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India: which way will the ‘swing state’ swing? June 8, 2012

Posted by sandygordon in : Afghanistan, Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan, Uncategorized , trackback

Sandy Gordon

According to a leading article in The Times of India, India now finds itself in the enviable position of being courted by both the US and China, thus confirming its status as a ‘swing state’ of Asia.

Two recent meetings highlight India’s emerging role in Asian security.  On 6 June, American Secretary for Defense, Leon Panetta, told a think tank in New Delhi that India is a “linchpin” in America’s re-engagement with Asia.  He also promised India access to significant military technologies.

Following that meeting, Mr Panetta bypassed Islamabad and warned from Kabul that the US is “losing patience” with Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in the wings of the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Beijing, Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang – widely expected to be China’s next premier – told Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna that Sino-Indian ties would be the most important bilateral relationship in the twenty-first century. According to The Wall Street Journal, in return Mr Krishna made a strong pitch for full membership of the resource-rich SCO.

US Defense Secretary Panetta and Indian Defence Minister Anthony from 'The Hindu'

This competitive wooing of India is occurring against a backdrop of growing rivalry (albeit still contained) between China and the US, which is itself taking place in the context of Washington’s re-focusing on the Asia-Pacific as it draws down its presence in the Middle East.

It should also be considered in the context of confident assertions from New Delhi of India’s supposed policy of ‘strategic independence’ – for example in the recent document NonAlignment 2.0.

Basically, New Delhi’s aim is to act as it always has: to play both ends against the middle.  Despite India’s ‘tilt’ to the Soviet Union in the Cold War and its current ‘tilt’ to the US, this has been at the core of Indian strategy for many years. The strategy enables India both to retain its swing state status and also to garner support from both sides in the strategic equation.

In current circumstances, this involves drawing hi-tech military and non-military support from the US, military platforms from Russia and conducting joint action with Beijing in global forums such as on trade and climate change – all sensible strategies for a large, but still emerging country such as India.

But will it continue to work?

India is emerging as a power at a time of fundamental shift in the factors shaping Indo-Pacific security.  China is rising rapidly to power and the US and Europe are apparently stalling. The AfPak ‘end game’ is highly uncertain and the China-sponsored SCO is asserting a role in the recovery and reconstruction of the war-torn nation – read benefit from commercial relations.

Meanwhile, Islamabad has been jockeying for influence in the processes of the end game by asserting its crucial role as the most viable entrepot for Afghanistan. This has taken the form of the decision last November to close the land routes into Afghanistan.

The Lashkar-e-Toiba front, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, has been demonstrating against the reopening of Pakistan’s border and gloating on in a video on its website that the closed border could ‘trap’ the 100,000 foreign personnel in Afghanistan, just as the British were trapped in 1841, when only one man of the 16,000 strong task force and camp followers survived.

Washington has given a powerful indication it intends to ride out the Pakistani lockout by developing the ‘Northern Route’ through the Central Asian Republics and Russia.  With the draw down now being the major issue rather than continuing supply, NATO may just be able to manage using the Northern Route. Or the US may still be bluffing in the the hope that Islamabad may still open the Pakistan border. Probably both interpreations have an element of truth.

Aside from all of this, Washington’s underlying signal to New Delhi could not be clearer: you are the future in the Indo-Pacific, not Pakistan. In this, the US is clearly aiming at unsettling China’s rise to power and protecting its own role as ‘gatekeeper’ of the strategically vital Indian Ocean.

While the basic message is clear, the details are not. For example, Mr Panetta also appeared to give an ever so gentle rebuke to New Delhi over the unconscionable quibbling and delays with defence contracts and especially with reaching a viable (from Washington’s viewpoint) nuclear compensation agreement. This is in keeping with growing US concern that India, with stalled economic growth, significant governance problems and a paralysed parliament, might not prove to be the powerful ballast against China it had originally hoped.

In the final analysis, it may not be wholly up to New Delhi to decide whether to stick to its present policy of ‘strategic independence’ or whether to increase the current strategic ‘tilt’ to the US. Much as New Delhi would prefer to see its own policies driving the agenda, that decision is likely to depend much more on external factors than any Indian predilection.

And these external factors will be: how rapidly China rises to power, including vis-à-vis India and the US; and how it chooses to rise to power and to assert its interests, especially in regard to India’s own core interests, which are the border, South Asia and the Indian Ocean.  And those questions can only currently be, in Churchill’s famous words, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”








1. India: which way will the ‘swing state’ swing? | East Asia Forum - June 24, 2012

[…] of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.This article was first published here on South Asia Masala. _ga.trackFacebook(); Tweet View more posts by Sandy Gordon Print Download […]