March 01, 2015

India and the US Pivot to the East

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE success of President Barack Obama’s decision to rebalance the power equation in East Asia with the “pivot to the East” policy depends a lot on cooperation from major powers in the region, notably India. India under both the NDA and UPA has been portraying itself as the “natural partner” of the USA. The leaderships of the two countries revel in describing themselves as the two largest democracies in the world that also share core values. Since the signing of the defense partnership agreement between the two countries ten years ago, strategic and military relations have indeed deepened. But till now, India has strived to retain its strategic autonomy in foreign affairs. Even after the foreign policy tilt towards Washington became obvious for a decade and a half, India has been careful in nurturing ties with the developing world through the auspices of NAM and other international forums. Membership of grouping like BRICS gave diplomatic heft to India’s relationship with major countries like Russia, China and Brazil.




Things however could be changing after the second visit of President Barack Obama to India in January. In the joint vision statement released during the visit, India endorsed the American positions on the South China Sea, freedom of navigation, Iran and North Korea. India’s own “Look East” policy seems to be working in close tandem with American policy goals in the region. Beijing has reasons to suspect that Washington has succeeded in convincing the new government in Delhi to work closely along with Japan and the Philippines to build an alliance aimed at China. The Philippines under President Benigno Aquino has diverted from the policies of his predecessors and has further intensified relations with the US by renewing military basing facilities for the American military.

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known for his nationalistic rhetoric and antagonism towards Beijing, has been urging for a “quadrilateral” defense agreement between the US, Japan, Australia and India. Before starting a second term as prime minister, Abe had argued in favour of a strategic alliance between the four countries “to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the Western Pacific”. Japan was among the first countries the newly elected Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi visited. Modi and Abe are both on an avowed mission of making their countries important global players, both economically and militarily.

After Prime Minister Modi took over, he announced his “Act East” policy, signaling an even more activist policy in East Asia. After his first meeting with the American president in Washington last year, a joint statement was issued which designated the South China Sea as an important area where the freedom of navigation and maritime security has to be safeguarded.  China has been reiterating that there is absolutely no threat to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. China again reacted strongly to President Obama’s remarks in Delhi in January about the freedom of navigation being threatened in the South China Sea.

“At present, the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and there is a consensus among ASEAN countries to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea”, a Chinese government spokesman said in the last week of January. The spokesman also added that aircraft “over-flights had not encountered any problems and there will be none in the future” over the South China Sea. China has laid claim to most of the South China Sea but Beijing has said that it is open to negotiations with the other countries that also have similar territorial claims in the mineral rich area. 40 per cent of the world’s maritime commerce passes through the South China Sea.

The joint statement issued during the American president’s India visit emphasized on “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea and the issue of over-flights. Last year, Ajit Doval, Modi’s National Security Adviser (NSA) was in Washington for talks with senior American officials, including the Secretary of State, John Kerry and the American NSA, Susan Rice. The talks, according to reports, centered on maritime security in Southeast and East Asia and the looming threat from China. India’s newly appointed foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, had voiced support for a more robust anti China policy in coordination with Washington. According to a 2010 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, Jaishankar is quoted as saying that India would like “to coordinate more closely” with the United States in the face of China’s “more aggressive approach to international relations”.

When the “Pivot to the East” was first announced in 2012, the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had written that the rebalancing would be underwritten in part by “forging a broad based military presence” in the region. Washington has been trying for many years to draw India into its web of military alliances. Their hopes have risen with the coming to power of a right wing nationalist government in Delhi. It is a dangerous web. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey said that the US in the near future “may be obliged to overtly confront China just as it faced down the Soviet Union”.




Even as Obama keeps on saying that a “thriving China is good for America”, Washington is keeping all options, including the military one, open. Besides stationing troops in the Philippines, America’s military alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia have been further strengthened. The Pentagon has adopted an air sea battle doctrine in the Asia Pacific region, deploying 60 per cent of its nuclear armed and high-tech navy to the region. Joint exercises with navies of the region have also increased. Vietnam with its “friends with all nations” policy has given the US Navy access to Cam Ranh Naval Base. Washington has established military to military contacts with the Burmese army in its efforts to stop the Chinese from getting access to the Indian Ocean. Obama’s “pivot to the East” policy has encouraged Vietnam and the Philippines to be more inflexible on their positions in the territorial disputes with China.

India has no territorial disputes with any of the countries in the region. The territorial disputes in the region between China and a few countries are not of much relevance to India’s national interests. The country’s strategic interests, according to most experts, are limited to the eastern side of the Strait of Malacca. If India persists in wading into the South China Sea by either militarily siding with Vietnam or allowing its Navy to have permanent berthing facilities there, it would be viewed as a provocation by China. During the recent visit of the Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung to India, Modi had said that India considered Vietnam as one of the main “pillars of its Look East Policy”. During the visit, Modi had highlighted the growing military ties between the two countries.

In fact, many members of the ASEAN group do not want India to have adversarial relations with China. Their focus is on unencumbered economic growth. They feel that this goal can be achieved only if there is peace and tranquility in the region. There is a general view that the United States is a declining power. The “pivot to the East” could be a last throw of the dice for the United States in its uphill efforts to retain its hegemonic status in world affairs. Some senior American officials have questioned the rebalancing to the East hyped up by the Obama administration. They consider the situation in West Asia, South Asia and North Africa as much more volatile than in East Asia. Many of them have gone on record stating that these threats are more serious than the one allegedly posed by China.

The Chinese media has taken note of the tentative moves to bring India into the already existing anti-China security grouping. “The US wants to use India to contain China, but Delhi may not agree to such a strategy”, a commentary from China National Radio stated. The Global Times warned both India and China against “falling into the trap of rivalry set up by the West”. The article in the paper goes on add that the stereotypes of the “Chinese dragon” and “Indian elephant” were created and hyped up by the West. Xinhua, the official news agency in a commentary said the Sino-Indian relations would not be significantly impacted by the American president’s three-day visit to India. The article emphasised that the two countries are “natural partners in many different areas” and are also “the two largest emerging economies”.