Even if the nuclear agreement fails, the improvement in US-India relations is likely to continue. Some attribute this to the fact that India and the US are the world's two largest democracies. But that was true for much of the Cold War, when they frequently talked past each other.
As Evan Feigenbaum, the top State Department official for South Asia recently said: "The world of 2008 is not the world of 1948. And so India really has the capacity, and, we think, the interest, to work with the United States and other partners on a variety of issues of global and regional scope." This change began under the Clinton administration and is likely to continue regardless of who is elected president in 2008.
Personal contacts have increased greatly. There are now more than 80,000 Indian students studying in the US, and many have stayed to establish successful companies. The Indian diaspora in the US constitutes roughly three million people, many of whom actively participate in politics. Trade between India and America is increasing, and reached $26 billion (11% of India's total trade) in 2006.
The rise of China poses a strategic consideration. As Bill Emmott, the former editor of The Economist argues in his new book The Rivals, 'Where Nixon had used China to balance the Soviet Union, Bush was using India to balance China.' And the concern is reciprocated on the Indian side. As a senior foreign ministry official told Emmott in 2007, "The thing you have to understand is that both India and China think that the future belongs to us. We can't both be right."
Official pronouncements stress friendly relations between India and China, and some trade analysts argue tha t, given their rapid growth, the two giant markets will become an economic 'Chindia'. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in 2005, he signed 11 agreements, including a comprehensive five-year strategic co-operation pact. Wen announced that China would support India's inclusion as a permanent member of an expanded United Nations Security Council, and oppose Japan's inclusion, which the US supports. As Singh put it during Wen's visit: "India and China can together reshape the world order."
The two countries' recent rapprochement marks a considerable change from the hostility that bedeviled their relations following their 1962 war over the Himalaya. Nevertheless, strategic anxiety lurks below the surface, particularly in India. China's GDP is three times that of India, its growth rate is higher, and its defense budget increased by nearly 18 percent last year. The border dispute remains unsettled, and both countries vie for influence in neighboring states such as Myanmar.
China's rise has also created anxiety in Japan, despite professions of good relations. Thus, Japan has increased its aid and trade with India. Last year, the US suggested quadrilateral defense exercises including US, Japanese, Indian, and Australian naval units, but the newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has pulled his country out.
Rudd wisely believes that the right response to China's rise is to incorporate it into international institutional arrangements. Or, as Robert Zoellick, currently the president of the World Bank, put it when he was a State Department official, the US should invite China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system.
Improved relations between India and the US can structure the international situation in a manner that encourages such an evolution in Chinese policy, whereas trying to isolate China would be a mistake. Handled properly, the simultaneous rise of China and India could be good for all countries.
Joseph S Nye is a professor at Harvard and author, most recently, of The Powers to Lead.