The construct of Indo–US relations in the Asia-Pacific region is to be seen against the backdrop of the United States increasingly looking upon India and its growing influence as an alternative to Chinese hegemony in the region. While most countries such as Australia, Japan and the smaller South-East Asian countries do hold strategic relevance for America's Asia-Pacific strategy, it is perhaps nuclear India with its growing economy destined to leap frog in the next two or more decades that currently tops the US priority list for its regional designs.
Despite the current hiccups and comments about the relationship losing steam, the Indo-US relationship has seen greater ascendancy on every account—economic, military, and strategic. This was underscored during the recent visit of the US Defense Secretary to New Delhi and followed by the Indo-US strategic dialogue, which appear to have provided new impetus to the relationship, particularly in outlining the future US vision for bilateral defence cooperation.
Outlining his concept of the US re-balancing strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region, the US Defense Secretary explained that the American military plans to expand its partnerships and presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. It is within this arc that the US plans to redeploy the bulk of its naval forces including as many as six aircraft carriers by 2020. The perspective outlined also talked about combating shared challenges including ensuring open access to maritime, air space and cyber space domains as also challenges posed by radical ideologies, piracy and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, etc.
The fundamental thrust of the US Defense Secretary's discourse was that in addition to an upgraded military presence in the region, the US was keen to encourage and assist regional states in developing capabilities to deal with shared challenges. He projected India to be the lynch pin of the American strategy, because it is the biggest and most dynamic country in this region. In pursuance of the above objective, he committed to upgrade the current level of defence cooperation especially in the field of arms sales and technology transfer from that of a 'buyer and seller' to a more substantial one in which the US is willing to share important cutting edge technologies, enter into substantial co-production relationship that would eventually transform into high technology joint research and development.
It is apparent that the US is keen to draw India into a much stronger defence and strategic partnership and provide technologies and equipment that would enhance India's overall defence capacities and preparedness apart from enhanced intelligence sharing and cooperation in the space and cyber domains. The US interest is clear; it would like to see India providing littoral Asia reassurance against Chinese aggressive intentions through strategic balancing. This can be done only by an economically dynamic and militarily strong India.
The US overtures are significant but they put India in a delicate and difficult situation.
There is no doubt that India needs US technological and military hardware support for both capacity building and developing the indigenous military industrial complex. But at the same time, it has to factor in the larger geostrategic consequences of such an embrace. Within India, there are two schools on the future course of Indo-US relations. There are those, both within the policy establishment as well as elites, who believe that in the prevailing geostrategic environment building a strong politico-military relationship with the US is an imperative. Growing engagement with the US in diverse domains, in their view, is to India's advantage. They argue that there is already growing strategic congruence between the two countries on a host of issues including freedom of the seas, China's rise and the future course of its strategic behaviour, growing Chinese assertiveness, its claims in the South China Sea, Af-Pak, etc. They also see in close defence cooperation an opportunity to leapfrog the technology gap, particularly in critical areas such as C4ISR, space, information technology and cyber domains. In their view, India needs to leverage its relationship with the US to its geopolitical advantage, with a caveat that the build-up of relationship must be on shared mutual values and common interests, without compromising on the country's core national interests.
But there are others who remain sceptical of US intentions and caution against India allowing itself to become a pawn in the US's China containment strategy. They look upon US attempts to enlist India in its new balancing strategy as essentially aimed at serving the US' own interests. In their view, an open endorsement of the US strategy would harm India's relations with China. This school, while endorsing a strong bilateral relationship, would like India to follow an independent course in concert with its concept of strategic autonomy. Thinking within this circle is that the "balancing factors" that existed earlier are no longer available, with Russia, the European Union and the United States losing their prominence in the world economy. A close US-China economic relationship and concepts like G2 continue to irk the thinking of this group. These circles opine that to expect America to stand up in India's fight if it is at the receiving end will be erroneous. India therefore should not, even, expect a third country's support. They are keen to charter a self interest driven course and build the bilateral relationship on broader congruence of interests and shared values, without fully countenancing American perceptions and regional policy.
Given the foregoing, India will find it difficult to fully endorse the US 'rebalancing strategy' given its likely impact on the balance of power in Asia. In his bilateral discussion with the US defense secretary, the Indian defence minister sought to caution his counterpart about hastening the process of strengthening the multilateral security architecture in Asia-Pacific, suggesting instead that it be allowed to develop at its own pace.
Against the above backdrop, India can be expected to adopt a cautious and calculated policy posture. The nature of the Indo-US bilateral relationship will be marked by an incremental build-up of trust as it transcends from what can be termed as 'cooperative aloofness' to 'close cooperation'. Indian moves and the nature of the Indian engagement will be dictated by how Indian policy elites perceive their role in the region and above all its impact on India's overall China policy. The issue that will drive India's policy options will essentially be the nature of engagement with China and the US as also the broader Asia-Pacific region.
The basic dilemma confronting India is how to promote its interests within the emerging order in Asia, marked as it is by the pre-eminence of Chinese power and growing US engagement and its pivot strategy. India's economic stagnation and the ability to leverage investments and trade could also be factors. The essential perspective of India's larger geostrategic focus will therefore be dictated by the nature of its engagements. Will India, as a swing state, be able to balance Chinese assertions with those of the American, while continuing to engage with both (with China enjoying unfettered hegemony in the Chinese sphere of influence)? Or will it bandwagon with Southeast and East Asian states like Japan and South Korea to balance Chinese power. The different pathways that India could follow over the next few decades to shape its policy options are:
a) India's geopolitical, energy, economic and maritime interests force it into a security understanding with US allies and partners like Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and Australia. There is marked enhancement in its defence self reliance capabilities boosted by US technology transfers and military hardware support. India develops strong maritime capability and nuclear triad backed by significant space and cyber capacities with a large C4ISR footprint over region of its strategic interest. The Andaman and Nicobar islands transform into a strong 'iron choke' to counter the Chinese 'string of pearls'. India puts in place an effective anti-access and area denial strategy in the Indian Ocean as also along its land borders.
b) India attempts to balance Chinese assertion and US interests as a classic swing state. Towards this, on one hand, it boosts the economic relationship with China, while simultaneously developing close political and economic linkages with the US but without any overt security understanding. Some commentators are already highlighting that India is in an unique position of being wooed by both the US and China. To foster its regional economic interests, India also boosts its trade and economic relationship with ASEAN. It further buttresses these initiatives through close strategic relationships with Russia and Central Asia while taking effective steps to improve its bilateral relations in South Asia including improvement in India-Paistank relations. It uses this period to build up its Comprehensive National Power while ensuring economic progress.
c) Sustained economic development and military modernization to build credible dissuasive capability. To buy time and foster regional peace and stability, India could reach a political and economic understanding with China through conciliatory gestures; e.g. on South China Sea, membership of SCO, undertaking joint development and infrastructure projects in South and South East Asia. In addition, India opens up a dialogue to address Chinese fears in the Indian Ocean Region. In short, India attempts to upgrade its bilateral arrangements with China and prevent falling into China's containment trap. In this can be seen an attempt to build a peaceful periphery without being a so-called 'swing 'state.
The Indian dilemma is how to boost its relationship with the US that can provide an impetus to its economy and defence capability building without antagonising China. From the emerging trends it is clear that China will initiate all moves to counter US attempts at reassertion in the Asia-Pacific. This process will include using its economic leverages with countries around its strategic periphery, assertive behaviour in the South China Sea as was seen during the recent stand-off with the Philippines over fishing in the Scarborough shoal, the creation of a military district covering the entire South China Sea and deploying four "combat-ready" marine surveillance ships to enforce law and order in addition to seeking bids for exploration in the Vietnamese EEZ. These are clear attempts at raising the ante, in view of the US reassertion and the forthcoming leadership succession within China. Similar actions can also come be initiated in the Indian Ocean with respect to both Hamabtota in Sri Lanka and Seychelles or alternately raising the ante along the Line of Actual Control. China's footprints and close strategic relationships in South Asia are sources of concern for India. Thus, the challenge for India is how to leverage its policy of engaging China with that of close strategic cooperation with the US while maintain its strategic autonomy.
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Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in)