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The US pivot and India’s look east June 25, 2012

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Sourabh Gupta

The US and India held their third annual strategic dialogue in Washington on 13 June 2012. At the second dialogue in June 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed India to assume a more proactive leadership role in the Asia Pacific region, exhorting it to ‘not just look east, but continue to engage and act east as well’.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta enthusiastically restated the same message during his recent post-Shangri-La Dialogue swing through New Delhi.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) shakes hands with India's Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna (L) during a joint press conference at the State Department in Washington DC, USA, 13 June 2012. (Photo: AAP)

Earlier this January, as part of its newly issued Defense Strategic Guidance, the US Department of Defense identified India as a cherished long-term security partner and strategic anchor in the Indian Ocean region. India is the only country to merit specific mention as a strategic partner within the document, and it seems the country has come a long way since US defence planners called it out two decades ago for its ‘hegemonic aspirations’ in the Indian Ocean region.

The Strategic Guidance seeks to enmesh India in a prospective US-led ‘network among spokes’ (contrasted with ‘hub-and-spokes’) system of alliances and partnerships extending across the strategically vital Indo-Pacific arc. This is part of the current pivot in US defence strategy from a land-based, Southwest Asia/Middle East focused strategy to one that places greater emphasis on the Asia Pacific and air- and sea-based defence. A program of bilateral activities along three overlapping axes is envisaged as guide posts in the establishment of this system.

First, the program aims to recruit Indian participation in US Pacific Command-led transnational, non-traditional security activities, such as anti-piracy, humanitarian action/disaster relief and peacekeeping missions. Over time these will be oriented toward more traditional missions of a high-end character, such as maritime surveillance, expeditionary operations and anti-submarine warfare. Second, India is to be involved in close-ended trilateral defence arrangements, such as US–India–Japan or US–India–Australia groupings, whose variable geometry in time will be combined and selectively expanded outwards to include like-minded nations along the Asian littoral. And third, India is to be enrolled in inter-governmental defence agreements related to communications, interoperability and logistics, which will pave the way for more effective military–military partnering conducted at arm’s length from immediate civilian oversight.

Major multi-service combined exercises, logistics and facilities sharing, co-development of weapon systems and real-time intelligence sharing will, over time, evolve into doctrine-sharing exchanges, harmonised force postures, and integrated command and control systems. The resulting strategic congruence will infuse the broader defence partnership.

The logic driving these initiatives is clear: wean India off its autonomist leanings and situate it within a robust, region-wide strategic defensive posture that is conducive to both strategic deterrence and systemic stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The expectation that Sino–Indian strategic and maritime contestation in Asia will inexorably deepen is also an unstated premise underlying this calculation. But very little of this grand design will come to pass in the decade ahead for three key reasons.

First, neither political nor extremist Islam seems willing to indulge the rebalancing aspirations of US planners by calling a timeout. Indeed, New Delhi —disenchanted by the West’s decision to rebalance away from Afghanistan — appears poised to expand its participationin the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s counter-terror and regional stabilization activities.

Second, India stands at a critical juncture in the modernisation of its strategic and conventional arsenal, a transitional process that will not be completed until 2025. In the interim, defence technology acquisition and indigenisation, whether through licensing arrangements or co-development, will remain New Delhi’s overriding goal. Given Russia’s technology lock on India’s air-, land- and sea-based strategic deterrent capabilities, framing US–India defence industrial base cooperation along bottom-up, medium technology-intensive lines is the prudent approach. Committing significant bilateral equities to a collaborative ‘high-visibility, high-difficulty’ showcase project in the defence technology sector, as a September 2011 Council on Foreign Relations study recommends, seems exactly the wrong way to proceed.

Third, catering to New Delhi’s psychology of misgivings and precautions vis-à-vis China is insufficient to bring about India’s participation in selective, close-ended defence groupings of Asian littoral states. Such groupings are premised on the threat of interdiction and denial of navigational freedom to Chinese shipping along its sea lines of communication. This is anathema to India because it remains opposed to importing a security dilemma — and polarisation thereafter along camp lines — in the Indian Ocean region where none currently exist. And should New Delhi’s memory slip, Beijing has access to expedient pressure points along the disputed Sino–Indian frontier with which to effect areminder.

The security elements of India’s Look East policy remain fundamentally committed to self-help, but they are framed by the emerging praxis of Asia’s open, inclusive and balanced security multilateralism. Legal scope to contribute to US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ operations of common interest notwithstanding, participation in selective multilateral security constructs will not be admitted. One exception is those multilateral security constructs that are UN-flagged or come under broad-based umbrellas such as the ASEAN Regional Forum or ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. The extent to which US–India security arrangements are integrated with this emerging architecture will determine the scope for parallelism.

Washington’s refusal to admit Beijing’s participation in the December 2004 tsunami disaster-relief operation hastened China’s rollout of its out-of-area ‘military missions other than war’ activities. As a result, China and India today jointly coordinate their anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden. With the US, India and China capable of bringing complementary maritime assets to bear, conducting future Asian littoral-wide, non-traditional security activities in a cooperative fashion would be a useful starting point to emphasise the indivisible interest of all parties, large and small, in such activities at sea.

Sourabh Gupta is Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Washington, DC.

This article first appeared on East Asia Forum on 20 June 2012.

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