Embracing India as a Rising Power

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Another type of earthquake hit the Indian Ocean area last week. It was a tectonic shift by the US to form a close strategic partnership with India, land of a billion people, nuclear weapons, and a huge Muslim population.

To many Americans, India has become known as a giant customer call center, where the telephone services of many US companies are handled by accented helpers over fiber-optic cables.

That new kind of global coziness is exactly why the Pentagon and State Department finally decided India was too much of global player to be left out in the cold, despite its unfettered atomic-weapons program and past ties to the Soviet Union.

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It's a risky but bold move by the Bush administration, considering India and Pakistan almost engaged in their fourth war - a possible nuclear one - just three years ago over the Kashmir territorial dispute. Both nations are hypersensitive to the US playing favorites and tipping the regional balance of power. And Pakistan still serves immediate US needs in trying to capture Al Qaeda leaders and handing over evidence of past nuclear-equipment sales to Iran.

While both nations have lately seen the benefits of downplaying Kashmir for the sake of economic growth, that dispute could easily flare again if another violent incident pricks the strong nationalism of these rivals.

The US signal of a new era in ties with South Asia was its decision to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan while for the first time offering both F-16s and even more advanced F-18 jets to India as well as potential sales of nuclear power plants. The goal, a US spokesman said, is to "help India become a major world power in the 21st century."

Coming from a superpower beset by nations trying to whittle it down to size, that's a generous offer. The hidden truth, though, is that the US needs a strong India as a counterweight to China's expanding and often belligerent economic and military might in Asia.

The US also believes India's democracy - unlike China's one-party rule - gives it a long-run advantage in political stability in the economic race with its giant to the north. That reflects President Bush's strategy to promote democracy as an antidote to nations becoming bases for jihadist terrorists. It is exactly because India is a democracy that few if any Muslims from its 150 million Islamic minority have ever joined Al Qaeda.

Playing India off China, while engaging India and Pakistan together, will require delicate diplomacy in the years ahead. Done right, it will be put the US on the offensive, instead of playing defense on many fronts.

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