The much-touted US pivot/re-balance to the Asia-Pacific has drawn considerable flak of late. From the Syrian chemical weapons use to Russia’s revanchism, the questioning of America’s leadership has seen the pivot naysayers become louder. President Obama has firmly recognized the limits of American power. The Commander of the US Pacific Air Forces has admitted that the resources for the pivot haven’t come his way even as the head of the US Pacific Command has made clear America’s inability to conduct amphibious assaults. To top these off, the US Defence Undersecretary for Intelligence has made it known that the US considers the Syrian civil war, Iran and even a vague ‘persistent volatility’ across South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa as greater threats than China.
The Obama administration is therefore caught in a three way struggle: it is persuading China that its re-balancing is not containment, reassuring its Asian allies of its support, and also projecting to the US Congressmen an image of China as a major threat. Senior American commanders have said that they “aren’t going to go to war over a rock” in the South China Sea while Obama has said that all Japanese administered territories (including the Senkakus) are covered under American defence commitments to Japan. Such a US posture is of concern since the strategic ambiguity this policy creates sows doubts about US commitment among its regional allies and also makes it tougher for China to determine where the real red lines drawn by the US lie.
East Asian nations are today struggling to balance their relations with both China and the US. This balancing act is occurring at a time when India is rapidly accreting military might and is cultivating military contacts with South East Asian nations. India and South East Asia have no contentious issues between them, nor has India been keen for military alliances or basing arrangements. Currently, an East Asia unsure of US commitment is welcoming greater Indian involvement in regional affairs.
As long ago as a decade ago, however, it had been postulated that the Indian armed forces are too overextended domestically to pay attention to their neighbourhood. Even a decade later, India’s much talked of Look East initiative has been more words than action. Primarily responsible is the fact that none of the burning issues of East Asian politics (a nuclear North Korea, the Taiwan problem and competing territorial claims in the South China Sea) are directly relevant to Indian interests.
While the balance of forces tilts towards the US and its allies, the balance of influence is weighing heavier on the side of China by the day. ASEAN’s desire to engage with India, however, should not be interpreted to mean they shall do so at the expense of their relationship with China. India’s Look East initiative was never pursued with the aim of counterbalancing China, and ASEAN would ideally like India to not have antagonistic relations with China. This is because that would put them in the same balancing dilemma where they are presently caught with respect to the USA and China.
India has always been ambivalent about its take on the US Pivot, a stand attributed to an ongoing tussle between the nationalist and realist elements in the Indian policy elites. In such a context, the rise of Narendra Modi hailing from a right wing Hindu nationalist party holds promise to bring more clarity to this debate. Modi’s first priority is the Indian economy and not extremist ideological agendas. Any analysis of his foreign policy priorities then shall flow from his domestic economic priorities. Given the sparse commentary on foreign policy in the BJP manifesto, hardly a surprise on account of the low priority accorded to foreign policy by the Indian electorate, this is all the more important. Modi has stated that, “I believe a strong economy is the driver of an effective foreign policy…[W]e have to put our house in order so that the world is attracted to us.”
The mere fact that India’s economic relations are likely to shine brighter in the East as compared to a retrenching West shouldn’t be interpreted as an automatic Indian commitment to the US rebalance. Given the blooming Indo-Japanese relationship, though closer alignment between the two in a future where India feels threatened by China, there is a high likelihood of India actively participating in the US re-balance. It is a fact that an unresolved border dispute between India and China that sparked a war in 1962 remains a sore point. Also, China’s low key support of insurgencies in India and its all weather alliance with Pakistan has posed roadblocks for cooperation. China’s opposition to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UNSC as a permanent member has proven unhelpful as well. As a former Indian foreign secretary remarked: “Pakistan is just an enemy, China is the adversary.”
That said, Indian steps to militarily hedge against China have been more reactionary than proactive. There is indeed a passionate debate over whether India should contest China militarily on land or sea and the final verdict is not yet clear. What is clear is that India has always gone out of its way to not antagonize China, hence its conspicuous absence from militarized international groupings with a China centric focus. The Chinese are optimistic about Modi and certain commentators have noted that both nations are undergoing historic economic transformations, with India hoping to assume China’s present position (assembling and offshoring) and China building an economic model akin to the Japanese/South Korean model (innovation driven high value commodities provider).
With a gargantuan demographic dividend baying for jobs and Modi seeking to revamp Indian infrastructure, the Chinese have an optimal candidate in India as they look to channel their funds into higher yielding assets. China is India’s largest trade partner, and an era of strategic cooperation, quite unlike any seen before, may very well find its beginnings under Modi’s premiership.
For China to rake up its territorial conflict with India would force it to redirect resources from its naval, air and missile forces to territorial defence. Given the continuity which characterizes Indian foreign policy thought, dramatic changes should not be immediately expected under Modi. A China that doesn’t hinder Indian attempts to carve out its own sphere of influence and swiftly resolves the border dispute would give India good reasons to not engage deeply with the US pivot, at least militarily. China would do well to remember that strategic autonomy, whilst long a cherished end state in Indian foreign policy circles, is not an ironclad necessity (as a glimpse at India’s Cold War history would make clear). As a Prime Minister leading the first ever non-Congress-non-coalition government in India, Modi has a historic mandate and opportunity to shape India’s foreign policy as he sees fit in a manner that will be felt for decades to come.
This article was originally posted in Science, Technology and Security forum.