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#4435, 14 May 2014

US in Asia Pacific

Rebalancing: Where Does India Figure?
Monish Tourangbam
Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University

Although the US government has tried to soften the China element in its rebalancing strategy, it remains ubiquitous, with Beijing undoubtedly seeing it as a ‘China containment’ policy. The centrality of India’s role in this strategy and its approach to this strategy is still debated and remains ambiguous; however, India’s rising strategic capabilities and aspirations make it a protagonist in the changing dynamics of the Asia-Pacific.

The rebalancing strategy accords particular significance to the evolving strategic partnership with India. A more pragmatic India-US relationship based on shared interests and not mere shared values will be germane to mapping out the future of this partnership and its impact in the Asia-Pacific.

However, given the checkered history of the India-US relationship, a lingering sense of mistrust still hinders the relationship to some extent, with India often being seen as a reluctant partner and the US as an unreliable power. The document Non-Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century pointed out that maintaining strategic autonomy is germane to India’s foreign policy. It emphasised that many Asian powers were “looking to hedge their bets against excessive dependence on a major power.” Indians remember how the US during the Cold War, in regular fashion, offered rhetorical flourishes on how it had discernible stakes in the success of India as a democratic counterweight against a Communist China. But, the same US later courted the Chinese through rapprochement, offering a red carpet welcome to ‘red China’ to the UN Security Council.

US’ complex tango with China certainly leaves India nervous and concerned about the prospects of a power condominium between a power in relative decline and a power seeing an undoubted rise. India is wary that China’s relatively increasing power vis-à-vis the US could lead to the US accommodating China to the detriment of India’s interests in the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, domestic opposition to an overt alliance with the US also accounts for India’s cautious and ambivalent approach to the rebalancing strategy.

Hence, the strategic imperatives of the India-US relationship need to be nurtured and cannot be left on auto-pilot. One of the most salient areas of convergence is the one perceived between US’ rebalancing strategy and India’s Look East Policy (LEP). Both of these are broad-based policies that see each country’s national interests through a more stable and secure Asia with interdependent economies built on the principle of mutualism. But, at the same time, both also aim at precluding the rise of an uncertain Asia with an aggressive power free to resort to unilateral moves in the region.

The string of relationships that the US has formed with Southeast Asian countries is in strategic unison with the kind of relationships that India has been building with its Southeast Asian partners through the LEP. The management of China’s rise is rendered more complex by the increasing economic interdependence that exists between China and these countries, that has nevertheless failed to translate into greater strategic trust. In other words, despite the economic content of the relationship, there is also enough clarity that India, the US and most of the Southeast Asian countries do not want to see the rise of a China that could destabilise Asia. Reports have fairly concluded that the rise of India’s capabilities and aspirations in Asia and at the global level is in the interest of the US, and that the sustenance of US’ power and influence in Asia and globally is in the interest of India.

The future of the ‘strategic partnership’ between the two countries clearly lies in a pragmatic and nuanced understanding of why India and the US need each other, what the US expects India to do, what India can and is willing to do, what India expects the US to do, and what the US is capable of and willing to do. A 21st century partnership between the two countries based on shared interests necessitates a more honest understanding and acceptance of differences, rather than harbouring utopian ideas of commonalities.

The rebalancing strategy undoubtedly presents both opportunities and challenges for India. New Delhi is not blind to the strategic logic that guides the rebalancing strategy and the role that India could play in it as an emerging power of regional and global reckoning. But at the same time, the emerging geopolitics and geoeconomics of Asia-Pacific are both too intertwined and interdependent for politics of ‘curtains’ and ‘walls’ to be played à la the Cold War. Every country gives primacy to the management of China’s rise, and China is itself very much involved in managing its own rise in the international system. A globalised world demands a more shrewd game of maneouvering amidst dangerous minefields of regional and global politics. Hence, while Washington needs to more seriously factor in India’s strategic autonomy, New Delhi needs to take due cognizance of the deterrent capability that a well-managed rebalancing strategy could have in the region.

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