President Obama’s upcoming trip to India clearly reflects the growing importance of that country as a U.S. trading partner and an economic force in the globalized world. Equally important is the growing position of India as a military power in South Asia and the potential for a strong relationship with the United States in the area of regional and even global security. India’s role in the world is changing as is New Delhi’s perspective on national and regional security.
India has always charted an independent course when it comes to matters of national security. During the Cold War it was the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement of nations that stood somewhat apart from the east-west struggle. The fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of a global economic order and the challenge posed by global terrorism have been the primary reasons for India to reassess and redefine its relationship to the world, in general, and the west, in particular. India has made the fundamental decision to engage the world and become part of a global economy. Indian expatriates who have been educated in the West and learned how to create and grow businesses have been returning to the motherland to create an economic renaissance in that country.
The security problems of the 21st Century also challenge India’s traditional unaligned posture. The decision for President Obama to stay at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, the scene of a horrific terrorist attack in November 2008, is clearly a deliberate underscoring of the commitment by both countries to counter the scourge of Islamic terrorism. Both India and the United States have an interest in managing the rise of China. There are other security issues, such as Iran’s drive to acquire a nuclear weapon, which call for closer consultation between the two countries.
The security relationship between the United States and India will evolve in its own unique way, reflecting national histories, current interests and visions of the future regional and global security environments. The U.S. cannot simply expect India to slip into the kind of posture and relationship developed over many decades by allies such as Great Britain, Germany or Japan. The U.S. must respect India’s unique perspective as the dominant power in South Asia and an independent actor for more than sixty years. At the same time, recent events, including the agreement on nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and India, provide evidence that closer collaboration on security issues is possible.
One area with a lot of potential for exploration and expansion is arms sales and technology transfer. Where once India was almost solely a market for Soviet and, to a lesser extent, European military hardware, this world is now opening up to U.S. hardware providers. There are reports that India intends to acquire the Boeing C-17 in a deal worth billions of dollars. The U.S. F-16 and F/A-18 E/F are competitors in New Delhi’s program to upgrade its tactical fighter fleet. There are also opportunities in the naval arena, including for sales of the Littoral Combat Ship, unmanned aerial systems and, most interesting perhaps, in the provision of the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle to the Indian Army. In view of the U.S. experience with counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and that of India in Kashmir, there is clearly much that the two nations can learn from one another.
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