29 March 2017

Driving India Into the Arms of the Dragon

by E. John Teichert

In the midst of an American pivot towards Asia, the United States has telegraphed a clear intent to improve upon its relationship with India. During President Obama’s visit to India early last year he contended that the relationship was “one of the defining partnerships of this century.” During Indian Defense Minister Parrikar’s recent visit to the United States, Secretary Carter called the U.S.-Indian defense partnership one that “will become an anchor of global security.” Yet, in spite of common values, warming ties, and shared interests, a fruitful and enduring relationship between the United States and India is not guaranteed, nor should it be taken for granted. Doing so would place American strategic interests in peril.

A diagnosis of the relationships between India, China, and the United States reveals that a strong partnership between India and China is possible, and must be carefully considered as a part of American strategy. While not likely, this relationship is plausible based on shared Chinese-Indian interests, independent Chinese and Indian objectives, and potential American strategic mistakes in South Asia. A proper American strategy would consider this possibility, watch for strategic warnings of it, and design a current strategy to hedge against it. Otherwise, the desired strategic partnership between the United States and India may not come to fruition.

Admittedly, there are several reasons why a strong Chinese-Indian partnership is unlikely and that a strengthening American-Indian relationship is much more probable. There is a notable trend of deepening relations between America and India, prompted in part by a shared ideological bond uniting these democracies and hindering the possibility of an Indian affinity for its communist neighbor to the north. There is also a history of conflict and distrust between China and India that creates an impediment to a closer relationship between them. This trust deficit is prompted by rapid Chinese and Indian levels of growth, areas of lingering conflict, and challenges of proximity that create a strategic wariness between these two powerful nations. While these strategic factors point to a deepening relationship between the United States and India and indicate a low potential for a strong partnership between China and India, the United States must not be strategically complacent about either. This is especially true when there are plausible factors that could draw China and India together, while hindering the relationship between India and the United States.

The shared interests between India and China form the potential for strengthening the relationship between these powerful neighbors. The allure of boosting trade to largely untapped and substantial populations would benefit both of Asia’s growing economic giants. Each is already the other’s fastest growing trading partner and aggressive trade targets indicate further growth in economic ties is between the two. In addition to mutual economic benefits, China and India have common concerns and shared interests in energy security that present opportunities for future alignment. Finally, both nations have an interest in resisting American hegemony in their spheres of influence, offering each an opportunity to create an advantageous strategic alignment that could be used to counter American influence in South and East Asia.

China’s independent interests in a stronger relationship with India stem from important strategic factors. The most important of these is the flow of Chinese trade through the Indian Ocean. More than 85 percent [1] of the China-bound oil products cross through the Indian Ocean and almost half of the growth in global energy needs in next twenty years will be based on demands from India and China. As a result, China considers India’s advantageous position along these trade routes a major strategic vulnerability.[2] While these important strategic factors could create a source of tension between the Chinese and the Indians, China may see a closer relationship with India as an opportunity to alleviate this substantial vulnerability. China may also see such a relationship as a way to preempt an alliance between India and the United States, by partnering with a nation that China does not consider a peer competitor on its own. Indian independent interests make such a partnership a possibility as well.

Various strategic factors could create conditions in which India would favor a strong relationship with China. First, India may see a relationship with China as a component of its strategy to weaken and isolate Pakistan. Driving a wedge between the strong Pakistani-Chinese partnership through its own partnership with China may be too attractive for India to ignore. Second, India holds a deep-seeded “conviction of its regional primacy,” which it wishes to preserve against growing Chinese influence and a partnership may be seen as a way to secure its position in the region.[3] Over 80 percent of Indians recognize China as both the most powerful Asian country in the next 10 years and the most important country with which to strengthen bilateral relations.[4] Partnering with this massive Asian power to halt intrusion into its sphere of influence may be seen as a way to secure Indian regional preeminence. Finally, India’s history of non-alignment gives it a further rationale to partner with China. From India’s origins as an independent nation, Prime Minister Nehru believed in the power of close relations with China as a way to create a post-colonial world-order in resistance to current or former global powers. Specifically, India considered solidarity among non-aligned powers as the avenue for nations to resist excessive outside influence.[5] Missteps by the United States in South Asia may allow such concepts to reemerge in Indian strategic thinking in a way that would be harmful to American interests.

Shared interests between China and India may be necessary for the emergence of a close partnership between the two, but American strategic errors are likely required to add sufficiency to this strategic problem. These strategic mistakes could build upon historical Indian concerns in a way that may drive India towards China and away from the United States. Even with strengthening relationships between the United States and India, Indian opinions of the United States indicate notable hesitancy in close relations between the two, largely the result of perceived unilateralism by the United States with a historical reputation for a lack of trustworthiness in the region. One mechanism for creating such a rift is an overbearing American strategy.

A strategically pushy America, especially with respect to issues within South Asia itself, creates the potential for a strategically intolerable situation for India. Historically, India has used a strategy of non-alignment to protect itself against influence by outsiders. India’s reaction to excessive American influence may be met with strong resistance and a possible search for a counterbalance. A partnership with China may provide just such an opportunity for resistance, revealing the second mechanism for a Chinese-Indian rapprochement that deals with the American strategy against China itself.

The recent strategic pivot towards Asia is, in part, an American attempt to protect its interests in Asia against a growing threat from China, though this strategy may actually strengthen China by driving India towards it if not carefully applied. India does not want to be an American counterbalance to China. Yet, a myopic and overly aggressive American focus regarding China may infringe upon India’s regional sphere of influence in a way that is profoundly harmful to Indian-American relations. Some American strategic concepts for guarding against a rising China unilaterally expand American force posture throughout the Indian Ocean as a way to exploit China’s energy flows through the region. Such a strategy risks poisoning the relationship between India and the United States by making America appear a threat to India itself. These Indian concerns have historical precedent. In the 1980s, widespread Indian concerns about American containment and encirclement were the result of improving relationships between the United States, Pakistan, and China.[6] Drastically expanding American presence in India’s sphere of influence in a way that is unilateral and aggressive should be expected to do the same. By placing America in a position to be perceived as a threat to Indian sovereignty, such pursuits may actually drive India and China together, creating a self-defeating situation for American strategy against China. Strategic signposts can be used as elements of strategic warning to detect a drift in relationships that is counter to American interests.

There are internal and external strategic indicators that undesirable American, Indian, and Chinese relationships are forming. The most important of these should be detected by regular American strategic self-assessment. The United States should constantly consider whether its actions with respect to India and within the Indian sphere of influence are trending towards unilateralism, overbearance, or Chinese-threat-myopia. An early recognition of any of these characteristics should prompt a strategic correction to alleviate them as quickly as possible. The United States can look externally as well to detect a strengthening of the Chinese-Indian relationship. Explicit indicators would include formalized partnerships between the two nations in a broader spectrum of political, economic, and military domains. Implicit indicators may include an increase in Indian-Chinese bilateral military exercises, China’s abandonment of its strong relations with Pakistan, or the Chinese relinquishment their increased presence in the Indian Ocean via the ‘String of Pearls.’ Recognition of such strategic indicators would compliment an American strategy that prevents these concerns before they begin.

The American relationship with India should be fostered by avoiding the pitfalls addressed above. A partnership between these two democracies should be nurtured through American patience and persistence while carefully seeking shared interests. Correspondingly, a change in American force posture in the region must carefully consider Indian perspectives and should be implemented only after mutual consultation whenever possible. Additionally, integrating a strengthening relationship with India into the Asian strategic pivot and avoiding an overreaction to China’s growing power in the region would further demonstrate America’s desire for healthy and enduring relationships while avoiding unilateralism and strategic bullying. Furthermore, engagement with India in a variety of bilateral and multilateral forums would enhance American strategic outreach through partnerships that may avoid concerns about American dominance in a strictly bilateral relationship. Finally, the United States must finely balance its relationship with Pakistan based on both short and long term considerations to avoid stoking concerns in a rivalry that is characterized by zero-sum considerations from both sides. Thus, by carefully considering India’s response to American actions within the South Asian sphere of influence, the United States would demonstrate a level of strategic nuance and understanding in the region that has been largely absent in the past. In this way, American strategy would actually foster America’s stated strategic interests and mitigate the potential for the strategically harmful Chinese-Indian partnership described above.

American strategy must consider the potential to prompt a deterioration of the relationship between the United States and India and foster a partnership between China and India. While not likely, such a scenario is possible. Mutual and separate Chinese and Indian interests could create the foundation for such a scenario that may be further exacerbated by American strategic mistakes. Creating selective strategic indicators and forming a wise strategy for the region would prevent such a future while detecting its development early enough to ultimately avoid it. From an American perspective, an Indian-American relationship seems to be a natural one. Yet, the American perspective is not always the Indian perspective. If the United States intends to truly foster a long-term strategic partnership with India, then America must incorporate Indian perspectives into its strategic considerations. Otherwise, the actual future may deviate from America’s expected and desired one.

End Notes

[1] Robert D. Kaplan, “Power Plays in the Indian Ocean: The Maritime Commons in the 21st Century,” in Contested Commons: The Future of American Power in a Multipolar World, ed. Abraham M. Denmark and James Mulvenon (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, January 2010), 182.

[2] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 164.

[3] Ibid, 20.

[4] Bates Gill and others, Strategic Views on Asian Regionalism: Survey Results and Analysis (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, February 2009), 4-5.

[5] Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India. (New York: Anchor Books, 2006), 262. 

[6] Stephen Philip Cohen, India: Emerging Power (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2001), 170.

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