India, China and the American Pivot: Should New Delhi Reassess its Strategy?

21 May, 2013    ·   3939

Anu Krishnan deconstructs the role of the US pivot in Indian foreign policy vis-a-vis the Ladakh incursion

India has been playing a passive role in the US pivot. Does the recent incursion in Ladakh by China alter this role? Should India perceive the American pivot as an opportunity and use it to its advantage? Will such a strategy antagonize China further?

Implications of the American Pivot for India's Interests
The pivot is the result of USA’s resolve to maintain primacy in East Asia, triggered by China’s rise in military power. Strengthening partnerships in South and East Asia is an upshot of USA feeling the need to play the role of a security provider, as well.
While energy security, climate change and economic stability lurk in the backdrop, the more important aim is to strengthen India to achieve the goal of resisting China’s influence in Asia.

An economically and militarily strong India is hence a prerequisite, an offer that India would not want to reject. Being identified as USA’s strategic partner in Asia presents India with improved opportunities to bargain with US on technology, intelligence, strengthen defense and strategic partnership, and the necessary impetus to India’s never-ending quest for a permanent seat in the United Nations. It has provided India with the space to become a crucial element in the Asian balance of power, despite points of divergence with the USA.

Along with enhanced security cooperation, trade and investment between India and US have surged ahead, with bilateral trade standing at $ 14.3 million. All this largely gives an upper hand to the argument that India must play along the Pivot.

Added Responsibilities  
However, the pivot has not been a pleasant affair for India; an offshoot of the US Pivot has been Myanmar turning into a front line state with the US and China expanding their presence in the country. While India’s presence is substantial in the region, the Pivot has now presented India with the additional responsibility of ensuring that Myanmar doesn’t plunge into the hands of US or China.

Myanmar significantly represents India’s objectives vis-à-vis the Look-East Policy, and is also a bordering state whose instability may fast affect India’s North-Eastern states. Another consequence has been that of increasing Chinese belligerence in South China Sea, wherein India’s role repeatedly gets questioned. Realists believe deployment of Indian Navy in the South China Sea is a necessity; while others caution that India could end up harming its relation vis-à-vis China.

Is the recent Chinese incursion at the Indo-China border one such outcome that makes the Pivot an undesirable prospect, or does it underline the need for India to conform to the Pivot?

Lessons from the Ladakh Intrusion

India has so far only been passively complying with the Pivot, outlined by its own interests and not ready to risk the benefits of India-China relations. Different views have emanated on why the incursions occurred and what China’s larger strategy is. Irrespective of the domestic reasons that may have prompted the incursion, it is also an indication that the US pivot has caused China to be on the defensive and resort to confrontational tactics. China evidently exhibited a fall-out, and set off an admonition.

On one hand, this underlines the need for India to disassociate itself from the pivot. Antagonizing China would be undesirable, could lead to more tension and the border and it will have to be seen if India can fend for itself when larger trouble gets spelt. On the other hand, the incursion serves as a strong reason why India must play along the pivot and keep with America’s broader interests in the region. It is unlikely that India would terminate its relations with the US, the unfeasibility of the option ensures that. Therefore if India’s partnerships with US and Japan have been causing alarm in China, then our option is to cultivate the fear. The Ladakh incursion has also underlined the fact that India needs more partners in Asia to counter China; it has become even more important in the light of the recent events.

To hoist itself as capable of standing up to China, India needs to try and catch up with China’s military power. This could prove to be near-impossible; a Chinese official is once said to have joked that India might catch up with China in perhaps twenty years, but China will have grown fifty times more by then. While the astounding rise of China in this respect, which stands at $106 billion as of 2013(suspected to be higher as per Western estimates), has been duly noted by India’s political honchos, the recitation so far had been that ‘China is not a threat’. The recent incursion has provided space to reassess that view. This is why the renewed US attention is of substantial importance to India; getting closer to China’s military strength requires US help for modernization.

India’s lack of a well-crafted foreign policy and competence of leadership has largely contributed to this state of affairs. The changing geopolitics of East Asia has to be viewed gravely and India must go a few steps beyond playing it safe between US and China.