Why India will disappoint both the United States and China
BY C. RAJA MOHAN
As the United States and China circle each other in Asia, many in Washington hope and some in Beijing fear that India might become a military counterweight to the middle kingdom. However, two recent visits to Delhi by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie suggest that India’s prudent approach is likely to disappoint some of its American supporters without reassuring many of its Chinese friends.
Traveling to Delhi in June, Panetta pronounced that India was a “lynchpin” of the new U.S. military strategy in Asia and promised to remove all the bureaucratic obstacles in Washington for a stronger defense partnership with India. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter arrived in Delhi a few weeks later to follow through with Panetta’s promises. Despite the American impatience with the slow progress in bilateral relations, Washington is leaving no stone unturned in its defense outreach to India.
Both Panetta and Carter were careful not to define the security partnership with India in opposition to China. Amidst widespread perception to the contrary, India’s defense ministry went out of the way to reaffirm that Delhi had no interest in containing China and nor a desire to be dragged into an unwanted conflict with Beijing.
Yet, as India seemed to acquire a new salience in the U.S. rebalancing towards Asia, China was quick to step in and repair its wayward defense relationship with India. In a visit that was organized at short notice and on Chinese initiative in early September, Liang arrived in Delhi declaring that China is not a threat to India and expressing Beijing’s eagerness to stabilize and expand the military engagement with India. If China is baring its military claws to Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in the Western Pacific, it has apparently decided to turn on a mild charm offensive with India.
Keeping the Indian front quiet at a time when China’s eastern frontiers are live would seem to make sense for Beijing. Delhi, too, could do well with a peaceful periphery as it seeks to revive its faltering economic growth and strengthen its strategic capabilities.
The two sides agreed to renew bilateral military exercises that India had suspended two years ago, when China refused to issue a normal visa to a senior Indian general serving in Jammu and Kashmir, a state that India and Pakistan both claim as their own.
They also decided to expand their fledgling maritime cooperation and work together for the stability of the Asia-Pacific region. This is probably the first time that China has acknowledged India’s role in East Asia.
While India’s recent defense diplomacy with the United States and China might smell of “non-alignment,” widely seen as the foundational concept of India’s foreign policy, there is a vast difference between the quality of Delhi’s defense engagement with Washington and Beijing.
Having been on opposite sides of the Cold War, India and the United States have had little defense engagement until George W. Bush took office. But with Bush openly backing India’s great power aspirations, the defense interaction between the two has advanced rapidly. The militaries of the two countries conduct more military exercises with each other than with anyone else. India, which bought no arms from the United States during the Cold War, has notched up nearly $9 billion worth of purchases in the last few years.
India’s military engagement with China, in contrast, has been about confidence-building and limiting conflict rather than cooperation in pursuit of shared objectives.
If the United States is the distant power, with which India has no direct quarrels, Delhi shares a long and contested border with Beijing and the legacy of a deeply competitive relationship. Their respective political positions on Kashmir and Tibet would seem to challenge the territorial sovereignty of the other.
The two sides have long sought to balance each other in Asia. India cozied up to Russia amid the Sino-Soviet split and Sino-Indian border tensions at the turn of the 1960s. China has long propped up Pakistan to keep India off balance in the Subcontinent.
Given this legacy and the growing Chinese penetration of India’s presumed sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, Delhi would seem to have every incentive to balance China in East Asia and the Pacific. Realists in China would not be shocked if India “aligned with the far” to “balance the near.” And the United States is indeed urging India to play a larger role in East Asia and is eager to strengthen India’s defense capabilities. Many in East Asia, chafing under Chinese pressure, are looking to India to restore the regional balance.
India, risk averse by nature, has adopted a rather modest strategy in response. This strategy has a number of elements.
For one, it has demonstrated a growing military interest in East Asia through regular naval forays into the region’s waters, and naval exercises with the United States and Japan and other important littoral states.
Delhi has also joined Washington in expressing strong support for the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It has joined ASEAN in emphasizing a peaceful resolution of China’s maritime territorial disputes on the basis of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Besides these political irritants for Beijing, Delhi has chosen to persist with its plans to explore oil in Vietnam’s waters that China claims. Despite warnings from Beijing, Delhi is standing by its long-standing strategic partner, Vietnam.
India’s defense diplomacy in East Asia does not mean Delhi is ready for bolder military ventures in the Western Pacific. India is acutely conscious that it does not have the capacity to unilaterally project military force and sustain it in the South China Sea.
Beijing is not too concerned about India’s military weight in the South China Sea. But Beijing is deeply worried about Delhi’s potential role, in collaboration with the United States, in threatening its vital sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean.
For Delhi, too, the strategic priority is to consolidate its many natural strategic advantages in the Indian Ocean. This has become urgent amid China’s own expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
Liang said all the nice things in Delhi; but he also made it clear that China plans to intensify military cooperation with India’s smaller neighbors in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. On his way to Delhi, Liang spent four days in Sri Lanka, India’s southern neighbor, at the dead center of the Indian Ocean. China’s deepening defense engagement with Sri Lanka is one of a piece with Beijing’s efforts to cultivate all the major strategic islands in the Indian Ocean, including Seychelles, Mauritius, and Maldives — all of which have been traditional partners of India.
Smart money in Washington is not betting on India as a military counterweight to China in the short term. It knows that boosting India’s military capabilities would certainly help contribute to the East Asian balance of power over the longer term.
Meanwhile, there is much Delhi and Washington could do in the Indian Ocean. An India that reclaims its historic role as the security provider in the Indian Ocean will generate more options for the United States in coping with the changing military balance of power in the Western Pacific.
For the United States, making Delhi part of a formal alliance structure should matter less than the fact that a strong India acting in its own interests would seek a stable Asian balance of power to cope with China’s rise.
For India, partnership with the United States is critical in rapidly modernizing its armed forces and reducing the growing gap with China in the military sphere.
This strategic parallelism opens up much room for defense cooperation and coordination in the wider Indo-Pacific region. Seeing the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean as a single theater alters the way in which we might imagine the military balance of power in the eastern hemisphere.