India’s Response to the US Pivot and Asian Geopolitics
In the fall of 2011, the Obama administration undertook series of steps to expand and intensify the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific. Obama administration’s renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region has been appropriate and long overdue. Despite the end of the Cold War, a large portion of the U.S. military resources continued to be deployed in the Atlantic. The unipolar euphoria which enveloped Washington’s strategic thinking created a new consensus that there was no potential great power competitor to the United States. Instead of developing strategies to deal with emerging powers, the government in Washington focused on nation building and democracy promotion in the Middle East and beyond. This diffidence towards the Asia-Pacific proved to be untenable in the long run due to several factors such as structural power shifts, burgeoning economic weight of the region and additional changes in domestic predispositions. Furthermore, shifting balance of power in the Asia-Pacific due to rise of emerging powers like India, China and Japan necessitated an environment for the US strategic reassurance and whether these rising powers could cooperate remained an open question.
Whilst several commentators on US foreign policy have viewed the rebalance as a ‘return’ to Asia, most argue that the United States never left Asia. Present narratives on the rebalance also tend to focus solely on the rise of China and presume that the relevance of rebalance only lie in containing China. These narratives have proved to be rather simplistic and myopic readings of the US Rebalance Strategy. Therefore, it becomes imperative to examine the US rebalance strategy beyond the binary lens of US re-engagement and disengagement dichotomy in Asia. Instead, the rebalance should be understood as region-wide, multidimensional policy initiative hinged on America’s policy of emphasis and priority on Northeast, Southeast and South Asia – parts of the world that will be of growing strategic and economic importance in the 21st century. The rebalance also entails America’s economic engagement with the region as the Obama administration aims to expand bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation focused on the Trans Pacific Partnership. The Obama administration also rolled out a process which increased foreign assistance to the region by seven percent.
If several American allies have explicitly supported the US rebalance to Asia Pacific, India has only quietly embraced it. India, often been termed as the lynchpin to the US Pivot policy, has welcomed the US engagement in Asia. While an open endorsement of the US Rebalance strategy does not quite appear in any Indian government dossier, both India and the US have identified the Asia-Pacific region as a space of converging interests – one which impacts shared destinies. India while being privately pleased to see stronger US commitment to the Asia-Pacific, like most other regional players has been keen to avoid having to choose between the United States and China. Following President Obama’s visit to China in 2009, dramatic talks around concepts like “Chimerica” and “G-2” in the US due to the increasing bilateral economic interdependence between the two had an unsettling impact on India’s security planners. Genuine concerns regarding the US and China forging a G-2 which could lead to a power condominium in Asia-Pacific pervaded Delhi’s strategic community. Over time such concepts of power-sharing between the two countries have waxed and waned. In the backdrop of a militarily rising and an increasingly assertive China in maritime issues, several US foreign policy commentators have criticised the Obama administration for unduly conceding strategic space to China during its first term. For its part, India tried to walk the tightrope between gradually warming up to the US along with hedging Chinese influence where it could.
During 2012-2014, a politically paralysed UPA II responded to the US rebalance strategy through levers such as partnering with the US; engaging both China and the US; promoting Asian security and economic prosperity by India’s eastward orientation – “Look East”; collaborating with regional partners through multi-lateral organizations to shape the balance and most importantly building India’s own national comprehensive power. While former PM Manmohan Singh espoused India’s role as a net security provider in the region, efforts to realize the same were muted. After entering office in May 2014, PM Modi added a fresh momentum to India’s “Look East” which now morphed into “Act East”. Modi government’s efforts in Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean have been instrumental in ending India’s diffidence towards this vital region. India and the US are increasingly being bound in the process of structural realignment due to growing vulnerabilities of attacks from the seas, competing territorial claims and uncertainties in freedom of navigation. This has created a landscape where both India and the US have overlapping security concerns and goals. Simultaneously an added sense of clear direction in relations evidenced in India-US Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean has been instrumental in bolstering India’s self-confidence to undertake more global responsibilities. America’s explicit affirmation to assist the rise of India to great-power status has further provided a basis for India’s cogent role in the Asia-Pacific.
If shifting balance of power is shaping India’s response to the US pivot, which is seen gradually being pronounced, India too is shaping the Rebalance narrative by developing its comprehensive national power, deepening relations with Indian Ocean littoral countries and collaborating with regional powers like Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. A recent Council on Foreign Relations Task Force Report headed by Alyssa Ayres and Joseph Nye has identified that the United States’ partnership with a rising India would offer unprecedented opportunities to advance US national interests over the next two decades. Thereby, the report urges US policymakers to adopt a new approach – a “joint venture” to propel US-India bilateral relationship. Unsurprisingly there has been and would be no lack of new concepts and stimulating lexicons such as ‘defining partnership’, ‘natural allies’, ‘strategic plus partners’ to describe India’s most vital partnership with the US. However, what would be interesting to note is India’s ability to leverage on the US assistance to expand its own economic prosperity and international standing in the world and America’s dexterity in partnering with India to expand and sustain the longevity of American pre-eminence in world affairs.
Sylvia Mishra is a Junior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Initiative at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and a regular columnist for Huffington Post.