At the height of the two-week standoff with China over a US reconnaissance plane, President Bush took time to give a visitor a tour of the White House Oval Office. The visitor was Jaswant Singh, foreign minister and defense minister of India, China's longtime rival that three years ago joined the Nuclear Club.
Sure, it could have been a coincidence. Or it could have been a none-too-subtle signal to China that the US intends to extend its reach in Asia right up to the edge of China's backyard.
"The US knows the Chinese are watching the US-India relationship warming over the last few years, and Bush used it at a critical moment," says Kanti Bajpai, a disarmament-studies professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. "India knew they were being used, but they milked it for what it's worth."
Call it the politics of balance. As the Bush administration shifts China from its "partner" column to its "competitor" column, there appears to be a growing appreciation among top US officials for the democratic values and strategic goals India shares with the US. Simultaneously, China has been making moves of its own toward India, offering further talks on longtime border disputes.
It may not be time to predict a full strategic alliance with either the US or China, but the sudden attractiveness of India appears certain to slowly but radically shift the power balance in an area of influence shared by all three countries that stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific Ocean.
In an interview in the Hindu, a prominent Indian newspaper, departing US Ambassador Richard Celeste indicated that the Bush administration seemed eager to work more closely with India not just on trade issues, but on strategic ones as well. He noted that a senior Bush administration official had told him that India had "earned a place at the table" of global players.
Enhanced military cooperation is just the first step - including the exchange of military and technical advisers, the transfer of high-tech weaponry, and joint military exercises - before a strategic alliance could be formed, security and diplomatic experts say.
Even so, there are some initial signs of a growing US-India relationship.
For one thing, while the Clinton administration waited years to fill the US ambassadorship in India, the Bush administration announced its planned appointment of Robert Blackwill within a month of taking office. Diplomats here say the selection of Mr. Blackwill, senior State Department strategist on Chinese and nuclear proliferation issues, indicates the White House considers South Asia to be a top-priority region.
Over the next few months, a veritable who's who of Bush officials could be visiting India. President Bush and members of his cabinet have accepted Foreign Minister Singh's invitations to visit India, but lower down, the flurry of visits could be even more intense.
Behind the scenes, there will be even more talks - and a number of Congressional bills - on removing the biggest hurdle to closer US-India ties. With India resistant to signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, trade sanctions specifically targeting industries that provide nuclear technology and dual-use technologies were imposed by Congress after India tested nuclear devices in 1998.
In any case, the current US-India relationship is a far cry from the days when India was a left-leaning state that bought Soviet weaponry and preached against the evils of Western (read US) imperialism. What the US would gain from a cozier arrangement, Indian strategic experts say, is a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia, as well as an advocate for democratic governance in South Asia. What India gains is prestige, security, and a potentially growing role on the international stage.
"In isolation, the US cannot ensure stability in Asia without working with us," says Adm. K.K. Nayyar, former chief of Indian naval operations. "The thing is, you require a counterweight in dealing with the Muslim world. We are the second-largest Muslim country ..., and we represent a relatively more modern, moderate Islamic world view."
Although India and China accuse each other of fomenting and supporting revolution within its borders, (India in Chinese-ruled Tibet, and China in Indian-ruled Assam and Nagaland), China has begun to trade maps with India over their disputed border from Kashmir to Burma, a marked improvement over trading artillery rounds. Just in the past 50 years, India and China have fought one war and a handful of skirmishes over the area. Trade between India and China has risen from $200 million a year to $2.5 billion in the past 10 years.
"China and India realize they have interests in each other's stability," says Kanti Bajpai, the disarmament-studies professor at JNU. "We have got a series of confidence-building measures, we have trade relations. We would jeopardize all that if we moved too fast toward a strategic relationship with the US and joined the anti-China bandwagon."
In addition to continuing disagreements over India's development and testing of nuclear weapons, other obstructions to a closer US-India strategic alliance include India's much-stated desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In addition, the US will have to break the traditional mindset of viewing India primarily in light of its other hostile neighbor, Pakistan, which was a close US ally during the cold-war years. Now, the US will have to begin thinking of India on its own terms.
"We have been through this dance before several times now, but it's never quite happened," says Steve Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "As the US, we don't have enough experience to treat India as a strategic partner. And from the Indian standpoint, they don't want to be in a position where we [the US] fight China to the last Indian."
One US official agrees that closer ties with the South Asian giant are inevitable, after sanctions are removed. But, he adds: "A strategic partnership is something that takes time to develop. You don't just add water and, boom, you've got one."
It may be years away from reaching maturity, but there is an unmistakable giddiness in the air over the prospect. "It's like boy meets girl. We have tried to hold hands, but the kissing hasn't started," says S. K. Singh, former foreign secretary under Indira Gandhi, 1969-74. "Earlier, we were glaring at each other."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor