October 13, 2012

India appears ambivalent about role as U.S. strategy pivots toward Asia

NEW DELHI — If the soaring rhetoric of their burgeoning partnership is to be believed, India is the linchpin of Washington’s strategic pivot toward Asia.

But it has become apparent that New Delhi is ambivalent about playing a leading role in Washington’s new “rebalancing” act. So much so that some U.S. analysts are questioning whether India will ever be a dependable strategic partner for the United States, and whether New Delhi will ever match its global ambitions with a leadership role on the world stage.

“The U.S.-India strategic partnership came with great hype about India’s potential contribution to U.S. interests,” Colin Geraghty of the American Security Project in Washington said in a report this month, adding that a “sense of disappointment” has set in.

In Washington, analysts and business leaders have expressed disappointment in the past two years over the pace of reform in India, the lack of progress in civil nuclear cooperation and India’s continuing engagement with Iran. While the longer-term logic of the relationship remains firmly intact, there is a growing sense that India will never be a truly trusted ally.

The U.S. strategic rebalance reflects the Obama administration’s belief that the center of gravity of American foreign and economic policy has shifted toward Asia and that maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific has become increasingly important as a result of China’s rapid rise.

In one of the few concrete measures announced so far, the U.S. Navy will gradually move more of its ships to the region, deploying 60 percent of its fleet there by 2020.

“India clearly plays an important role in our rebalance,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in an e-mail interview, looking to it as an “anchor of regional stability . . . and a partner on issues in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”

Privately, some senior Indian officials say they would welcome a stronger American presence in the region — New Delhi shares a strong strategic interest in hedging against China’s rise and in maintaining open sea lanes and free commerce throughout the region.

Publicly, though, the reaction has been distinctly lukewarm, with Adm. Nirmal Kumar Verma, then Indian naval chief, delivering what Indian media called a “snub” in August, when he said deployment in the Pacific and South China Sea was “not on the cards.”

“We want strategic autonomy,” retired Indian diplomat T.P. Sreenivasan said in Washington last month, according to a Foreign Policy blog post. “We don’t want to be identified with U.S. policy in Asia, even if we secretly like it.”

Caution regarding China

India’s reluctance to tie itself to the U.S. mast is partly a legacy of its Cold War antipathy toward Washington and distrust stemming from the imposition of American sanctions after India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.

India has also watched nervously in recent years as President Obama first courted China and then as he seemed to move toward a policy of containment.

The strategic rebalance has inflamed nationalist sentiment in China, and there is a sense in New Delhi that a little distance from the occasionally clumsy Americans is a generally sound foreign policy approach — especially when India shares a long, disputed border with the Chinese.

“India is a little wary about both the U.S. and China,” said retired Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, a senior fellow at the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi. “India would not want to be in a position where it is forced to defer to China, or make China belligerent by joining a formal military alliance with the U.S.”

U.S. officials acknowledge that the two democracies will not agree on every issue but emphasize their respect for India’s “strategic autonomy” and shared interests.

Nevertheless, with Marines deploying to Australia, the positioning of coastal combat ships in Singapore, and the Philippines reopening old bases to U.S. forces, “questions may arise in the U.S. security establishment and Asia about what India’s enduring contributions will be to this endeavour,” S. Amer Latif, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a report this year.

Growing frustration

Washington is not demanding any specific commitments from the Indians as part of the rebalance, but officials and defense manufacturers have expressed frustration over India’s refusal to sign two key defense agreements usually demanded of U.S. allies — enabling seamless communications between the two militaries’ weapons systems and guaranteeing mutual “logistical support.”

Defense trade between the two nations is booming, and India conducts more joint military ­exercises with the United States than with any other country, but experts say military ties still lack a strategic and political underpinning.

India’s tentative “Look East” policy, which is supposed to foster closer ties with East and Southeast Asia, has also disappointed some U.S. officials and strategic experts who would like to see New Delhi forging closer trade and security links with America’s Asian allies.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a New Delhi a nudge last year, urging it “not just to look east, but to engage east and act east, as well.”

“Is India willing to come out and say ‘we don’t like it’ if China misbehaves?” asked Paul Kapur, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “India may not want to go on record saying that.”

Indeed, Clinton herself calls India a “strategic bet,” rather than a sure-fire certainty.

“You can see frustration in Washington because people are not entirely clear what India wants,” said Harsh V. Pant, a lecturer in the Department of Defense Studies in King’s College London, who says strategic autonomy effectively means India wants friendly relations with everybody. “That means you are not ready to make choices.”

“If India doesn’t want to take the risk, does it make sense for Washington to invest more in other partners, to invest in other Southeast Asian nations which are more willing to play ball?” he asked.

At a seminar last week, Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon spoke of the “remarkable transformation” that had taken place in U.S.-India relations over the past decade, buttressed by a shared vision and a shared set of values.

And Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, said it would be wrong to give up on India.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the short-term frustrations . . . but the strategic logic that brings these two countries together is sound,” he said. “People are increasingly viewing India with more of a sense of realism than romanticism.”