- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2013

India, the world’s most populous democracy, may hold the keys to success for the Obama administration’s self-described foreign-policy “pivot” to Asia, a bipartisan panel of analysts told Congress on Wednesday.

If the pivot’s strategic goal is to counter the rise of China as a global power, U.S. officials would be wise to nurture economic, defense and diplomatic ties with New Delhi, lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific were told in prepared remarks from the analysts.

“Simply put, a fast-growing democratic and pluralistic nation of 1.2 billion people acts as an obvious counterweight to any hegemonic ambitions an authoritarian China may hold,” Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told the subcommittee.

The U.S.-India relationship has tightened during recent years. Bilateral trade between the two has surged by 40 percent since 2009, and, Mr. Dhume said, U.S. weapons sales to New Delhi now “total close to $9 billion as India modernizes its armed forces, partly in response to massive Chinese spending on its own defense capabilities.”

But those developments also have coincided with a significant slowdown in India’s domestic economy in recent years. In light of the slowdown, Mr. Dhume said, Washington should be taking steps to “deepen engagement with India” by opening the door for enhanced ties between New Delhi and U.S. allies in the region, particularly Japan.

The U.S. also should consider “championing India’s membership” in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a free-trade forum that reaches across East Asia, added Vikram Nehru, a senior associate in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

India’s presence would make APEC a more inclusive institution, which would be more likely to serve U.S. interests,” Mr. Nehru said.

India’s overall relationship with East Asia and Washington is complicated, however, by New Delhi’s potential economic dependence on China. And, depending on the region’s overall economic and geopolitical trends, such dependence has the potential to lessen New Delhi’s willingness to work with Washington toward countering China’s rise.

“From the Indian perspective, China is first a neighbor — a relatively strong one that the Indian foreign policy and security establishments are loath to provoke,” said Walter Lohman, who heads the Asian Studies Program at the Heritage Foundation. “For India, China is [an] economic opportunity. It is India’s largest trading partner, and each has nascent, growing investment interests in the other.”

On the security front, meanwhile, U.S. leaders should be paying closer attention to the potentially negative impact that the impending withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan will have on U.S.-India relations.
The Obama administration has said that U.S. forces will depart by 2014.

But unlike Washington, “India doesn’t have the luxury of simply pivoting away from the badlands of the so-called AfPak region,” said Mr. Dhume, referring to the volatile area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the latter of which shares a long and contentious border with India.

“If the U.S. is seen as cutting and running by its Islamist foes, and this results in an upsurge of violence in both Afghanistan and India as in the 1990s, it will reduce trust between Washington and New Delhi,” he said, adding that such circumstances likely would force India to “focus more on interests closer to home than farther afield in East Asia.”