India's new best friends

International relations - Everybody wants to know the new player in the game of global supremacy. Ca

''Mother India," wrote a historian dazzled by the subcontinent's pervasive influence, "is the mother of us all". Well, the world is rushing home to mother and discovering that the once dowdy matron has taken up step classes and Botox treatments. At once developing and developed, India has it both ways. It draws in prosperity through outsourcing and technology, while politically reaching parts of the world that western powers can't. Currently Washington's darling, it plays the diplomatic field, flirting with everyone from Russia to - daringly - Iran.

The United States It takes a current superpower to spot - and nurture - a potential one. India's growing economic clout combined with post-9/11 security concerns and a desire to contain China have led the US administration to court Delhi openly. Last summer President Bush agreed to give India access to civilian nuclear technology providing it separated its civilian from its military nuclear projects. The deal's critics say it interferes with the essence of non-proliferation treaties. The US Congress and the 45-country Nuclear Suppliers Group, which needs to lift a ban on nuclear trade with India, have yet to approve. One compelling argument: India's pointed talk of building a gas pipeline from Iran. A Bush trip to Delhi, pencilled in for February or March, will be a visit "to a very close ally", says a White House spokesman.

Japan Economic and regional interests have thawed the froideur that set in after India's nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1998, which led to denunciations - and, briefly, sanctions - from Japan. The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has met his Japanese counterpart, Junichiro Koizumi, five times in the past 18 months, pledging closer co-operation on everything from energy to pirates. Singh recently called Japan the "pivot" of Delhi's "Look East" policy, and there is talk of a bilateral free-trade agreement. With Brazil and Germany, the other two members of the UN's Group of Four, Japan and India have common cause in their quest for permanent seats on the Security Council.

Pakistan Despite the "war on terror" tensions, India and Pakistan are creeping towards warmer relations. Bus diplomacy always boosts the feel-good factor, and last spring's new bus route over the Kashmir Line of Control made for moving scenes of relatives reunited. After October's earthquake India sent food and supplies, but Pakistan declined Delhi's offer of rescue helicopters and scotched talk of joint military rescue operations. Islamabad knows Delhi turned down its request to withdraw some of its Kashmir-based troops; Delhi knows that cross-border terror strikes continue.

China They make an odd couple, these long-time regional rivals, and yet the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, has declared Sino-Indian relations "in the best shape in history". Despite new arrangements for settling boundary disputes and building trade, security tensions linger. China's official press lambasted India's nuclear co-operation agreement with the US. But trade between them has grown by 521 per cent since 2000, and being the world's two boom economies makes relations warmer, if occasionally a bit smug. As a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman declared last spring: "Friendship and co-operation between China and India is a contribution to the whole humanity."

European Union Last autumn India stepped up its status as a "strategic partner" with Europe, and a new Joint Action Plan includes tight new ties on trade, terrorism and peacekeeping.

Russia India's military has been buying Russian defence supplies since the early days of the cold war, and last year's agreements on intellectual property and trade transfer show that Delhi plans to continue the tradition. Much high-level handshaking in Moscow and Delhi last year, with India backing Russia's bid for WTO entry, and Putin and Singh agreeing to step up nuclear co-operation.

Carla Power was a correspondent in south Asia for Newsweek and is writing a book on Muslim moderates

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