By Todd Royal
The Financial Times (FT)in the first quarter of 2019 stated the world is now living in the “Asian Century.” FT goes onto mark the times have moved from a western to Asian model becoming the cornerstone for the remainder of the century. The former U.S. administration realized this reality years earlier when it made a policy decision to “Pivot to Asia.”
Now the current U.S. administration is continuing this pivot by wrapping up the first ever, joint U.S.-India military drills that involved live-fire drills and search-and-seizure training. The exercise dubbed – “Tiger Triumph” – “brought together 500 American Marines and sailors, and about 1,200 Indian soldiers, sailors and air force personnel to train side-by-side for nine days.” At one point during the exercise and ocean drills an Indian helicopter landed on an American naval vessel in the Bay of Bengal. The main goal of this nine-day exercise was “to coordinate more ambitiously on challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The two countries signed a mutual defense pact in 2018. This pact allows for exercises and “transfer of advanced (U.S.) weaponry and communication systems to India.” This type of nation-state partnership is out of the norm for India. Historically, India doesn’t partner this publicly with the U.S., or other western powers such as NATO, or the European Union (EU). This non-alignment with western powers is confirmed when Russia is the only other country India has completed military exercises with that involved all three branches of its armed forces.
During the Cold War India was closer to the former Soviet Union than it was with the U.S., NATO, EU, or other Asian countries that are under the western security umbrella. Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations said about this new western tilt:
“You hear officials say now that the U.S. exercises more with Indian than any other non-NATO partner. You would never have imagined that 20 years ago.”
Tiger Triumph isn’t the first U.S.-India military exercise coordination – this is the 15th cycle of continuous, training missions – dubbed the Yudh Abhyas exercise that takes place between the respective armies every September at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State. If India is no longer harkening back to a Cold War stance, then what has changed? The answer is China. The U.S. and EU view China no longer as a partner in global and international relations, but as a possible foe that has stolen technology, military hardware, and intellectual property. Strategic realism and balance of power are being used again as soft power diplomatic tools against China; hence the pivot to India for the U.S.
Abounding security challenges in the Asian hemisphere for Washington: China’s economic might, military preparedness, entrenchment in the South China Sea, and technological prowess present issues for the U.S.-led Asia-Pacific region. This tilt towards India that is a continuation of the pivot to Asia has led U.S. officials to coordinate high-level, diplomatic visits for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia to the White House.
India is the linchpin for the new U.S. strategy, but the Trump administration has disparaged Asian allies for not paying their fair share to house American troops. India is the key to realist balancing, and a level geopolitical playing field in Asia, and that gives India wide latitude. Only India has the population, possible economic dynamism, and ability to counteract China’s bedevilment of U.S. strategy in the region.
But India’s economic woes combining “cyclical and structural factors,” limit the effectiveness of balancing China unless New Delhi faces up to the challenges ahead. Foreign Affairs however, believes the U.S. should fear a “faltering China,” which has fallen on hard economic times such as unfinished skyscrapers over credit unworthiness. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand this great power struggle between the U.S., India and China and which factors are the weak links in this game-theory dynamic.
Is it U.S. political instability and dwindling trust in public institutions? Or is it India’s struggle to leave Third World nation status and distrust of the west to gain an advantage over China? Or is it Chinese economic instability that Beijing doesn’t have answers for outside of increased government investment into the broader economy? All three countries have undeniable weaknesses that neither seems capable of fixing now or into the foreseeable future.
Washington’s excitement with India trumps all, as a strategic and tactical partner, since Modi’s government “is both willing and able to play a larger role…” i.e. India can pay and contribute equally to Asian and global security exertions. If Washington cuts back on reliable defense ties with South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Japan – all traditional Asian allies – by moving closer to India it could have a negative outcome for geopolitical balancing that Asia is seeking with China.
The George W. Bush and Obama administration’s pushed for closer relational alignment with India, but typically fell short when India realized they were only part of the U.S. security network that included Pakistan, India’s rival. Daniel Kliman, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security is hopeful a new type of U.S.-India relationship grows because:
“One of the reasons why the Trump administration has been able to move forward with India relatively quickly is that it’s less concerned about alienating Pakistan. There’s recognition that what India might contribute to a broader regional balance is enormous.”
Defense coordination and deeper orientation with India presents the U.S. with openings to expand military, security, intelligence and economic opportunities beyond what traditional Asian allies could offer. When exports of American weaponry to India went up 557 percent from 2013-17 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and American arm sales total over $18 billion a year to India this is either cause for concern, or hope that strengthening U.S.-India ties can lead to peaceful balancing in the most important geopolitical region in the world.