Does India Face East or West?

China 's President Hu Jinatao and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

China ‘s President Hu Jinatao and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

A steady improvement in India’s economy, together with politico-economic changes in its neighborhood, are prompting a re-examination of the national interest in New Delhi. Until recently, and especially after the end of the cold war, Indian and American interests had steered both countries toward “friendly relations.” For India, the desire to gain Washington’s approval and assistance towards the development of civil nuclear power was a powerful motivator. Washington, on the other hand, sought to use India as a counterweight to Chinese power in the Asian continent. The nuclear deal of 2006 seemed for New Delhi a dream come true — for a while at any rate. And for Washington, a strained Sino-Indian relationship at the time appeared to further its geopolitical strategy of pitting India against China.

Six years later, the geopolitical context of these goals has changed dramatically. It is the U.S.–Indian relationship that has come under severe strain recently, due to India’s acute energy need for Iranian oil and Washington’s determination to block all energy exports by Tehran. At the same time, relations between Beijing and New Delhi have been improving — if not yet thriving, while Indo-Russian relations remain positive on the whole. Alternatively, many analysts view the long-term relationship between China and the U.S. as increasingly problematic. What is less often emphasized is that Asians increasingly look upon the U.S. as a counterweight to China.

A question that Indian analysts (official and unofficial) ought to be asking is whether, by sticking with the U.S., New Delhi can afford to be on the wrong side of Asian history. Russia and China, despite traditional suspicions about each other’s intentions, have in recent years started to build many bridges which have strengthened their economic and political relations. In particular, they seem inclined to join forces in opposing American efforts to insert itself into the strategically important area of Central Asia. It is a region that has been receiving a great deal of attention in New Delhi also. Some of India’s interests there diverge with those of the U.S. Indeed, resistance to certain forms of American intervention in national and regional affairs has been growing over the years almost throughout the world. Even U.S.-Japanese relations have been less sanguine of late, while Pakistan is growing ever more restive with Washington’s “anti-terrorist” policies. Does India want to be the lone Asian power tied exclusively to the U.S.?

This brief analysis is intended to underscore is the complexity of the global power hierarchy that Indian (and other) policy-makers must (and should) grapple with. It is a kaleidoscopic structure that includes not only states of varying power assets but regional organizations with asymmetric influence, like ASEAN, SCO, NATO and others, along with unofficial but significant economic actors. The interests of all these players are in constant and dynamic interaction. It would be instructive in this respect to examine on a continuing basis the contemporaneous patterns of international trade between the U.S. and India as well as other relevant states, groupings and economic concerns. Equally enlightening in this regard would be a look at the intricacies of interactions between and among the protean players in Central Asia.

Mary C. Carras, professor emerita, Rutgers University, is an analyst of Indo-American relations. Her writings include a political biography of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a study of Indian political factions.