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The US pivot and India’s look east

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In Brief

The US and India held their third annual strategic dialogue in Washington on 13 June 2012. At the second dialogue in June 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed India to assume a more proactive leadership role in the Asia Pacific region, exhorting it to ‘not just look east, but continue to engage and act east as well’.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta enthusiastically restated the same message during his recent post-Shangri-La Dialogue swing through New Delhi.


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Earlier this January, as part of its newly issued Defense Strategic Guidance, the US Department of Defense identified India as a cherished long-term security partner and strategic anchor in the Indian Ocean region. India is the only country to merit specific mention as a strategic partner within the document, and it seems the country has come a long way since US defence planners called it out two decades ago for its ‘hegemonic aspirations’ in the Indian Ocean region.

The Strategic Guidance seeks to enmesh India in a prospective US-led ‘network among spokes’ (contrasted with ‘hub-and-spokes’) system of alliances and partnerships extending across the strategically vital Indo-Pacific arc. This is part of the current pivot in US defence strategy from a land-based, Southwest Asia/Middle East focused strategy to one that places greater emphasis on the Asia Pacific and air- and sea-based defence. A program of bilateral activities along three overlapping axes is envisaged as guide posts in the establishment of this system.

First, the program aims to recruit Indian participation in US Pacific Command-led transnational, non-traditional security activities, such as anti-piracy, humanitarian action/disaster relief and peacekeeping missions. Over time these will be oriented toward more traditional missions of a high-end character, such as maritime surveillance, expeditionary operations and anti-submarine warfare. Second, India is to be involved in close-ended trilateral defence arrangements, such as US–India–Japan or US–India–Australia groupings, whose variable geometry in time will be combined and selectively expanded outwards to include like-minded nations along the Asian littoral. And third, India is to be enrolled in inter-governmental defence agreements related to communications, interoperability and logistics, which will pave the way for more effective military–military partnering conducted at arm’s length from immediate civilian oversight.

Major multi-service combined exercises, logistics and facilities sharing, co-development of weapon systems and real-time intelligence sharing will, over time, evolve into doctrine-sharing exchanges, harmonised force postures, and integrated command and control systems. The resulting strategic congruence will infuse the broader defence partnership.

The logic driving these initiatives is clear: wean India off its autonomist leanings and situate it within a robust, region-wide strategic defensive posture that is conducive to both strategic deterrence and systemic stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The expectation that Sino–Indian strategic and maritime contestation in Asia will inexorably deepen is also an unstated premise underlying this calculation. But very little of this grand design will come to pass in the decade ahead for three key reasons.

First, neither political nor extremist Islam seems willing to indulge the rebalancing aspirations of US planners by calling a timeout. Indeed, New Delhi —disenchanted by the West’s decision to rebalance away from Afghanistan — appears poised to expand its participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s counter-terror and regional stabilization activities.

Second, India stands at a critical juncture in the modernisation of its strategic and conventional arsenal, a transitional process that will not be completed until 2025. In the interim, defence technology acquisition and indigenisation, whether through licensing arrangements or co-development, will remain New Delhi’s overriding goal. Given Russia’s technology lock on India’s air-, land- and sea-based strategic deterrent capabilities, framing US–India defence industrial base cooperation along bottom-up, medium technology-intensive lines is the prudent approach. Committing significant bilateral equities to a collaborative ‘high-visibility, high-difficulty’ showcase project in the defence technology sector, as a September 2011 Council on Foreign Relations study recommends, seems exactly the wrong way to proceed.

Third, catering to New Delhi’s psychology of misgivings and precautions vis-à-vis China is insufficient to bring about India’s participation in selective, close-ended defence groupings of Asian littoral states. Such groupings are premised on the threat of interdiction and denial of navigational freedom to Chinese shipping along its sea lines of communication. This is anathema to India because it remains opposed to importing a security dilemma — and polarisation thereafter along camp lines — in the Indian Ocean region where none currently exist. And should New Delhi’s memory slip, Beijing has access to expedient pressure points along the disputed Sino–Indian frontier with which to effect areminder.

The security elements of India’s Look East policy remain fundamentally committed to self-help, but they are framed by the emerging praxis of Asia’s open, inclusive and balanced security multilateralism. Legal scope to contribute to US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ operations of common interest notwithstanding, participation in selective multilateral security constructs will not be admitted. One exception is those multilateral security constructs that are UN-flagged or come under broad-based umbrellas such as the ASEAN Regional Forum or ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. The extent to which US–India security arrangements are integrated with this emerging architecture will determine the scope for parallelism.

Washington’s refusal to admit Beijing’s participation in the December 2004 tsunami disaster-relief operation hastened China’s rollout of its out-of-area ‘military missions other than war’ activities. As a result, China and India today jointly coordinate their anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden. With the US, India and China capable of bringing complementary maritime assets to bear, conducting future Asian littoral-wide, non-traditional security activities in a cooperative fashion would be a useful starting point to emphasise the indivisible interest of all parties, large and small, in such activities at sea.

Sourabh Gupta is Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Washington, DC. He is an EAF Distinguished Fellow for 2012.

One response to “The US pivot and India’s look east”

  1. Dr Gupta makes excellent points regarding the prospects for a progressively deeper and wider strategic collaborative relationship between the USA and India. He notes significant pressure points which are likely to serve as disincentives for deepening Indo-US security relations, especially those targeting China. After all, why should India risk its own future regional peace and stability simply to help the systemic hegemon extend its primacy in the face of apparent challenges from a rising “peer-rival”?

    This is a powerful argument and one which, no doubt, will have its proponents in New Delhi. However, the record shows a cyclical tendency to repeat past affiliations and although the future is another country, Indo-US amity as an outcome of Sino-Indian tensions can not be wished away.

    Overt stances notwithstanding, as early as in July 1947, several weeks before attaining formal independence, India agreed to extend rotational base facilities to personnel and aircraft from the US Army Air Forces engaged in supporting Kuomintang forces in their civil war engagements with Chairman Mao’s Red Army. That agreement was revised and renewed post-Partition and extended significantly in 1962 when India and China went to war along their Tibetan borders. While providing support to US forces fighting the Red Army, In 1949, India was diplomatically supportive of the emergence of the People’s Republic of China – an anathema to the USA. This contradiction between overt and covert stances has characterised key aspects of India’s policy towards great powers ever since. The future need not be dramatically different.

    Pursuing its autonomist and non-aligned stance vis-a-vis external actors, New Delhi was horrified by the Red Army’s invasion of Tibet a year after the establishment of the PRC. That event shocked the Indian elite into realising that stretches of the North-Eastern frontier Agency – sub-Himalayan highlands acting as a buffer in the northern fringes of the former British-Indian Empire – were under effective Tibetan administration and, since China’s occupation of that Plateau, could well fall under Beijing’s sway. Alerted to these potential dangers by Sir Olaf Caroe, a British official who had agreed to stay behind in India, New Delhi swiftly moved the management of relations with NEFA from the External Affairs Ministry to departments responsible for domestic affairs, took effective occupation of Tawang and displaced Tibetan officials now representing Beijing’s interests. China did not recognise the legitimacy of these changes.

    More interestingly, although New Delhi maintained a friendly face towards Beijing and formalised its acceptance of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet by giving up its imperial inheritance of military, communications and commercial privileges on the plateau by signing up a treaty to this effect in 1954, key elements of India’s ruling elites did not find China’s occupation of Tibet entirely acceptable. When Khampa and Amdowa rebels mounted a spreading challenge to Chinese authority in Tibet, the Indian Intelligence Bureau, directly under the authority of Prime Minister Nehru, joined hands with the US Central Intelligence Agency in recruiting, training, arming and supporting many of them.

    Curiously, until the USA and India deepened their strategic collaboration against China in 1962-63, Pakistan, too, aided in this Indo-US enterprise to bleed China in Tibet. India not only allowed US covert aerial operations – including basing U-2 spy planes – from its bases, but actively worked to support the abortive Tibetan rebellion until President Richard Nixon determined that US strategic interests lay with building bridges to Beijing and India was no longer a source of geopolitical import in that new edifice being secretly erected against an expansive Soviet Union.

    The USSR is long gone, but China is once again an apparent source of shared anxiety in Washington and New Delhi. Anti-China security collaboration in a globalised era of intensely interdependent economic, financial and commercial linkages may appear to be somewhat over-rated, even counter-productive, but history does carry an element of cyclicity, and with the USA seeking allied assistance in its efforts to retain systemic primacy in the face of relative decline, it would certainly profit from Indian support. Of course India would wish to retain strategic autonomy but riding the global shoulders of the hegemon might, in fact, boost that autonomy in the Asia-Pacific region until India was able to defend its own interests without external support. A return to the tacit alliance of the 1950s and 1960s should not, therefore, be dismissed as a futile gesture. It might make sound tactical sense.

    Whether it makes sense in the longer-term strategic realm is quite another matter.

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