Diplomatic visits this winter signal India’s increasing global role

Diplomatic visits this winter signal India’s increasing global role

New Delhi: Starting with US President Barack Obama in November, India will be hosting leaders of three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) within two months, signalling the country’s growing clout in world affairs.

If the government manages to work out the dates to squeeze in a visit of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao by December to coincide with the 60th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations, India would have achieved the rare feat of hosting the leaders of all P5 members in the same year.

The P5 include Britain, whose Prime Minister David Cameron visited in July, as well as France and Russia.

Analysts credit India’s improving economic credentials for this unprecedented level of engagement: a $1 trillion economy, nearly 300 million middle-class citizens with rising spending capacity, and growth rates of 6.7% and 7.2% in the slowdown years of 2008-09 and 2009-10, respectively.

Not only does this offer a potential market for global exports, but it also enhances India’s strategic importance to these countries, given its geo-strategic location and potential to rival a rapidly emerging China.

The courting of India began after the opening up of the Indian economy in the early 1990s, and intensified after the country’s surprise nuclear tests in 1998. India’s ability to withstand the global economic shock of the past two years better than most other countries has only enhanced its appeal.

Immediately after independence, India developed close ties with the Soviet Union, resulting in regular top-level bilateral visits. Despite the Cold War, Dwight Eisenhower became the first US president to visit India in 1959. It took two decades for the next US presidential visit, when Jimmy Carter arrived in New Delhi in 1979.

India also hosted leaders from Beijing, but the 1962 war with China sent relations into a tailspin for decades. Ties with former colonial power Britain remained warm, but relations with France were restricted.

The most keenly awaited visit of 2010 is that of Obama, who will arrive in early November. He will be the third US president to visit India in a decade—after Bill Clinton in March 2000 and George W. Bush in March 2006.

Obama will be followed by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in December.

“It’s very clear we are being wooed," said a senior Indian foreign ministry official, who did not want to be named.

“India’s attractiveness is due to its market," said Arundhati Ghosh, a former Indian envoy to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). “British Prime Minister David Cameron made that abundantly clear when he came to India in July."

Among other things, these countries have their eye on India’s plans to purchase 126 fighter planes in a $10.4 billion (Rs46,488 crore) contract—among the biggest current arms deals worldwide.

The contenders include Boeing Co.’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-16, Russia’s MiG-35, Sweden’s Saab KAS-39 Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon, built by a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies.

Sarkozy’s visit is part of the regular high-level exchanges between India and France that have been on for more than a decade. Ties between the two countries warmed considerably after France supported India’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat in 1998. The French government’s mild response to India’s nuclear tests in 1998—in contrast to other countries—also helped cement ties.

Charan Wadhwa, economist with the Centre for Policy Research, said, “After China, it is India which is in the reckoning for international business. And this came into focus particularly during the recent economic crisis."

The spotlighting of India, he added, “is a sign of the geo-economic balance shifting towards India. It has the potential for a spillover into geopolitics as well".

Ghosh, though, strikes a note of caution. “Whatever agendas these countries are coming to India with, it is important that we deal with them in our own way," she said. “The question is: Are we willing to play a global role? So far we have been acting bilaterally. How we act on the global stage and how we work with these powers is equally important to graduate to global power status."