India: Reality vs. Potential in Strategic Relationships

In contrast to the U.S. and China, with whom India's bilateral relations have long been hobbled by mistrust or misunderstanding, Russia has proven to be a relatively dependable and accomodating strategic partner for New Delhi. So I was a bit surprised to see, in the context of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to India, that total bilateral trade between the two countries is just $10 billion. Compare that to the $60 billion in bilateral trade between India and China, and it's positively underwhelming, especially given the potential of the India-Russia relationship.

Curiously, that seems to be the overarching theme of India's relationships with the major -- and minor -- global powers. We've now seen the heads of state or government from the U.S., China and Russia as well as those from Britain and France make pilgrimages to New Delhi in relatively quick succession. And in all those relationships, save perhaps China, the potential for a "natural partnership" seems to apply: Britain because of the Commonwealth ties, France because of both countries' Gaullist instincts, the U.S. because of the convergence of ideals and interests, and Russia because of its longstanding dependability. But despite the best intentions and flowery rhetoric, the concrete deliverables of all the relationships seem to be overshadowed by their enormous unfulfilled potential.

This is in part what I think of as the Daryl Strawberry Syndrome, because the deals being discussed and signed in New Delhi are impressive. More broadly, no one is willing to forego the opportunity represented by hitching up to India's rise, should it ever truly live up to its billing. But for now, New Delhi is a victim of its very potential, as well as its failure to more-sharply define its global agenda and priorities. Instead, India seems obsessed by its litmus test of local hot-button issues to which it demands its guests pay lip service. To become a truly global power, New Delhi must begin to think less provincially, and act with more audacity.

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