The US Strategic Goals in Asia Pacific: An Indian Perspective.
The distant drums of an approaching new cold war were audible at the Asia Pacific Roundtable on Asian Security Governance and Order in Kuala Lumpur. The increasing influence and assertiveness of China in the region seemed to invite a matching response from the United States.
The striking point about the rise of China was the perception in the region, at least among some countries, that the Chinese presence was benign. Prime Minister Razak of Malaysia, for instance, said that he would not belittle “the positive transformational effects China’s ascendancy has and will continue to have on Asia and beyond.”
Mahathir Mohammed, the elder statesman of Malaysia, sough to allay the fears about China by saying that the Chinese, who had contacts with the region for centuries, had never colonized any country, while the Portuguese and other Europeans merrily built empires in Asia. He said that Malaysia should fear the Europeans more. He revealed his admiration for the Chinese when he said that the Chinese were cleverer than the Russians. The Soviet Union collapsed because it tried to reform both the economic and political systems at the same time. The Chinese survived as a nation because they only reformed the economic system.
Malaysians were not the only ones to praise China or to predict that China would determine the future of the Asia Pacific region. The assessments of China were always positive and there was never even a hint of human rights violations or curtailment of press freedom. Mahathir favoured a certain amount of authoritarianism in Government and was as tolerant of “some killings” by the Chinese as of American atrocities against terrorists.
China’s own perceptions about security in Asia and the Pacific were quite patronizing, bordering on arrogance. The Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN spelt out the Chinese position on the South China Sea, making light of the repercussions of the Chinese assertiveness on this matter. Other Chinese scholars openly admitted that confrontation with the United States was inevitable, as the US “Back to Asia” security policy was targeting on China and it was a direct threat to it. But even while admitting strategic distrust, they said that shared interests made the two countries cautious and pragmatic in managing tensions.
According to the Chinese, China’s increasing importance and influence were making the countries of the region perform the feat of “putting legs on two boats”. Even though confidence made China continue to play a positive role in managing the new complex relations and challenges, the situation gave rise to nationalism and a “new victim feeling”, a strange concept of fear, which led, ironically, to greater assertiveness. China clearly sees a competition between the old US dominated military alliances and the new structures in which China plays a central role. It realizes that the key to political dominance is economic penetration and the Chinese make no secret of their strategy.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the US has identified the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia as the region which needs to receive greater attention. The rebalancing means shifting the US concentration from the Middle East to Asia and a broader reach in Asia itself with more flexible deployments and rotation of troops. President Obama was candid about the US strategic objective in Asia. He said, “I am determined that we meet the challenges of the moment responsibly and that we emerge even stronger in a manner that preserves American global leadership and maintains our military superiority.” The real debate today is not about the importance of Asia, but what methods should be used to increase the US engagement in the region.
The US interests in the region should be seen against China’s growing military capabilities and its assertiveness of claims, which has implications for freedom of navigation. Although the President is committed to reducing the defense budget, the disengagement in Afghanistan and Iraq may release enough resources for Asia Pacific. In November 2011, Secretary Hillary Clinton recalled that the stability and security in Asia was guaranteed for long by the US military. The US could not afford not to strengthen its presence in Asia at a time when the region is likely to shape global security itself.
The new strategy appears to be to reduce ground forces and focus on nuclear forces and the navy, in which the US has clear superiority over China. Old alliances in the region need to be strengthened and new friends need to be found. Since the region straddles two oceans, the Pacific and the Indian, shipping and strategy have to take the interlinkages into account.
Although the US has maintained that its rebalancing of forces in Asia is not directed against any country, China has repeatedly accused the US of pointing at a Chinese threat to perpetuate its hegemony in Asia. It has said that a de facto empire on borrowed money is flexing its muscles, while its creditors are at the door. China believes that it is all a matter of cold war mentality and that nobody will believe that the US actions are not directed against China. If anything, China will be more assertive of its claims on the South China Sea and other disputes, as it became evident at the recent ASEAN summit.
India-US relations have undoubtedly benefitted from the change of scene in Asia Pacific. When External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met on June 13, 2012 for the third round of their strategic dialogue, there was spring in the air, not blowing in from the Potomac, but from the distant Pacific and Indian Oceans. The issues that had bedeviled the bilateral relationship in the last two years were all there, but there was certain urgency about putting them behind and moving forward for larger objectives. The ripples that grew into waves in the South China Sea and the changing equations in Asia Pacific gave their parleys new content and a sense of purpose.
No doubt, after initial hesitations, the US began to see India as the “lynchpin” of its new security architecture and India became a doorway to the Pacific. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta made it clear that he was on a mission to recruit India as a partner in Asia Pacific, whatever may have been the irritants in the past.
The elaborate Joint Statement issued at the end of the strategic dialogue makes the context very clear. “The US and India have a shared vision of peace, stability, and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean region, and the Pacific region and are committed to work together, and with others in the region, for the evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive architecture.” Such a firm assertion of the role of the two countries in the region is rare in India-US statements. What is more, Secretary Clinton welcomed India’s growing engagement in the Asia Pacific. The Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), an old Indian initiative, which had lost momentum, received a boost when the US sought to become a dialogue partner of the Association.
The US, once wary of Indian activism in Afghanistan for fear of Pakistan’s displeasure, declared its intention to seek new opportunities to intensify the efforts of the two countries for consultation, coordination and cooperation to promote a stable, democratic, united, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan. India, in turn, welcomed the announcement of the Chicago Summit of NATO of progress in the security transition process, acknowledging the legitimacy of NATO operations in Afghanistan. The statement also favoured the elimination of safe havens and infrastructure for terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No better evidence was necessary of the disillusionment of the US of the role of Pakistan as an ally in Afghanistan and its desire to work with India.
The reference to defence relations was of particular importance. Instead of harping over the disappointment over the fighter aircraft contract, the statement celebrated the fact that India had awarded defence contracts worth USD 9 billion in recent years to US companies. It noted the many military exercises and exchanges in the last six years and reaffirmed their desire to strengthen defence cooperation through increased technology transfer. Defence Minister A K Antony had stressed to Secretary Panetta the need to transform the buyer-seller relationship into a partnership in technology and strategy. In New Delhi earlier, the US had conceded that India’s unwillingness to sign a couple of basic agreements relating to defence cooperation should not stand in the way of new defence deals.
Among the differences, which were pushed under the carpet was the nuclear liability issue, which had prevented nuclear trade between India and the United States so far. No mention was made to the obstacles to the licensing and site development work associated with construction of the new Westinghouse reactors in Gujarat, but they welcomed progress towards the full implementation of the nuclear deal. The need of the hour was to highlight points of convergence, not of divergence.
An endless list of issues of agreement in diverse fields such as counter terrorism, intelligence, homeland security, cyber security, energy, climate change, education, development, trade, agriculture, science and technology, health and innovation and people-to-people ties found place in the Joint Statement.
The spring in India-US relations, evident after the third round of the strategic dialogue, comes from the anxiety of the two countries to rebalance them in the face of Chinese assertiveness. Compulsions of security in Asia Pacific may well bring the two democracies closer together in the future.
The Indonesian Foreign Minister expressed the current dilemma of the countries of the region in these words: “What worries us is having to choose; we do not want to be put into that position. The Pacific is sufficiently accommodating to provide not only the role of China and the US, but of emerging powers too.” A spokesperson of ASEAN said that ASEAN would not like to dictate the roles of different powers in the region. It would rather act like a flight controller at an airport, making sure that all arrivals and departures are smooth and there is no collision.
But sooner or later, the countries in the region will have to develop a cohesive Asian strategy to deal with the challenge of Chinese assertiveness. Chinese domination of the sea-lanes of Indian and Pacific Oceans will be a major concern for India. Assertion of its claims in the South China Sea, if it succeeds, will encourage it to press its territorial claims on India. India considers its strategic autonomy sacrosanct and wishes to pursue a new generation of nonalignment, but as it became evident in June, India’s engagement with the US will become stronger and more productive in the light of the evolving situation in Asia Pacific.
India has a stake in working with the US, China and other countries in the region to rearrange the regional security system, which accommodates rather than collide with India’s security interests. India’s efforts have been to identify issues, particularly multilateral issues, such as global trade, the financial system and the environment in which cooperation with China can be enhanced. But three major issues still divide India and China, with the potential for an adversarial relationship. The unsettled border between the two countries, the Chinese propping up of Pakistan against India and the possibility of China diverting the water, which flows into India are intractable. Some scholars have suggested an India-China diplomatic structure to monitor these issues and to find temporary, if not final solutions to these issues. But given the present assertiveness of China, it is not likely to help matters. India will have to search for its own security in the larger context of the evolving situation rather than bilaterally with China.