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Darshana M Baruah: US, India and security in the Asia-Pacific

Playing an active security role will be to India's advantage, as Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean region has been gradually increasing

Darshana M Baruah 

Darshana M Baruah

That India-US ties are at the nexus of a new beginning shaping the Indo-Pacific is no surprise. PM Modi's second visit to the US at the beginning of his second year in office only reiterates the importance of this relationship. Although Modi is in New York to attend the 70th annual session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), he will also be in Silicon Valley to interact with business leaders and address the Indo-American community, before meeting President Obama. The presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the US at the same time only is testament to the dynamics brimming in Asia. While Modi is scheduled to meet with Obama on September 28, Xi had his meeting at the White House on September 25.

Modi talked about eliminating poverty, tackling climate change and reforming the UN including the Security Council, at the UNGA. These same issues also find their way in the India-US bilateral talks along with other issues such as defence cooperation and Af-Pak relations. The joint statement at the recently concluded maiden India-US strategic and commercial dialogue underlines the growing ambit of this relationship. Washington has voiced its support for India's permanent membership of the UNSC and in the Missile Technology Control Regime. Both sides also recognised the India-US partnership as a significant contributor to peace and stability in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions. India forms a significant factor in US policy for the Asia-Pacific and that is why maritime security dominates the agenda on both sides when it comes to regional collaboration in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific. In the backdrop of Modi's upcoming meeting with Obama, it is worth examining the US-India potential in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.

Washington currently is keener on India playing an active security role than New Delhi is willing to take on. Support from the US for such a role for India has been tremendous. The article in Foreign Policy - "How India and the United States Are Building a 21st-Century Partnership" - by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, capture the contours of this support building up in US policy for the region. China's dramatic rise and expanding ambitions for the region steered Washington's attention back to the Asia-Pacific sooner than it would have liked. While officials and diplomats continue to assert that American presence in Asia needs no validation, the fact remains that Washington would prefer a network of partnerships to sustain its influence in the region. The US Department of Defense (DoD) is paying special attention to the Asia-Pacific by engaging with old and new friends, keeping in line with its rebalance strategy. In all of this, it is easy to place India's role as the lynchpin.

India looms large in implementing the recent US DoD report, Maritime Security in the Asia Pacific. Released on August 21, the document re-emphasises Washington's commitment, building on Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter's visit to the region in May-June this year. While the report is careful in not targeting China directly, the objectives outlined underpin Beijing as the problem that America has to address in the Asia-Pacific. Combining American objectives with its strategic interests, the document identifies collaboration and strengthening of American allies and partners as the crux in achieving its goals too. Washington particularly "sees a strategic convergence between India's 'Act East' policy and the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region" and is "seeking to reinforce India's maritime capabilities as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean region and beyond".

India playing an active security role is to its advantage, as Chinese expansion into the Indian Ocean has been gradually increasing. While New Delhi has picked up its pace under the Modi government, which has invoked a sharper policy in the maritime domain, it may be struggling to sustain the momentum.

The changing security dynamics in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific are primarily due to an increase in Chinese activities fuelled by the great Chinese dream. Territorial disputes and strategic conflicts in the high seas is a new domain of strategy in Asia - an area which has not been tested as yet. There is a fair amount of nervousness surrounding China's forays into the Indian Ocean and the developments in the East and South China Seas. While the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is now a reality, the challenge lies in the uncertainty surrounding the security environment that such a change may bring about. It is unknown whether China is attempting to alter the existing architecture or just tweaking it enough to accommodate itself at the great powers table. Hence, Washington appears to be moving towards a network of coalitions to uphold the current international order and secure its strategic interests.

The Indian response so far has been encouraging, though not at a pace that Washington or other Asean members desire. New Delhi is particularly worried about Chinese investments in Sri Lanka, Maldives and other island nations in the Indian Ocean. The Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative running through the Indian Ocean is another area of concern for India. New Delhi is responding by stepping out of its rigid non-alignment policy and collaborating with the navies of the region, both at a bilateral and multilateral level. Although under the Modi government India signed the "US-India Joint Strategic Vision for Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region" and is taking a firm stand on freedom of navigation through the South China Seas, India is unlikely to get deeply involved in the tensions in the Western Pacific.

In the Indian Ocean however, New Delhi must take Washington's support and emerge as a credible net security provider. The Indo-US partnership in this domain carries more strategic advantages than drawbacks. But there are other areas of friction in the Indo-US relationship that may hinder New Delhi's ability to realise the potential of such collaboration: Obama's meeting with both Xi and Modi at the end of this month will provide an insight into the next step of the Indo-US relationship.


The writer is with the Observer Research Foundation

First Published: Sat, September 26 2015. 22:49 IST
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