India and the US ‘Pivot’: Brothers in Arms?

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3909

Nayantara Shaunik assesses changing geopolitical dynamics in the region vis-a-vis the key players

Nayantara Shaunik
Nayantara Shaunik
Research Officer

The US ‘pivot’  and its ‘rebalancing’ towards Asia has been perceived as a strategic attempt to re-engage with the region. As the nuances of the policy continue to roll out, the containment of China dynamic, and the consequent role of India as a regional power are inevitable in any analysis.

Are the foreign policies of India and the US in the Asia-Pacific mutually compatible? What are the consequent implications for India as well as the region?

The US and India in Asia Pacific: Coexisting, not Contesting?
India and the US’ interests in the Asia-Pacific converge as they look to create an inclusive framework of intricate cultural, strategic, and economic interdependencies vis-à-vis their foreign policies. As Robert M. Hathaway observed, given its geographic location and capability of being a key regional player, “the success of the pivot strategy particularly lies in a strong long-term partnership with India as an economic and security anchor in the region”.

In this regard, India has largely welcomed the pivot strategy, since it is in line with its vision of regional stability and security in the region. Whilst this has heightened the bilateral relationship between the two countries, there are two contentions. On the economic front, New Delhi’s view of China as a vital opportunity has further manifested with Beijing having become its largest trading partner, and both countries perceiving huge investment interests in each other. On the security front, instability in the Af-Pak region, post 2014, poses a huge threat to India.

Dealing with these issues will ultimately impact the outcome in the geopolitical balance of power struggle that the Asia-Pacific is presently facing.

India's Asia-Pacific Assessments: Beyond the Look East Policy
While the US’ pivot strategy broadly encompasses Southeast and East Asia, and Australia India’s ‘Look East’ Policy defines Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Australia separately within its foreign policy assessments in the Asia-Pacific. For India, though the Look East Policy has been well established in the last two decades with a Southeast Asia focus, contemporary developments relating to energy and maritime security, piracy, counter-terrorism, and disaster management in the Asia-Pacific have led to India look beyond.

The presence the US and China in the region have only added to these complex dynamics. In this context, India has looked to strategically inculcate dimensions of military and naval cooperation, provisions for humanitarian relief, and collaborations on developing infrastructure for enhanced connectivity both at the bilateral and multilateral levels in the Asia-Pacific. Within this proactive shift India has looked to sustain and extend its pragmatic relations with the countries of the ASEAN and East Asia, as well as Australia. Consequently, it has engaged in dialogue with the ASEAN+8, the ARF, and the EAS as well.

As far as the US’ presence in the Asia-Pacific is concerned, although domestic opinion has been slightly varied, India has largely remained positive. One reason could be India’s sustained stance of advocating a multi-polar world, which emphasises multilateral engagement and mutual growth. The other rationale, perhaps, stems from the emergence of China as a compelling player in the global political economy.

The China Factor: Implications for the Region
The unprecedented rise of China as a regional hegemonic player, and its growing multilateral economic and strategic influence is well documented. However, the country’s increased military spending, and confrontational stance towards territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas has been a new and alarming dynamic in what was initially viewed a ‘peaceful’ rise. Additionally, the far from accurate perception of China pursuing a ‘String of Pearls’ strategy to extend its geopolitical influence over sea lines of communication is a critical dimension of perceived security threats in the region. Whilst this notion is controversial and has met with much critique, it has significantly leveraged the notion of the US’ pivot policy being largely a hedging strategy.

In the light of these circumstances, the ASEAN has primarily encouraged the US and India’s engagement as key players in the Asia-Pacific as a means to maintain strategic equilibrium. The purpose behind this is as much to avoid any possible confrontations, as it is to encourage cooperation and greater interdependencies amongst the regional players to insure the same. Ergo, China’s bilateral ties with India, as also the ASEAN and the EAS, continue to grow over a multiplicity of issues.

India, on its behalf, also views an enhanced bilateral relationship with China as a means to counter the very threats it impinges. As Nirupama Rao put it in a recent speech at Brown University, USA, “I do not believe that such a construct (re-balancing) is valid or sustainable, given the significant overlapping interests that bind us in the region and globally – whether it is about global financial stability or energy security, or climate change, to name a few”.

On balance, there are several nuances. First, the role of regional powers such as India and Japan will remain exigent; whilst regional organisations such as the ASEAN could maintain critical leverages. Second, a precarious balance of power dynamic will continue to dictate the foreign policies of, and towards, the region. Finally, cooperation rather than confrontation is the raison d’être of all stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific.