MANIPAL, India, Sept. 6 (UPI) -- Since partial economic liberalization freed the Indian economy from the "Nehru" rate of growth -- 2 percent -- India has escaped from the South Asia box designed for it by China and its former Cold War adversary, the United States.
At the same time, Pakistan, with a real economy nine times smaller, is no longer able to generate enough torque to pin India down through sub-continental squabbles.
In the early 1990s, Kashmir represented around 50 percent of India's security problems. Today, that share of the Pakistani army's project has dipped to 20 percent.
China, insurgent bases in Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh and the danger of proliferating Hindu and Muslim extremist groups has overtaken that unhappy vale, while the Pakistani military establishment appears determined to battle India to the last Kashmiri.
This freedom from fear of defeat in Kashmir has led what I describe as the Indian strategic eagle to spread its wings.
Geopolitically, India approximates an eagle with its torso over the country, one wing-stretching out toward the Middle East and Central Asia and the other positioned over Southeast Asia.
One talon is grounded in southern Africa, while the other locates itself in prospective partner Indonesia.
The head of the eagle is turned toward Tibet and Yunnan, two Chinese provinces with significant past and future cultural and economic synergy with India.
Thanks to the Nehru family era, 1947 to 1989, India lost an opportunity for economic expansion during the Vietnam War and afterward.
As a result, India is weak and it will take at least five more years of careful nursing before it can join the United States and China as significant players in Asia.
Even in its current, still somewhat emaciated state, India has emerged as a significant albeit silent player in the region. In the Middle East, its nationals provide the single biggest pool of expatriate manpower to the Gulf sheikhdoms.
As India is a status quo power whose people have little appetite for external political or religious mobilization, Indian manpower is much less susceptible to extremist or other anti-regime efforts at recruitment than that from Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Bangladesh or Pakistan. In this, the country is similar to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, both of whom keep away from trouble while in their country of work.
With the thoroughness characteristic of its British-trained bureaucracy, India is status-quo all round.
It backs Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, Mohammed Khatami's in Iran, Ariel Sharon's in Israel, the Saudi royal family and Yasser Arafat in Palestine. The country is against regime change. Period.
In this way, it safeguards continued access of its nationals to the labor markets of the region, an access critical for the generation of the petrodollar remittances that get used to buy India's swelling needs for Arab oil.
Were internal processes, or a Bush-style military campaign, to result in a regime change in any country in the region, New Delhi would wait for the dust to settle before resuming business with the new leadership.
There is one caveat however: India is allergic to extremist religious groups -- distinct from political extremism of the Iraq or Libyan variety -- such as the ones active in Sudan. It would team up with the United States to oppose their takeover efforts, as it did in Afghanistan.
In Central Asia, New Delhi is battling the undercurrent of narcotics-funded networks of religious extremists, many of whom reach the region via Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
India sees its movies, television soaps and music as weapons in the fight against the creation of extremist mindsets. It is therefore unhappy when hidden hands block public access to them, as has taken place recently in Kabul Television, which has banned all Indian soaps and female singers.
As it sees such cultural infusions as being allied to Western broadcasts, the muted U.S.-European Union reaction to the banning of Bollywood hits is seen as evidence that the West does not understand the need to link up with India, Indonesia and other regional players with a moderate ethos in the war against the mental infrastructure of terror.
Since the Soviet-era, India has had cozy relationships with the Central Asian republics. That warmth has lately revived, with daily flights from Indian cities to most capitals in that region.
In a few years, it is expected that military training will be offered to the armies of the Central Asian states, bypassing China, which has thus far refused to permit India's entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the so-called Shanghai Six.
India is unlikely to dilute its opposition -- not saying no but also doing nothing -- to a pipeline thru Pakistan. New Delhi is unwilling to reward that country with royalties while it is still effectively under military control. It is, however, receptive to a route via close ally Iran.
With Russia increasing its presence in the region and the United States coming closer to full strategic partnership with India, the country is positioning itself to get involved with other major players in preventing extremists from taking over any of the Central Asian republics.
After Myanmar joined the Association of South East Asian Nations, New Delhi quickly shed its dalliance with leading human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi and chummied up to the generals in Yangon, calculating that a failure to do so would only cement that regime's near-exclusive dependence on Beijing.
Plans are afoot for the building of rail and road links through India's northeast with Myanmar, and from that country to the rest of ASEAN.
Should relations with China improve, then Yunnan province is likely to join in such a regional economic partnership, with Tibet not far behind. The geography of both mandate closer economic linkages with India than has been permitted thus far by Beijing.
Within Southeast Asia, India has two good friends and one country that it is eyeing as a partner. The present allies are Vietnam and Singapore, while Indonesia remains a prospective friend.
The latter is especially significant. It has, the largest Muslim population in the world. Almost all of them are religious moderates.
Indeed, rather than cultivating Turkey or France, Secretary of State Colin Powell would have done better trying to bring these two Asian giants in on the planning over Iraq, given that a negative Muslim reaction is touted as an important reason why an invasion should not proceed.
While the eagle does not have the wingspan to include East Asia or Europe in its strategic arc, both regions are seeing intensive diplomacy.
In particular, naval and other military ties are being sought with the countries in East Asia, beginning with joint exercises and moving on to combined training before a full-blooded alliance can be set up.
These days, Japan in particular has cozied up to India in the security sphere, just as South Korea has in the economic.
In the case of Europe, Britain remains the focus of diplomatic attention, despite London's affinity for the men in uniform in Islamabad.
Will the eagle finally take off? The answer will lie in the gross domestic product figures.
An annual growth rate of 9 percent or more will enable India to exercise the influence within Asia that its location and size makes feasible.
-(M.D. Nalapat is UNESCO Peace Chair and director of the School of Geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education.)