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India: Between "Strategic Autonomy" and "Geopolitical Opportunity"

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 21-25 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0006

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The U.S. rebalancing strategy toward Asia announced by the Obama administration has been long overdue. Despite the end of the Cold War in Europe, policy inertia in Washington meant that a large portion of U.S. military resources continued to be deployed in the Atlantic. This imbalance was further exacerbated by the two prolonged and costly military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new consensus also prevailed in Washington that there was no potential great-power peer competitor to the United States and that it thus had the luxury of experimenting with nation-building and democracy-promotion in the Middle East and beyond. The costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have disabused many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment of their post-Cold War beliefs about the efficacy of American power in changing the world for good. They have instead been persuaded that it is time for the United States to look after its own vital national interests.

Moreover, the U.S. diplomatic and military pivot to Asia had been delayed by a misreading of China's intentions toward the United States over the years. Many in the United States were quite convinced that the rise of China was likely to be peaceful and that China could, with some purposeful U.S. effort, be integrated into the current international system. This assumption, however, became untenable after President Obama's unsuccessful visit to China in November 2009. Beijing, which seemed to have concluded that the United States was on an irreversible path of decline, had no interest in Washington's strategic reassurance or its offers to jointly manage the problems of the world. Worse still, China's military and political assertiveness during 2009-11 demanded urgent responses from the Obama administration. Any further delay in announcing the pivot would have weakened U.S. alliances in Asia and raised the threat of China's successful "Finlandization" of the continent's rimland. The tension between China's growing military capabilities and the sustainability of the U.S. military's forward presence in Asia would have emerged sooner or later. That there has been little partisan criticism of the Obama administration's new approach to Asia underlines the current understanding within the U.S. political class on the imperative of dealing with the rising power of China.

Implications for Indo-U.S. Relations

Although the idea of balancing China seemed to surprise many in the United States and East Asia, it was very much the subtext of the George W. Bush administration's policies toward India. Bush began his first term convinced that China was not a strategic partner (as proclaimed by Bill Clinton in June 1998) but a potential peer competitor. He also was convinced that the United States must build a stronger partnership with India, the world's largest democracy and a potential balancer against China. Although Bush ended his second term with U.S.-China relations in reasonably healthy shape, he had successfully transformed the basis of the U.S. relationship with India by emphasizing the importance of building a new balance of power in Asia that favors freedom.

The explicit affirmation that the United States will assist the rise of India to great-power status provided a historically different basis for the ties between New Delhi and Washington. India's positive response to the new U.S. policy produced two important bilateral agreements. The first was the ten-year defense framework of May 2005 that opened the door for substantive defense collaboration—from arms sales to joint missions. The second was the civil nuclear initiative that ended India's prolonged atomic isolation and opened the door for both renewed international cooperation on civil nuclear energy and the integration of India into the global nonproliferation regime.

During the Bush years, both Washington and New Delhi were careful not to formally define their new partnership in terms of opposition to China. Nevertheless, Beijing was quick to see the defense and nuclear agreements as first steps toward a strategic partnership aimed at containing China. Although all three capitals know that a significant reordering of the relations among the three powers is some distance away, the U.S. declaration of a strategy...

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