Is the India-U.S. post-Cold War rapprochement blossoming into an ... ?
The word intentionally missing from that first sentence is "alliance."
In the complex brawl India calls its domestic politics, alliance -- when linked to the United States -- is a ruckus-sparking word. Mention "alliance" and the United States in the same sentence, and India's strong left-wing parties, particularly its Communist Party, score an easy propaganda headline. The Communists portray themselves as protectors of Indian sovereignty. The accusation of alliance also rankles Indian ultra-nationalists.
So both the Indian and American governments avoid the word.
Which is precisely why last week I asked James Clad, the Department of Defense's deputy assistant secretary for South and Southeast Asia, if conditions are emerging that could lead to a formal U.S.-India defense alliance.
"The short answer here is we want to work with people. We're not looking for an alliance with anyone," Clad replied. "It (the word "alliance") sends a wrong signal," for alliances "figure a real or potential opponent."
That's a careful response from someone intimately familiar with Indian and Southeast Asian politics. Clad knows the region, its risks, its remarkable potential and its plethora of hot-button issues. From 1983 to 1991, he worked for The Far Eastern Economic Review as a staff correspondent and a stringer for The Economist Intelligence Report and International Herald Tribune. From 1995 to 2002, he was professor of South and Southeast Asian studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
A month ago, Clad participated in a conference with several key Indian defense officials. When asked by Indian reporters about an alliance, he assured them the United States wasn't trying to "lure" India into a formal defense arrangement.
The U.S. government is adamant that its goal in Asia is a strategic "equilibrium." Equilibrium is 21st century diplomatic language for "balance of power." Clad added that the United States would like to see an Asia where "no country is particularly dominant." Presumably that includes the United States. But hold that thought for a moment.
The old Cold War distance and distrust between India and the United States has certainly disappeared, and a range of common strategic interests have emerged -- common economic, political, social and security concerns.
Let's start with a small-scale example. Call a toll free number to complain about glitch-ridden software, and good odds are that your software technician's offices are in one of India's technology parks.
A few months ago, I called for advice regarding a new program. I asked the tech where he was located, and he said, "South India." He confided that he wasn't supposed to give callers his location, but he said he thought I could guess and occasionally he enjoyed "chatting a bit" with clients.
This business transaction was facilitated by a common language and -- to a degree -- common social interests. Labor unions complain about offshore outsourcing, and that's a legitimate concern, but I admit I thought it was cool to shoot the breeze with a nice guy in Bangalore.
Moral of my story: The United States and India are an interesting case of developed giant and developing giant sharing where linguistic and cultural connections accelerate economic cooperation. We can blame the common language and social interests on the British Empire -- or quit the blame game and thank the Brits for it.
Now let's jump to a macro-strategic scale. Deputy Assistant Secretary Clad wants to avoid naming opponents, but Asia has another developing super-giant: China.
For the record, I'm very much an optimist about China -- I promote Sino-American amity, not enmity. But in the big room called Asia, China is the biggest elephant.
India and China have collided before, fighting a little Himalayan war in 1962. That Sino-Indian War is something of a "frozen" conflict (in more ways than one, given the altitude), with border issues not quite resolved.
But if you seek equilibrium, a militarily capable India provides Asian equilibrium to a militarily capable China.
A militarily capable India with a record for defense cooperation with the United States would give an aggressive, hegemonic China -- should that rogue elephant ever emerge -- great pause.
OK, don't call it an alliance. Call it two former British colonies, one global and the other going global, that are interested in maintaining peaceful, prosperous "equilibrium" conditions.