The Difficult Natural Ally

George Bush travels to India this week to meet with the leaders of the world’s largest democracy, trying to strengthen ties that seem strangely and unnaturally weak. After all, the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy should have much in common and be natural allies — but historically, India has remained distant and almost hostile to the US:

PRESIDENT BUSH arrives in Delhi for his first state visit this week, hoping to cement an increasingly close relationship between the United States and India that has the potential to alter the strategic balance in the world for the rest of the century.
During the Cold War India was the only major democracy in the world that did not side with America in the struggle against communism. But in the past decade, driven by India’s rapid economic growth, a shift in American priorities in Asia and, latterly, the demands of the war on terrorism, the interests of the two countries have converged sharply.
With US global hegemony increasingly challenged by the rise of China, India — with a population of more than a billion — is seen by many in Washington as a natural and vital strategic ally. Mr Bush arrives in India on Wednesday and will spend three days there before visiting Pakistan, also for the first time, where he will hold equally critical discussions with General Pervez Musharraf, the President.

India’s flirtation with the Soviet Union created a huge gap between the two democracies and allowed the relationship to remain sour for decades. Nor does it appear to have taught Delhi a lesson, as the Washington Post notes in an editorial today on the Bush trip:

This week President Bush pays a call; the week after, India’s president for the first time will visit neighboring Burma — one of Asia’s two (with North Korea) most brutal dictatorships. While Burma’s army rapes and pillages and forces children and others into service, India sells weapons and seeks ever-closer military-to-military ties. This puts the Indians out of step with the United States, Europe and increasingly even Southeast Asia, which is beginning to recognize that its policy of “engagement” with Burma’s dictators has borne no fruit.
India’s motive here is easy to discern: It’s competing with China for close ties with Burma and access to its natural gas and other resources. That’s understandable, but India will never beat China’s dictators at their own game.

India has always danced with dictators in the region, but in Burma they’re activley making it worse. India has traditionally chosen very strange allies for a country that takes pride in its freedom, choosing to align itself with the worst oppressors and with tyranny rather than liberation. Given their history with the British, one may understand their general reluctance to trust the West — but that’s no excuse for actively supporting oppression, and its relationship with Burma hardly hinges on Eastern solidarity.
We need to be closer to India and to forge truly and mutually beneficial ties with the world’s largest democracy. Hopefully, those ties will force India to review its poor history of playing footsie with oppressors while turning its back on democracy and allow it to change its diplomatic direction.