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India: Growing Implications for U.S.

May 17, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — Last week, the world quietly passed a new milestone: For the first time, we now have two nations with populations of more than 1 billion each.

On Thursday, India officially reached the 1-billion figure with the birth of a baby girl named Astha. China passed the billion mark about two decades ago and now has 1.3 billion people.

Admittedly, the India event was slightly contrived. No one last week counted all the Indians one by one. Based on detailed population estimates, U.N. experts decided that whoever was born first at New Delhi's Safdarjang Hospital on May 11 at 12:56 p.m. should be arbitrarily declared the billionth Indian. Astha, no doubt crying all the way, won the honor.

Because India's birthrate is much higher than China's, India will become the world's most populous country in about 40 to 50 years. No other country comes close to these two. The United States ranks third with 270 million; Indonesia is fourth with 210 million.

Those huge populations in India and China have important implications for the U.S. Indeed, India, long dismissed and ridiculed in Washington, is attracting much greater attention these days than it has in decades.

Economically, there's no question that India lags behind China. A recent study published in the Asia-Pacific Population & Policy briefing paper tells the story.

In India, 36% of the population lives below the poverty line; in China, only 9% does. Life expectancy in China is 70 years, while in India it is 63 years.

China, however, has far greater disparities between rich and poor than does India, the figures show. Those statistics and the history of the last five decades suggest that India probably will be more politically stable than China.

The submerged debate over India in Washington comes down to this: Should the U.S. seek to help India and to develop security ties with it as a possible Asian counterweight to China's rising power?

Indian officials have told Washington they would be interested in military exercises and joint training with the U.S., in obtaining American military technology and equipment, in sharing intelligence and working together to fight terrorism.

"India offers itself up as a possible hedge against China," says Zalmay M. Khalilzad, who heads programs on strategy and doctrine for the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank. "They think some possible balance of power between India and China would serve the interests of a country like the United States, which does not want to see a single country dominate Asia."

Khalilzad and several Rand colleagues last year published a detailed study that challenged the wisdom of the Clinton administration's policy of China engagement.

"Should China become hostile, our current approach of engagement will merely have made China into a potentially more threatening adversary," the Rand study argued.

The study concluded that the United States should pursue a more careful middle-ground strategy--avoiding the poles of engagement or containment because it's impossible to know now whether China will eventually become a friend or an enemy.

And so, contends Khalilzad, a U.S.-Asia policy that seeks some sort of geopolitical balance between India and China makes plenty of sense.

Such views are attracting the attention of America's political leaders.

Look at Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush's main foreign policy speech last fall. After first labeling China "a competitor, not a strategic partner," he spoke of India as a possible force for "stability and security in Asia."

The Clinton administration has taken a few significant steps in the direction of recognizing India's strategic importance.

Earlier this year, Washington and New Delhi set up a joint working group on counter-terrorism in which officials of the two governments can meet regularly and share intelligence.

During President Clinton's visit to India in March, both the president and National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger borrowed and quoted approvingly a phrase first used by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee: that India and the United States are "natural allies."

What do those vague words entail? Sources say that the administration, realizing it is in its last year, decided to leave to its successors the question of how far the U.S. should go in establishing a military relationship with India.

One obstacle is the long-standing U.S. policy against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which suffered a serious defeat when first India and then Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998.

But many in Washington argue that shouldn't hold back U.S.-India ties.

"It seems to me very unlikely that you can jawbone a country away, once it's achieved that status [of a nuclear power]," says Richard L. Armitage, who served in several foreign policy posts in the Reagan and Bush administrations. "There's no reason we shouldn't be developing a very full [military] agenda with them."

The long-term trend is clear: The United States is adjusting its policy toward Asia. It is starting to treat India as a great power.

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