How does India fit into the US Pivot to Asia Strategy?

The United States’ pivot to Asia has been one of the hallmarks of President Obama’s foreign policy agenda, originating during Hillary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State. As the world’s economic center of gravity is shifting eastwards to Asia from an erstwhile position on the trans-Atlantic axis, the United States is paying immense attention to Asia. Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Magazine article (October 11th, 2011), ‘America’s Pacific Century’, like many official statements today lays emphasis on urging new and old partners/allies to help shape and participate in a rules-based order. Their biggest concern is about the Chinese violating the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Similarly, the Chinese are enhancing their maritime presence in India’s peninsular waters too – the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal as well as Arabian Sea, by way of building ports and funding big infrastructure projects in surrounding countries. This development is cause for strategic concern in India as well as in the United States, given the freedom of navigation the two countries’ shipping vessels enjoy in India’s peninsular waters. The Indian Navy’s move to developing force-projection strategies for the Indian Ocean by way of acquiring Aircraft Carriers and further modernizing the navy can be seen as reactionary to similar Chinese moves – which are in turn a reaction to secure their oil imports from the Middle East as well freight movement in the Indian Ocean. While the United States’ present spotlight is on the South China Sea dispute, the shipping routes of the Indian Ocean Region are also fundamental to US interests. Having taken a strategic bet on India, and engaging more deeply with the country over the last 10-15 years they see India as a country with similar interests to its own in the Indian Ocean region. Within this same context they aim to further cultivate this relationship to further their own agenda of maintaining freedom of navigation and maintenance of a rules based order in the Indian Ocean region.

It is in this context that we need to look at Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit last week to India. While there was wide reportage of the defense agreements between Secretary Carter and Raksha Mantri Parrikar there was very little written or spoken about the larger strategic significance of his visit. He is the first high-ranking US cabinet member to visit an Indian operational military command, as he started his visit from the Eastern Naval Command at Vishakhapatnam. Most Indian naval strategies for the Bay of Bengal as well as the Indian Ocean are implemented from this base. The US defense secretary visiting this site shows how serious the United States is about not only heightening defense cooperation with India but also about evaluating and highly considering India to defend a rules based order and take on the Chinese in the Indian Ocean region. This development is very important for the Indian strategic community to take note of, yet there was scant coverage of this perspective on Secretary Carter’s visit. Indian media outlets during an exclusive interview with the defense secretary were more pre-occupied with asking questions on well known American positions about Pakistan and deeply insignificant questions as far as the Indian viewer is concerned, such as one about an academic paper on a possible Terrorist Catastrophe in the US that the Defense Secretary had written prior to 9/11. Not a word was raised about why Ashton Carter was really present in India, on why he chose to visit Vishakhapatnam before the capital or about the role he saw India playing in the United States pivot to Asia. This piece is an effort to throw light on a matter that has been ignored by our print and television media.

Regardless of the media coverage, this cooperation between the two governments and militaries is further testament to America giving more weight to its strategic bet on India. Given that a partnership with India is very important to the United States, the Americans have recognized that with India: A country of diverse strategic interests they are not going to have policy convergence on a 100% of issues. According to Ashley Tellis (Former Special Assistant to the US President on South Asia) they have accepted that with India they will not get a binding cold-war type alliance. However, Tellis has gone on to state that India’s emerging capabilities and extant rivalry with China have made it a desirable object of U.S. engagement, and that the transformation of U.S.-Indian relations in recent years has been driven by a unique, calculating detachment on the part of Washington. This understanding on the part of the Washington establishment will go a great way in realising the potential of the US-India relationship. C Raja Mohan in the lead up to Modi’s recent China visit characterised a more independent Indian foreign policy that has become easy to practice as a result of the United States’ ‘calculated detachment’ in the following manner:

“Modi’s sense of India as a “leading power” helps it break out of the non-alignment trap that it had long set for itself in dealing with China and America. Instead of viewing the two relationships as a zero-sum game, Modi is prepared to advance, wherever he can, with both China and America. Nor does he see the relationship with China and America as symmetric. India can cooperate more with the US, for example, in areas like security, while looking for strong Chinese support on infrastructure development.”  

Therefore in conclusion, this piece has tried to highlight to India the macro-strategic manner in which the United States views and deals with India, given its interest in India enhancing its maritime capabilities. It is important for the rank and file of the Indian bureaucracy and government as well as observers to recognise this fact while dealing with the United States. The Indian Government following President Obama’s visit in late January agreed on a Joint-Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific which stated ‘Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.’ While such a Defense framework of working has been agreed on and renewed for another 10 years on this recent visit, it is important for a section of the Indian military as well as observers and the Indian people to shake of the inert aversion to cooperation with the United States, which is a relic of India’s Cold war allegiances and understand these new terms along which India cooperates with the United States and defines its strategic policies in the Indian Ocean Region.


Posted on June 17, 2015 .