How long can India capitalize on global China angst?

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In her Foreign Affairs article "Promoting the National Interest" in 2000, ten years ago, Condoleezza Rice laid out a series of key principles that would guide the Bush administration's foreign policy strategy. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the highly informative essay is her identification of  India as a ‘strategic partner’ and China as a ‘strategic competitor’. Ties to India should thus be strengthened, she argued. This led to President Bush's decision to reach the much vaunted US-Indian nuclear deal five years later, which symbolized India's emergence as a global power. Looking back, Bush's pro-India stance and his recruitment of several Indophiles into his foreign policy team is considered to be one the Bush administration's few clever moves in the foreign policy realm.

Since then, India's strategic weight has skyrocketed. Only a decade ago, India stood isolated and was desperate for foreign approval. Today, India has become so important that no head of state can afford not to visit New Delhi. Indeed, there are few countries in the world India is not forging a 'strategic partnership' with. Why is India, a country condemned internationally in 1998 for its decision to go nuclear and disregard the NPT, suddenly everybody's darling? There are plenty of reasons. India's economy has grown phenomenally, and it is ever more resource-hungry. One billion Indians' per capita GDP is surging, offering an attractive market for foreign investors . It is a democratic and politically stable country in the midst of a region often considered a nuclear tinderbox. It has enormously profited from the BRIC label, which gave India a sexy, dynamic and forward-looking flavor. And finally, it has hired top-notch marketing consultants, who convinced the world, including World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, that India was indeed 'Incredible'.

Yet, Condoleezza's rationale also seems to play a key role. Not only the United States, but most European nations have agreed with the former Secretary of State's balancing logic and  seek to strengthen ties with India to balance China. A strong India is indeed likely to pose a significant obstacle to China's growing strategic dominance. China will not be able to build a tributary system of China-dependent states across all of Asia because India will not recognize China's superiority, and it is too strong to become a subordinate to Beijing. Even if China and India manage to work together, a strong India reduces China's ability to exert influence in the region, a requirement to become a global actor.

India could emerge as the winner of this situation in which it is being identified as a bulwark against the Chinese threat. Relations between India and Germany, Europe's largest economy, provide an interesting example. Two years ago, India and Germany signed a defence deal which involved technology transfer and joint defence purchases. “We are willing to transfer high-tech weaponry to the Indian armed forces to help their modernisation drive. India will get top-end technology and it will be a win-win situation for both countries in this partnership of equals.", the ambassador said. He further stressed that India and Germany had many common characteristics-- both are federal, secular, and democratic. Besides this both nations were determined hard for finding a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council. Such declarations by a German official towards China would be quite unthinkable.

The key question is how long India can manage to be perceived as a benign alternative to the mean Chinese giant. China-bashing was very visible during America's congressional elections, but voices condemning India are growing louder. Yet for several reasons India is likely to maintain its advantage over China with regards to reputation. Being a democracy helps. In addition, India's economic system is closer to that of the West, so it looks less scary. For a European company, being taken over by an Indian conglomerate like Tata is preferable to being gobbled up by an obscure Chinese semi-state owned company.

Finally, the West, and particularly the United States, still believe that they can influence India. This is quite remarkable given that during the Cold War, India was the only democracy which clearly distanced itself from the United States. Even after the nuclear deal, there is little sign a more pro-American stance in New Delhi. India sees itself as a global power and Indian voters are highly allergic to any type of alliance, fearing that this may reduce their hard won independence.  Despite this, American and European efforts to court India are likely to grow, and rumours are the United States will soon actively push for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for India. It is often noted that, of all emerging powers, India finds itself in the most difficult geopolitical position. That is certainly true from a regional perspective. In the global context, however, India's prospects may well be the brightest of all.

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