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India-US Strategic Dialogue: Focus On The Big Picture – Analysis

By Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopala

There were expectations that the new Modi Government will set out new policies on many fronts, including foreign policy and security arena. But starting from his swearing-in ceremony to the recently released budget, we have only had glimpses of the priorities of this new government. We are yet to see significant pronouncements on India’s relations with major powers. One such opportunity was at the BRICS Summit in Brazil, where Modi had meetings with Russian and Chinese leaders on the sidelines. About relations with the US, Modi has already accepted President Obama’s invitation to visit Washington DC — an indication that the Prime Minister is willing to put behind him the visa ban issue and take India-US relations forward. Most recently, during US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns’ visit, Modi is reported to have said, “Reenergising the partnership between India and the US would send an important message to the region and beyond.” The upcoming US-India strategic dialogue presents another opportunity for the new government to set out its strategic vision.

While there have been a number of suggestions in how bilateral relations between India and the US can be re-energized, both countries need to place these relations in the larger context of the Asian strategic framework. China’s rise as an economic and military power house has created its own dynamics, undermining the US influence in Asia, particularly given Beijing’s economic engagement in the region. Though China’s engagement with Asia has an economic angle, this engagement has been pursued with another more important but unstated objective of reducing US role and influence in the region. It is a fact that trade is a compelling factor for India, the US and much of the rest of the world. This does not mean that the political and strategic difficulties have vanished or that these can be put on the back burner in the drive to boost trade.

India should engage China in the trade and commercial spheres, which may go to create prosperity on both sides. But neither side should be under the misplaced hope that these will diminish the salience of other tricky and more difficult issues including the border and territorial issues. While India and China are plagued with any number of issues, these are only symptoms of the larger problem that exists between the two: is China willing to see India emerging as a major power in Asia and beyond? The competition for the same strategic sphere is at the root of the problem between India and China. If India is interested in creating an Asian strategic framework that is not hijacked by one single power, it needs to strengthen several of its other bilateral relationships in Asia, especially India-US relations, to a point where it will become difficult for China to impose its hegemonistic tendencies.

China’s muscular foreign and security policy evidenced over the last few years has also changed the situation. The US, which was uncertain about its commitment to Asia after a decade-long engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, is back in Asia to stay. The US rebalancing strategy is a direct consequence of China’s aggressive posturing in East China and South China Seas in the last five years. The wariness and uncertainty around the Chinese power and how this may play out in the territorial disputes with Japan and the ASEAN countries gave the US a fresh incentive to remain in Asia.

India too is uncertain of China. While there have been repeated rhetoric from the Chinese side on how important this bilateral relationship is, its actions raise questions, be it the Chinese map displaying the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory or the stapled visa issue. However, unlike other Asian countries that have supported the US rebalancing, India is still shy of openly embracing the US. Thus, New Delhi is finding its own ways of sending the message that US-India relations are important, particularly in the context of Asian stability. India’s new formulations and platforms such as acceptance of the US-Japan-India trilateral is a case in point. Expansion of this network to include Australia or Singapore and emergence of a new quadrilateral cannot be ruled out. Similarly, the track II engagements among the US, Australia and India could gain traction and become a more formal initiative in the coming years.

India’s engagement with Southeast Asia is also likely to get more substantive in the coming years. Two decades after launching the Look East Policy, India’s interactions with the region are slowly beginning to gain some strategic traction, mainly in the context of China’s behaviour and Asian stability. However, ASEAN has not remained a cohesive unit in the face of an increasingly muscular China. On the other hand, a more fractured ASEAN is on display now after being a model for other regional groupings for a couple of decades. The dilemma facing ASEAN countries – economic benefits vs strategic balancing as they engage China – is nothing unique.

This provides the context for India and the US to channel their efforts in establishing a firm partnership for enabling a stable Asian order. India and the US share a common perception of an Asia that is not dominated by one single power. India, the US and Japan to a great extent have an inclusive approach towards the Asian strategic framework, willing to take along other rising powers in shaping the new order. On the other hand, China has adopted an exclusive approach to the emerging Asian order thus leading to repeated conflict of interests among the major Asian powers. India and the US are also concerned about China’s growing military might and how that might create new dynamics in Asia. Both New Delhi and Washington should also encourage greater respect for international law and norms, especially freedom of the seas and open navigation.

If the leadership in both India and the US can get this larger strategic scene right, the rest will follow. One needs to obviously build meat into this strategic idea eventually. India also has to get realistic about playing power politics to its advantage. Despite the perception of a relative decline of and uncertainty about the US power, Washington will continue to be the dominant power centre for the foreseeable future. If India has to be able to rise and sit at the high-table, it has to recognise that the US can do a great deal in getting New Delhi there. The India-US nuclear deal and the NSG waiver for India are cases in point. India must acknowledge here that despite the desire on the part of France and Russia to engage in nuclear commerce with India, they did not have the political capital or influence to alter the global rules of the game to accommodate India. China for all the rhetoric of Chindia, among other formulations, has used every opportunity to pull India down in the last decade.

Against such a backdrop, India has to be able to appreciate who its friends and partners are in ensuring a conducive environment for it to rise. India has to learn the art of managing multiple great power relationships. So whether India looks east or west, its aim has to be to consolidate and maximise its power quotient.

(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She served at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India from 2003 to 2007.)


About the Author

Observer Research Foundation
Observer Research Foundation
ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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