- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

SYDNEY, Australia.

Current leader Manmohan Singh has become only the second Indian prime minister to win re-election after serving a full five-year term. The result has enormous implications for our region. For decades after the country’s independence, India remained a suspicious and insular power. Returning Mr. Singh and the Congress Party-led coalition to power will go a long way toward helping India fulfill its destiny as the “swing state” in Asia.

India’s newfound foreign-policy confidence and assertiveness is built on the back of a booming China-like economy that has been growing for the best part of two decades. Gross domestic product more than tripled after 1998. Despite global woes, India is expected to grow at an impressive 6 percent to 7 percent in 2009.

Yet foreign policy for a booming India could have gone in one of two broad directions. India could have pursued policies based on a long-standing political ideology of isolationism from an American-dominated Asia. For decades, Indian policy was devoted to resisting American influence and presence to its East. India could have continued to play the aggrieved victim even when casting off the shackles of the anemic “Hindu rate of growth” that the country suffered for three decades, the disastrous result of closed-door economic policies and nationalist appeals for self-sufficiency.

Mr. Singh’s administration took India in a different direction. As finance minister from 1991 to 1996, he understood that the world had changed. The Soviet Union, India’s great protector for four decades, had imploded. By the time he became prime minister in 2004, he saw that a relationship with America, the sole superpower, was filled with opportunity rather than just threat.

Cooperation with America did not have to entail exploitation of India and its subservience to the global superpower. In fact, by the second term of the George W. Bush administration, the United States openly talked about helping India become a global power within a decade - something the Obama administration has explicitly signed on to continue.

Indian foreign-policy achievements under Mr. Singh’s leadership, particularly the productive relationships with America and its allies, are impressive. Some of these common interests are based on continued distrust of China, with which India fought a war in 1962 and lost.

But it remains unthinkable for India to sign on to any U.S.-backed China containment strategy. India’s strategic culture still would never allow it, and the rest of Asia would disapprove. Instead, Mr. Singh knew what India needed - legitimacy as a rising nuclear-armed great power.

In 2008, President Bush and Mr. Singh signed a nuclear civilian agreement that offered India, a nonsignatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, nuclear legitimacy - in the eyes of the American superpower at least.

A sense of self-worth is also important in any healthy strategic relationship. Unlike previous leaders, Mr. Singh also understood what India offered to potential security partners - an emerging great power happily situated on the map. For example, India is an ocean-based gateway into the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. It exercises a hegemonic presence in both the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal.

Surrounded by unstable states in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Myanmar, India stands tall as a beacon of democratic stability. As long as India was willing, such a combination eventually would be irresistible to the Americans.

The strategic partnership between India and America was aided by Mr. Singh’s “look east policy” of closer economic and diplomatic relations with Southeast Asia and also Japan. This has been extended to encompass a “look east” naval policy encompassing joint exercises with nine Southeast Asian states, Japan, Australia and the United States. To Beijing’s annoyance, few countries in Asia voice concerns about India’s growing naval power, including aircraft carriers and state-of-the-art submarines.

Because of clever diplomacy and sound appreciation of Indian interests, Mr. Singh’s India is enjoying American support as it rises. It is doing so without becoming America’s lackey or even being perceived as one. This is a welcome development for Asia and Australia because India is effectively becoming a “structural” constraint that will limit Chinese power and influence without explicitly holding back Chinese ambitions.

If current trends continue, the Indian economy will be larger than the American one (in absolute terms) in three or four decades. Unlike China’s aging population, the Indian ratio of the working-age population compared to the nonworking one will continue to improve well into the 2040s.

India is as important as China to the future of Asia and Australia. In foreign-policy matters, the U.S.-India partnership is a critical pillar for the region’s hedging strategy against the unknown consequences of a rising Chinese power and arguably a declining American one.

Although it is prudent policy not to comment on the elections of another country, the region’s overwhelming choice was for victory of a coalition led by Mr. Singh and the Congress Party.

Mr. Singh’s main opponent, L.K. Advani, advocated a “muscular” foreign policy, meaning greater “autonomy” and self-dependency in strategic matters. Though it is unlikely Mr. Advani would have comprehensively rejected Mr. Singh’s strategy of cooperation with America and U.S. partners in Asia, he still would have been reading from a different blueprint. The temptation to embrace some elements of India’s anti-American, isolationist past would be great. Even worse, had the so-called Third Front - a motley coalition of regional and communist parties - won power, Indian economic and foreign policy would have been set back years if not decades.

The scale of the victory for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of which Mr. Singh is leader offers the UPA a mandate to continue the policies of the previous government over the next five years. It also means minimal reliance on far-left groups that would hinder existing economic reform programs that are helping lift up India’s poor and middle classes.

The talk in Asia is all about autocratic China and what it means for the region. But with limited fuss and bother, democratic India is fast becoming the “swing state” in Asia.

John Lee is the visiting foreign-policy fellow at the Center for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia, and at the Hudson Institute in Washington. A fully updated second edition his book “Will China Fail?” will be released shortly.

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