India tilts to the west as the world's new poles emerge

India tilts to the west as the world's new poles emerge

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
12 January 2006

Nothing is permanent in history, including America's domination of the global economic and political systems. Assuming China and India keep growing at their current rates, the unipolar world of recent years - topped by the US - will be replaced by a multipolar world within a few decades.

Once its "unipolar moment" has passed, America will find it difficult to get what it wants in other parts of the globe. If the US wants to forge alliances or win the argument in international organisations, it will have to work much harder than today. It will probably be able to count on the friendship of Europe, with which it shares many values. But will this new world's emerging poles want to ally with America?

So long as China is significantly weaker than the US, it will desire friendly relations with Washington; serious disputes could damage its economic growth. However, many Chinese strategists regard the US as their long-term foe - and some like to draw graphs showing that Chinese defence spending will overtake that of the US long before the middle of the century.

Already, the unabashed style of China's support for some of the world's most anti-western regimes - such as Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Iran and Sudan - suggests that gaining access to natural resources is not the only reason behind this controversial foreign policy: China also wants to make a point on the limits of western power.

But while China is a pole that seems destined to oppose the US, India is experiencing a tectonic shift in the opposite direction. For most of the half-century that followed independence, India kept its distance from the US. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, helped to found the non-aligned movement, which was defined by opposition to American foreign policy. Nehru also built an alliance with the Soviet Union that survived his death; India supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Although broadly democratic for most of that half-century, India closed its economy to global capitalism and saw no reason to ally with other democracies. But over the past 15 years, while India has slowly opened its economy to the rest of the world, its foreign policy has shifted from non-alignment towards cooperation with the west. One sign of this shift - which shocked many developing countries - came last October when, at the International Atomic Energy Agency, India voted with the US and EU to condemn Iran's nuclear programme. China and Russia abstained.

One force driving this realignment is India's desire to break out of the international isolation that followed its nuclear tests in 1998. The Nuclear Suppliers Group - the club for countries with nuclear power industries - imposed sanctions on India. This hurt: India lacks sufficient nuclear fuel for its power stations. So last July the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, struck a deal with the Bush administration. India promised to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities, and to put the former under international inspection. In return the US would pass legislation to ease the export of sensitive technologies to India, and urge the group to lift the sanctions.

The implementation of this deal would amount to India being forgiven for building atomic bombs. India would join the big league of nuclear nations, alongside the US, Russia, China, France and Britain. But the deal is controversial. Any reward for a country that builds nuclear weapons undermines the non-proliferation regime - and makes it harder to dissuade Iran, North Korea and others from making their own bombs.

The deal could yet unravel. The US, Russia, Britain and France want the suppliers group to lift the sanctions. But other members of the group, such as South Africa and Brazil (which gave up their own nuclear weapons programmes) and the Nordic countries, disagree. India will need a lot of American help to get the July bargain implemented. It therefore has strong reasons for staying close to the US.

Another reason is the rise of China, which mesmerises India. Like a lot of Americans, Indians want to engage with China, but at the same time they fear it.

Many Indians are quite relaxed about China's economic might, because trade between the two countries is booming in both directions. But they worry about being surrounded by unstable countries that are allied to China. The Chinese helped the Pakistanis to build their bomb, and the two countries are still close. China supplies arms to Nepal's mad and autocratic king. In Burma it dominates the eastern provinces and is the junta's best friend. China is also a big influence in war-torn Sri Lanka and in increasingly unstable Bangladesh.

India frets that China may use these troublesome neighbours to put pressure on it. And it is concerned that China's superior financial clout enables it to win friends, and contracts for natural resources, in other parts of Asia. Recently, for example, Chinese companies outbid their Indian rivals in a competition for Kazakh oil. China has thus become the dominant power in much of central Asia and south-east Asia, while Indians note that China is doing nothing to help them fulfil their ambition of gaining a permanent seat on the United Nations security council, or to get the nuclear sanctions against India lifted.

How permanent is this Indian tilt to the west? Indian public opinion remains quite hostile to America. And, formally at least, India is keeping its options open. Its foreign minister meets regularly with his opposite numbers from Russia and China. India has also just become an observer at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the security club led by Russia and China that includes most of the central Asian states.

However, India's participation in such clubs is not significant. As senior figures in the government put it, India needs to turn up so that it knows what is going on. Among India's elite - the leaders of the governing Congress and opposition BJP parties, as well as officials and business chiefs - there is a growing consensus that India's long-term interests require warm ties with America. They know that India's IT and service industries are booming thanks to American investment. India's leaders, unlike those in China, know they want to join the west.