India-U.S.: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship?

An India-U.S. alliance: It has long been one of the missing links in Washington's Asian diplomacy. During the Cold War, America backed Pakistan, while India turned to the Russians. Years later, President Bill Clinton's 2000 trip to India promised to rekindle a relationship. Then came September 11, and the war in Afghanistan again compelled Washington to seek out Islamabad as a key ally.

But a strong alliance with India may be developing much faster than was thought possible even at the turn of the year. The U.S. needs all the allies it can acquire in the war on terrorism, and it's willing to risk Pakistan's ire to enlist India to the cause. India, long looking for a U.S. friendship, is happy to oblige. The result could be one of the biggest new engagements in U.S. statecraft in years as America supplies India with arms, builds a strategic relationship, and moves India permanently into the U.S. sphere. "Decades of stultifying standard operating procedures are being put aside in both Washington and New Delhi," says U.S. Ambassador to India Robert D. Blackwill. "The train is picking up speed."

Events of the last few weeks show just how strong the U.S. commitment is getting. The Indians are buying some major military hardware from the Pentagon. April saw the $140 million purchase of advanced Raytheon battery radar systems, the first military sale by Washington to New Delhi in almost a decade. The system can track enemy shelling and will be deployed along the border with Pakistan. India's hawkish ruling Bharatiya Janata Party may spend up to $2 billion a year on U.S. equipment.

Arms sales are part of a wider defense partnership. In mid-May, U.S. forces will land on Indian soil for joint training exercises with Indian commandos in Agra. Meanwhile, the Indian Navy is providing fueling and other logistical support to U.S. ships, including those involved in the Afghan war. India's Central Bureau of Investigation is helping the FBI track down sources of terrorist funding. Indian warships are even joining U.S. forces in antipiracy and antiterrorist patrols as far afield as the strategic Malacca Straits. "We are finding ourselves in a new role not confined to South Asia," says Defense Secretary Yogendra Narain.

While India is proving helpful to the U.S. in the war against terror, one unanswered question is how useful India will prove in containing China. The Indian military Establishment has never gotten over China's 1962 invasion of northern India and sees China as even a bigger threat, over the long run, than Pakistan. Although tension between the U.S. and China has eased, the original suspicions of the Bush Administration against Chinese expansionism have not receded. The Indians have expressed enthusiasm for the Pentagon's missile defense shield, should it ever materialize. China, say analysts, would view such a system as a challenge to its power.

Will the U.S.-Indian relationship solidify into something as enduring as the American-Japanese alliance? Much depends on how Washington handles the deadly enmity between Pakistan and India, which hugely complicates the State Dept.'s work. "The Indians think if we're helping Pakistanis, it means we're going to be working less with India, and vice versa," says one State Dept. official. What the Americans hope to do is restrain both the Pakistanis and Indians from escalating their conflict again, especially over the disputed territory of Kashmir. That's a situation as bloody as anything in the Middle East and will test America's diplomatic skills for years, if not decades, to come.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay and Mark L. Clifford in Hong Kong

Edited by Christopher Power

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