Austin Bay

President Barack Obama's looming post-election state visit to India is another indication of evolution and maturation -- the incremental but genuine change measured in decades that marks the coalescing of U.S. and Indian global interests.

Media coverage has thus far portrayed the trip as either a presidential escape from an anticipated midterm electoral defeat or a multibillion dollar weapons-peddling expedition with the president as salesman in chief.

These near-term interpretations both contain a grain of truth, but they shouldn't obscure the truly compelling story: the great U.S.-India rapprochement is one of the early 21st century's major historic events. To illustrate, let's go to the 21st century map of India, and view it and President Obama's visit from the perspective of a Chinese admiral sitting in Beijing.

The Indian subcontinent physically dominates the Indian Ocean. China, seeking to assure a steady supply of raw materials and energy for its expanding economy, has invested a lot of time and money in Africa and the Middle East. Tankers carry oil from Sudan and merchant vessels cobalt from the Congo to Chinese ports. These ships pass through waters patrolled by the Indian Navy, which is a rather formidable and increasingly modern force.

Our Chinese admiral knows his history. China's 1950 invasion of Tibet riled India. China's military support of Pakistan and its clandestine encouragement of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program also irritate New Delhi. In 1962, India and China fought the Sino-Indian War along their Himalayan frontier. That war remains something of a "frozen" conflict politically, and given the altitude, literally. Despite negotiations, the border dispute is not quite resolved.

Should another conflict erupt, the Indian Navy is positioned to damage if not strangle China's economy. Moreover, India just might have America on its side. For over two decades, American strategists have touted the logic of an Indo-American alliance based on linguistic and cultural connections, accelerating economic cooperation and -- well, here's the gist of it -- an increasing interest in curbing Chinese hegemony in Asia.

Sept. 11 and Islamist terrorist attacks in India forge another common cause. As for mutual economic interests, an Indian technician fixing an American computer from a call center in Bangalore is a telling indicator. The Indian government, unlike China's, does not fear global connectivity.

Chinese admirals aren't the only ones who see the implications of this strategic merger. Diplomats in New Delhi and Washington are quite aware of it.


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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