With the world's attention focused on Iraq, a major transformation is taking place largely unnoticed in South Asia. A serious strategic partnership is springing up between India and the United States.
In recent weeks, Washington has quietly commenced a substantial overhaul of its relationship with New Delhi. Under new U.S. guidelines, unveiled as part of an emerging security dialogue with officials in New Delhi, the Bush administration has officially rolled back its four-year-old sanctions against India. The South Asian nation now joins the ranks of American allies like Japan and Singapore, gaining eligibility for significant discretionary military assistance.
Washington and New Delhi are also ratcheting up their military coordination. In late September, India and the U.S. carried out a week-long naval exercise in the Arabian Sea -- the largest ever between the two countries. Subsequently, in November, the Indian and U.S. air forces conducted joint exercises to practice advanced regional tactics and maneuvers for the first time in 40 years.
These are hardly isolated incidents. According to Indian officials, the two countries have already mapped out an ambitious agenda of bilateral military and strategic contacts over the next two years.
This new warmth hints at the possibility of a monumental regional realignment. After all, since Sept. 11 the Bush administration has consistently courted Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf as its ally in Asian stability. Now, however, there are indications that the White House is starting to sour on Islamabad.
Politically, Washington is beginning to take notice of Pakistan's increasingly undeniable radicalization. National elections in October, the first of their kind since Gen. Musharraf seized power by military coup in 1999, brought considerable gains for Pakistan's religious parties. Now, as the Musharraf government struggles to retain its fragile ruling coalition, there are real worries that the radical Islamist worldview of groups like the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam -- which is supportive of both the Taliban and al Qaeda -- could become the country's leitmotif.
Likewise troublesome is Pakistan's track record of proliferation. North Korea's recent confessions regarding an active nuclear program exposed a thriving strategic partnership between Islamabad and Pyongyang. Pakistan's extensive nuclear and missile ties to the DPRK, not to mention its ongoing missile assistance to countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, are now under close scrutiny from Washington.
So is Islamabad's stance on terrorism. Despite rhetorical support for American counterterrorism efforts, ongoing brokerage of the Islamist insurgency in the disputed Kashmir region by segments of the Musharraf regime, as well as their tacit provision of aid and comfort to elements of al Qaeda and the Taliban, has unmistakably placed Pakistan on the wrong side of Washington's war.
In the meantime, India has steadily moved into the void left by Pakistani policies. The post-Cold War regional security environment in South Asia and the events of Sept. 11 have reoriented India in a distinctly pro-Western fashion. Politically, Indian policy makers have embraced America's war on terrorism, based on their own experiences in the disputed region of Kashmir and their growing concerns about accelerating Islamic radicalism in South Asia.
Strategically, India also appears to have cast its lot decisively with the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin's high-profile Indian tour may have broadened the defense and security dialogue between Moscow and New Delhi. But Indian policy makers have been quick to reject renewed Kremlin overtures for a larger, strategic partnership with Russia and China of the kind envisioned by former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the late 1990s.
And militarily, New Delhi has emerged as a serious partner in the Pentagon's missile defense plans. Facing a mounting missile threat from Pakistan, the Indian government has begun work on indigenous defenses and has opened consultations with its newest strategic partner, Israel, about the purchase of the advanced Arrow Theater Missile Defense System. As part of this effort, officials in New Delhi are also gravitating toward Washington's plans for an Asian missile-defense architecture -- a dialogue that has only expanded in the wake of North Korea's nuclearization.
This emerging alignment underscores a signal opportunity for U.S. strategy in South Asia. For one thing, a deeper U.S.-India dialogue could do much to moderate Pakistan's policies. In the face of Islamabad's expanding ballistic-missile arsenal and active proliferation partnerships, greater American support for Indian missile-defense efforts, including the country's bid to acquire the Arrow system from Israel, could send a powerful signal to the Musharraf regime that the U.S. will not permit the emergence of a "balance of terror" on the Indian subcontinent. Tighter New Delhi-Washington ties, coupled with a more aggressive mediation of the Kashmir conflict and greater pressure on Islamabad regarding its support for cross-border terrorism, could also work wonders in nudging India and Pakistan toward a lasting diplomatic dialogue.
For another, the partnership could eventually assume an important role in larger regional security. With its emphasis on military coordination, the Indo-American relationship is a potent counterweight to Pakistan's growing military relationship with China, and a potential hedge against Beijing's activism in the Asia-Pacific. And farther afield, India's expanding strategic ties with Israel, not to mention its warming contacts with Turkey, are increasingly making New Delhi an important asset for Washington's Middle East policy.
To be sure, translating the developing dialogue between Washington and New Delhi into a broader alliance requires a considerable American investment in Asian security. But with rising worries about regional instability, terrorism and proliferation, the Bush administration's need for a durable strategic partner capable of promoting South Asian security is increasingly evident. Policy makers in Washington would thus do well to take notice of the emerging Indo-American entente. And, as the White House prepares for a new phase in its war on terrorism, they would do even better to build on it.