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SYDNEY — There was excitement throughout Asia last month when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton chose the continent for her maiden international voyage in her capacity as America’s top diplomat, bypassing the more traditional choices of Europe or the Middle East.

This showed good thinking on the part of the new administration. Global economic power continues to shift to Asia, despite the current global crisis. But leaving India out signaled a lack of forward thinking and, in doing so, the Obama administration missed an exceptional opportunity. The choice of destinations for the inaugural visit by Clinton was not decided lightly. It indicated the administration’s priorities.

For some, Clinton’s schedule appeared flawless. A visit to China is mandatory in any Asia schedule. Key allies such as Japan and South Korea were duly included. Indonesia — the world’s most populous Islamic country, a bustling democracy, a re-emerging Southeast Asian power and President Barack Obama’s home for four of his formative years — was a clever choice. But a visit to India — the world’s largest democracy and one of the emerging poles of political and economic power — would have made for an inspired choice.

In contrast to the waning U.S.-Pakistan relationship, America’s engagement with India is blossoming. Conclusion of the U.S.-India nuclear pact, discussed since 2005 and signed in mid-2007, was a significant milestone for relations between the two countries.

As former U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns — who played a key role in the negotiations — declared, the agreement signaled the beginning of a “strategic partnership” between the two nations. It is noteworthy that the term “strategic partnership” has not yet been used to characterize the Sino-U.S. relationship even though President Richard Nixon initiated it back in 1972.

But while the India-U.S. bilateral relationship continues to evolve, the concern is that America, under Obama, will continue to take a narrow, unimaginative view of the broader strategic opportunities of partnership with India.

American strategy in Asia is preoccupied with “managing” the rise of China. Key Asian allies such as Japan were greatly excited by various approaches, such as the one promulgated by former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who pushed for the idea of working with existing American allies and security partners to “shape” the future of Asia. This means reaffirming security alliances with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Australia. It also means deepening relations with American security partners such as Malaysia.

Under a John McCain presidency, the approach also would have meant trying to bring in India as a partner in shaping the future security foundations of the region. This strategy was designed not only to improve American standing and influence in the region but also to “manage” the rise of China.

Under these approaches, America recognized that its reign as an undisputed hegemon in the region was gradually declining. But by working with current allies and new partners to shape the rules and institutions of the region, the plan was to prevent future Chinese mischief and persuade China to play by agreed rules rather than subvert or revise them.

To be sure, India takes seriously its status as an “independent” rising power. Few things would be more unpalatable to New Delhi than being passed off as an American lackey. But there are reasons to believe that a U.S.-India partnership is plausible. For example, Washington would be happy to allow New Delhi a growing presence in the Indian Ocean.

Despite some cooperation, tensions between New Delhi and Beijing remain, especially since China’s militarization of the Tibetan plateau. It is estimated that China has deployed around one quarter of its nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles in Tibet. India might not agree to become a spoke in America’s wheel of security alliances in the region; but New Delhi and Washington have common strategic interests when it comes to “managing” China. An emerging India-U.S. partnership should be an essential pillar of this “shaping” strategy.

Although Obama’s Asian strategy is still being formed, the fear is that the centerpiece of his administration’s regional security strategy — which largely means managing China’s rise — will be to deepen its relationship with China. Critically, this might be done primarily through direct and bilateral engagement with the Chinese, while partners such as Japan and perhaps India are left on the sidelines.

American appreciation of the possibilities for India’s role in the region historically have been poor. India’s absence from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum has not helped.

Any future American grand strategy in Asia, especially with respect to a rising China, cannot exclude India if it is to be successful. Secretary Clinton would have done well, and displayed admirable foresight and creativity, had New Delhi been a part of her inaugural overseas trip.

John Lee Cheong Seong is a foreign policy fellow at the Center for Independent Studies, Sydney. His latest book, “Will China Fail?,” was published in 2007. © 2006-2008 OpinionAsia

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