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Why India is so half-hearted about the U.S. rebalance towards Asia

By Joseph Singh Best Defense diplomatic desk The U.S. may be seeking an unconditional partner in its effort to rebalance towards Asia, but it shouldn’t hedge its bets on India. "We want strategic autonomy. We don’t want to be identified with U.S. policy in Asia, even if we secretly like it," Ambassador T. P. Sreenivasan, ...


By Joseph Singh

Best Defense diplomatic desk

The U.S. may be seeking an unconditional partner in its effort to rebalance towards Asia, but it shouldn’t hedge its bets on India. "We want strategic autonomy. We don’t want to be identified with U.S. policy in Asia, even if we secretly like it," Ambassador T. P. Sreenivasan, retired Indian diplomat and former Permanent Representative for India at the United Nations, said at an August 9 event hosted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. 

Sreenivasan painted a complicated picture of U.S.-India relationships, mired by domestic political pandering, a history of distrust between the two countries, and a concern that a firm commitment to the American rebalancing effort will further aggravate tensions in a rapidly changing Asian strategic landscape. 

Despite these challenges, however, U.S.-India cooperation is closer than ever. Indeed, as Sreenivasan sees it, the rebalancing effort has incentivized a more accommodating U.S. approach toward India. In 2010, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to endorse permanent membership for India on the U.N. Security Council. He also reversed previous U.S. policy opposing India’s application to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation economic forum. The U.S.-India strategic dialogue, launched in 2011, included a host of agreements on a wide range of issues including collaborative endeavors in higher education and clean energy to increased cooperation on cyber security. And earlier this year, the Defense Strategic guidance specifically acknowledged that a "long-term strategic partnership" with India is vital if the U.S. is to achieve its goals in East Asia. 

To be sure, there are concrete reasons for India to support the U.S. rebalancing. Its relationship with China is handicapped by a host of intractable issues, including a disputed border between the two countries, increasingly close Sino-Pakistani relations, and Chinese access to India’s Himalayan water supply, which the government fears it could one day divert.

But ultimately, U.S. policymakers believe that an increasingly muscular China will most magnify tensions in the congested maritime landscape. A U.S. naval and air presence would be India’s best parry against a China that could use its growing military prowess to resolve regional schisms — or so American policymakers have tried to convince their Indian counterparts. U.S. strategy, as laid out in the guidance, is to draw India into a regional alliance to hedge against China through gradually increasing military cooperation, beginning with humanitarian missions, and then progressing towards high-profile operations, such as naval special warfare exercises. Strong intergovernmental and interagency cooperation, intelligence sharing and collaborative efforts in weapons development will herald new and historic strength in partnership, according the guidance. 

No doubt, military cooperation between the two countries is at an all time high. Yet there are reasons to question that the Indians that the Indians will translate this increased cooperation into concrete strategic alignment. For one, India remains skeptical that the U.S. would actually defend core Indian interests in the face of Chinese aggression.  It sees U.S. involvement in the region as fundamentally self-serving, with the transactional arrangement between the U.S. and Pakistan constituting the case-in-point. Indeed, the rebalancing will do little to assuage Indian concerns about growing Sino-Pakistani cooperation. Instead, India believes its foremost interest is in retaining its "strategic autonomy" to retain the capacity to respond to potential threats on its own terms. But as a recent CSIS report notes, "Rather than being guided by an overarching national security strategy or strategic planning documents, these decisions are usually made on a case-by-case basis."

Second, India fears that the U.S. move away from the Middle East will result in sparse resources for Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts writ-large. India has already poured billions of dollars into reconstruction and development aid in Afghanistan, and has committed to training Afghan security forces as the U.S. drawdown continues. A rushed withdrawal or scant deployment of residual forces could leave the country unprepared to provide for its own security and serve to reignite insurgencies, spark civil war and close a crucial gateway for trade in Central Asia. If the Indians are preoccupied with guaranteeing stability in their own backyard, they will be unable to look eastwards.

Finally, increased U.S.-India defense cooperation is complicated by India’s close defense relationship with Russia. India, which is the world’s leader in defense technology imports, purchases over three quarters of its military technology from Russia. Recent efforts to increase U.S.-Indian defense cooperation haven’t been successful, the most notable example being India’s decision to deny American firms a $12 billion contract for fighter jets. Thus, bold policy pronouncements relaxing export barriers on U.S. defense technology, for example, while potentially fruitful for long-term cooperation, will be unlikely to unravel Russian industry’s grasp on the Indian defense apparatus. 

At the moment, it seems the Indian government’s insistence on strategic autonomy may be concealing what is more likely a state of policy paralysis. On the one hand, India is concerned by increased Chinese assertiveness in the region, but also fears that throwing its military heft behind U.S. rebalancing efforts will induce further economic and military instability and hurt relations with Asian countries that feel Chinese growth is benign. Until India reasons that these latter risks are outweighed by the threat posed by Chinese regional hegemony, its strategic calculus is unlikely to change.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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