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Time to be a better neighbor, India. If you don't, China will.

President Obama's trip to India underscored India's importance in global security and global finances – a democratic counter to an aggressive China. But India's poor foreign policy and botched regional relations have been holding it back.

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Unfortunately, the United States has been an accomplice to India’s regional isolationism. In 2008, pressure from Washington shut down a natural gas project involving India, Pakistan, and Iran. Last year, Present Obama briefly considered appointing Amb. Richard Holbrooke as a regional envoy, with the authority to conduct dialogue between India and Pakistan, but narrowed his brief to Afghanistan and Pakistan over Indian opposition.

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Asked about Pakistan at a town hall meeting in New Delhi on Sunday, the president reiterated that the United States would not intervene in the Kashmir dispute. Yet without an Indo-Pak peace, no strategy for Afghanistan can move forward.

The trappings of global status, without the substance

The West has lavished India with the trappings of global status: a seat at the G20, a temporary seat at the UN Security Council that may open the door to a permanent one, a controversial US-India nuclear deal, and two pending defense trades worth more than $15 billion dollars.

To read Indian newspapers or speak to diplomats is to believe that these gestures represent global influence. But in fact, they signal the rise of a Potemkin hegemon. If India is encircled by China’s string of pearls, and if migrants and militants compromise its borders, then it will be forced to waste its economic resources putting out local fires, unable to project power further afield.

Moreover, as they watch this regional saga, potential partners in Africa, the Middle East, or Central Asia see India as a country that treats its neighbors with contempt. Indian leaders can argue that other great powers have done the same, but the argument misunderstands the very nature and purpose of India’s rise, the unique role that ideals must play in India’s success.

To be sure there are steps India can take to reverse this course. If it accepts international mediation in Kashmir, if it becomes a neutral partner for peace in Burma and Nepal, and if it opens its markets to greater regional trade, it may yet salvage its position as the democratic counter-power to China. But these are long-term solutions, and the window to pursue them is shrinking.

Maha Rafi Atal is a journalist in New York, recently returned from India, Pakistan, and Nepal where she was a correspondent for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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