India. India knows that a strong China inevitably makes for a weak India.
This is one reason India has been strengthening its military. Already a nuclear power, India is developing ballistic missiles. Its Agni missiles are capable of carrying strategic nuclear warheads and can hit targets anywhere in China. It is also developing a blue-water navy capable of resisting Chinese intrusion in the Indian Ocean. India already has one aircraft carrier and is building a second, due to become operational in 2022. It plans to build a third as well as submarines that can intercept any Chinese fleet should the nations ever engage in conflict. Trump’s announcement of a $3 billion defense deal with India shows that the United States can profit from India’s military growth, too.
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None of this mean that a formal U.S.-India alliance is coming soon. India has historical ties to Russia and has long sought to craft an independent course in foreign affairs. Its status as a developing economy means any trade deal would post challenges for the United States, with cheap labor and weaker environmental policies likely to engender opposition from unions and environmentalists. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s embrace of Hinduism as a national unifying force raises questions for many regarding India’s commitment to liberal democracy as well as the nation’s future stability. This doesn’t mean, however, that closer ties aren’t in the United States’ national interest.
Legendary 19th-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck once remarked that the most important political fact of the coming 20th century would be that the North Americans spoke English, assuring the alliance between the United States and Britain. Perhaps the great political fact of the 21st century will be that the Indians speak English, too.