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Evan A Feigenbaum: Continental and maritime in US-India ties

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Two worlds — continental and maritime — have intermingled and collided throughout the history of Asia. For a thousand years, Asia was deeply interconnected. Goods, capital, technologies, ideas and religions moved across Silk Road caravan routes and over well-trafficked Asian sea-lanes.

But between the 16th and 18th centuries, Asia fragmented. Maritime trade swamped continental trade. And many of India’s traditional roles in Asia were subsumed within the British Empire.

To American strategists, today’s India is a jumble of contradictions. India is a maritime nation — strategically situated near key chokepoints — but with a continental strategic tradition. India is a nation of illustrious mercantile traditions but for decades walled off large swaths of its economy.

Much has changed, largely because India’s rapid economic growth has allowed it to break from the confining shackles of South Asia. India is again an Asian player, better integrated into the and with a growing capacity to influence the balance of power.

So, as US President arrives in India this week, it’s worth asking this question about US-India relations: If so much has changed, why do Washington and New Delhi remain burdened, even imprisoned, by continental preoccupations?

At one level, this is unavoidable. Indeed, viewed from an Indian perspective, it is understandable. After all, Pakistan’s choices complicate American policies. And elements of Washington’s partnership with Islamabad complicate Indian policies too.

What is more, President Obama is determined to extricate the US from Afghanistan. So, the timing and manner of US withdrawal will affect Indian interests, and quite possibly leave India holding the strategic pieces.

The president needs to address this, not least because the most important problem in US-India relations since he took office has been substantive. Bluntly put, disagreements over his administration’s policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a principal obstacle to strengthened US-India relations. Many in India’s government are deeply sceptical about the administration’s approach. And if the has been sceptical, then commentators and former Indian officials have been downright frigid.

The good news is that many in the administration understand this. In an important speech on US-India relations in June, Undersecretary of State William Burns (a key player on India policy in both the Bush and Obama administrations), bluntly tackled this critique of US policies: “We can’t afford to gloss over such questions,” he said, “or pretend that they don’t exist… that the United States seeks to ‘re-hyphenate’ relations with India… that we see India mainly through the prism of preoccupations in Afghanistan and Pakistan… that we won’t push Pakistan hard enough on terrorists who kill and threaten Indians… that we will hurry toward the exit in Afghanistan.”

Burns offered a ringing endorsement of India’s emergence on the international canvas. The US, he said, has an “enormous stake” in “India’s rise as a global power”.

That’s good news. But then, if it’s true, it will be imperative that continental preoccupations not imprison the relationship. Aligning US and Indian expectations in South and Central Asia (or, better yet, aligning objectives) would do much to strengthen the bilateral partnership.

But it is maritime, not continental, Asia that is the world’s centre of economic and geopolitical gravity. So, at a moment when India’s own foreign policy has burst the confining boundaries of its South Asian strategic geography, Mr Obama and would do well to focus renewed attention there.

As the US withdraws from Afghanistan, its ability to influence events in the central landmass of Eurasia will decrease exponentially. And India is now an Asian power. It has naval, energy and commercial interests in Asian waters. It has signed free trade deals with South Korea and the Asean countries, and its new Economic Cooperation Agreement with Japan should boost trade and ease the two-way flow of capital and talent. Reflecting this, the prime minister continues this week to wing his way from Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur to Hanoi and Seoul.

And if continental Asia has been an arena for US-India disagreement, even rancour, then maritime Asia offers natural affinities of interest — and the opportunity to turn common interests into complementary policies.

The US and India have multidimensional interests in Asia’s maritime space. These encompass energy, seaborne trade, finance, the global commons, and regional architecture.

Take the sea-lanes. This is an arena of mutual interest. It is an arena that raises questions about how to reconcile claims of sovereignty with the need to assure public goods. It is an arena that will test China’s rise as a stakeholder in global order. Beijing talks loudly about sovereign rights and claims. The US and India should speak equally loudly — and together — about international rights and customs. It is time the US and India defined new elements of a common strategic vision. And maritime spaces, not continental ones, seem the more promising place to do so.

The author is head, Asia Practice Group, at Eurasia Group, and is also adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC

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