By David J. Karl
Events last week brought fresh evidence of how New Delhi is emerging as an important pivot point on Asia’s broader geopolitical stage. Indeed, for every global investor fleeing the country these days, there is a foreign statesman who wants to partner more closely with it.
The visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to New Delhi illustrates how the Obama administration has shaken off its disillusionment with India and is resuming its predecessors’ practice of engaging the country on high-profile security initiatives. Panetta stopped in India as part of an eight-day swing through Asia designed to fill in the details about Washington’s new military buildup in the Asia-Pacific region that is plainly directed against China even if no one in Washington cares to admit it publicly. As part of the strategy, the United States will shift the bulk of its naval combat power to the Pacific in the coming years as well as deepen military ties with regional allies and friends.
In an important address in New Delhi, Panetta made clear that the Obama administration sees India as a “linchpin” in this strategy. Stating that the United States “views India as a net provider of security from the Indian Ocean to Afghanistan and beyond,” Panetta proposed the formation of a long-term strategic partnership, one that featured greater Indian access to the latest U.S. military technology and a defense trade relationship that went beyond a focus on one-off transactions to include joint research and co-production efforts.
The path from Washington to New Delhi has been busy in recent weeks. In late March, Commerce Secretary John Bryson showed up at the head of a high-level trade mission. In April, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stopped by to discuss preparations for the upcoming round of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue that will take place this week in Washington; Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell paid a visit to continue the on-going exchange of views on East Asia policy that has sprung up over the last few years; and Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro arrived to resume a bilateral dialogue on non-proliferation and defense trade issues that has not convened in six years. Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton alighted to talk about Iran, followed by Peter R. Lavoy, the Pentagon’s point person on Asia, who wanted to encourage a greater Indian role in Afghanistan.
While Panetta was paying court in New Delhi, Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna was being serenaded by Chinese officials in Beijing. In town to attend a summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – a regional security grouping comprised of China, Russia and four Central Asian states – Krishna was told by Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang (who is widely expected to become China’s head of government) that the Sino-Indian equation would be the important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. Li’s phrase is a virtual echo of the Obama administration’s regular formulation about Washington and New Delhi constituting “an indispensable partnership for the 21st century” and it signals that the two most important external powers in South Asian security affairs are in competition for India’s strategic allegiances. Beijing has also upgraded its ambassador in New Delhi to vice-ministerial status.
So India’s geopolitical dance card is filling up. Officially it remains uncertain about who to take to the prom though its inclinations are becoming clearer. Like Washington, New Delhi seeks deeper economic cooperation with Beijing and during his visit Krishna was keen to secure Chinese investment in much-needed infrastructure projects. China is now the country’s top partner in merchandise trade and according to one estimate the two could form the world’s largest trading combination by 2030. Moreover, a deep-seated desire for strategic autonomy will continue to limit just how close New Delhi aligns itself with Washington.
Yet Beijing’s expanding strategic reach has also become a cause of consternation in New Delhi, leading it gradually to tighten security ties with Washington. Over the past few years, India has moved to fortify its northeastern border areas where China has made renewed territorial claims; tested a nuclear missile capable of targeting China’s largest cities; laid down a conspicuous marker in the South China Sea dispute; ramped up its purchase of U.S. military systems and the number of exercises with U.S. forces; expanded defense relations with Japan; and begun to concert East Asia policy with Washington and Tokyo.
The cross-currents affecting New Delhi’s approach toward Beijing are on display in a report issued a few months ago by prominent members of the Indian foreign policy establishment. Seeking to chart out a set of basic principles to guide national security policy over the next decade, the report emphasizes that strategic independence remains “the core of India’s global engagements even today.” Yet it surprisingly had much more to say about China than about the United States. On the former, it argued that:
China will, for the foreseeable future, remain a significant foreign policy and security challenge for India. It is the one major power which impinges directly on India’s geopolitical space. As its economic and military capabilities expand, its power differential with India is likely to widen….
….The challenge for Indian diplomacy will be to develop a diversified network of relations with several major powers to compel China to exercise restraint in its dealings with India, while simultaneously avoiding relationships that go beyond conveying a certain threat threshold in Chinese perceptions.
In a subsequent newspaper piece, Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary who was involved in the report, elaborated on these themes. He argued that it would be best, at least for the time being, to avoid the encumbrances of an alliance with Washington. Yet he also acknowledged that:
Given the challenge that China’s apparently relentless rise poses to India, the pursuit of a “non-aligned” policy appears unwise. The US has greater affinity and empathy with India. It supports India’s acquisition of economic and technological capabilities and has convergent concerns over Chinese hegemony. But the US has not yet determined whether, in its relative decline, its interests are better served by playing a balancing role in Asia among Asian powers including between China and India, or seeking to contain China through a network of allies. Neither precludes India and the US pursuing closer partnership and both seeking a more cautious and nuanced relationship with China.
Panetta’s tour of Asia has addressed Saran’s concern: The Obama administration is committed to organizing a regional balance of power against China and desires India’s key assistance toward that goal. New Delhi’s response to this overture will undoubtedly be halting, more than occasionally causing frustration in Washington. But over time its strategic imperatives will ineluctably draw it into a closer geopolitical affiliation with the United States.
David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm located in Los Angeles. He previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy. He blogs on South Asia at Chanakya’s Notebook and can be followed on Twitter @davidjkarl.