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The Boston Globe

Opinion

NICHOLAS BURNS

India’s strategic importance to the US

Manish Swarup/associated press

A vendor takes an order from a customer on his mobile phone at a wholesale market, in New Delhi, India, yesterday.

WE HAVE grown accustomed to think of foreign policy as a series of unending crises in this complex time. And there are plenty of problems for Americans to confront overseas, from Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions to our decade-long war in Afghanistan. But success in foreign policy is also about taking advantage of opportunities. If coping with a more powerful China will be the great challenge for the United States in the next half century, India may be the great opportunity.

India is of immense strategic importance to the United States. It can help in limiting possible future Chinese expansion as we seek to maintain a preponderance of military power by the democratic countries of Asia - one of the most important American global objectives. India has helped the United States to support the embattled Karzai government in Afghanistan. Its booming high-tech economy is a source of growing trade and investment for American companies. It has one of the world’s most admired leaders, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all worked to build this partnership in rare bipartisan fashion.

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India, however, can also be a frustrating partner. Its diplomats have dueled with the United States unproductively on global trade talks and on other issues at the United Nations. It has stalled in implementing the nuclear deal with the United States and disappointed expectations it would open its economy further to foreign investment. It has not supported tough US and European sanctions against Iran and criticized NATO’s successful intervention in Libya last spring. Working with India is not easy, and some in Washington are impatient that it has, in some ways, failed to meet its obvious potential to lead globally. Our problem may not be an India that is too strong but one that is too weak and uncertain.

But it would be a mistake to give up on India. India’s leaders acknowledge that they will need closer strategic ties with the United States to balance their often troublesome neighbors - Pakistan and, increasingly, China. They prize the close military ties with the United States and appreciate the political bond between our democracies. We will have to get used to the fact that our partnership will likely advance by fits and starts as we gradually learn to work together, not as allies, but as equals in a transformed world where the United States is still the single strongest country but joined at the global leadership table by newcomers India, China, and Brazil.

The Indian subcontinent’s central location between China and Japan in the East and the Arabian Peninsula in the West can also help the United States to manipulate a rapidly changing strategic map of the world. Americans since our founding have thought of Europe as our central partner and the Mediterranean as the epicenter of global politics. While Europe is still vital to the United States, it is Asia that will likely dominate the future. The strategist Robert Kaplan predicts the Indian Ocean will replace the Mediterranean as the central arena of global energy flows, container traffic, and politics in this century.

That is why Obama’s recent pivot to Asia is the most important strategic advance of his presidency. Given China’s challenge to America’s 60-year domination of the Asia-Pacific region, Obama was smart to announce a reinvigoration of US alliances with Japan and South Korea and the stationing of US Marines in northern Australia as well as a new trade partnership for the region’s democracies.

But Obama’s pivot to East Asia will be incomplete if does not include South Asia and India as well. US officials seem reluctant to link India to this policy. They should do so as a signal to New Delhi of strategic commitment and to Beijing that we are serious about maintaining a US presence in Asia for decades to come.

Americans have learned that we cannot shrink from our global responsibilities and that we cannot hope to succeed by acting alone in the world. We will thus need to rely on friends new and old alike to defend against the tough challenges and to take advantage of the more positive opportunities that lie ahead. If we are patient, India can be one of those friends.

Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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