By Amer Latif
Recently the U.S. Department of Defense released its new strategic guidance, which reflected the expected shift toward the Asia-Pacific region, touted by U.S. officials since the fall of last year. What was a bit unexpected was the attention given to India in such a key document. Long-standing Asian allies such as Australia, Japan, Korea, and others were lumped under the label of “existing alliances,” while India was singled out with the following passage: “The United States is also investing in a long term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.”
The specific mention of India raises interesting questions about how India fits into the United States’ vision for security in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington and New Delhi have been actively building their defense relations through defense sales, exercises, and high-level military engagements. India now conducts more exercises with the United States than with any other country, and it is gradually integrating U.S. platforms and systems into the various branches of its armed forces. India has also performed admirably in counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and elsewhere throughout the Indian Ocean. It has been actively engaging countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region with ship visits, high-level defense meetings, and the provision of military equipment, and it has even demonstrated leadership by establishing the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and organizing the MILAN naval exercises held every two years.
Despite the impressive progress in recent years, questions still remain about India’s commitment and ability to be a security provider in Asia. Each of New Delhi’s defense engagements abroad is closely scrutinized and calibrated with an eye toward available military capacity, the scope and optics of the mission, and how a particular defense engagement will be politically perceived at home. Rather than being guided by an overarching national security strategy or strategic planning documents, these decisions are usually made on a case-by-case basis.
Which brings us back to the U.S. defense strategy. As the United States implements its pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region, it will actively seek capable and reliable partners to cooperate on maintaining security and stability in Asia. With the recent announcement of 2,500 marines deploying to Australia on a rotational basis, positioning of littoral combat ships in Singapore, and discussion of intensified defense cooperation with the Philippines, questions may arise within the U.S. security establishment and Asia about what India’s enduring contributions will be to this endeavor after being so prominently mentioned in the United States’ defense strategy. Knowledgeable people inside the Pentagon and at Pacific Command know it will take a long time for India to emerge as a credible provider of security in Asia. They also know about India’s inhibitions regarding a closer U.S. partnership—ranging from India’s desire to preserve its strategic autonomy to its reluctance at being ensnared in a U.S.-led “counter China” strategy. U.S. policymakers understand these limitations and, consequently, do not expect India to be a consistent, “go-to” security partner anytime in the near future. Aside from the 2004 tsunami episode, instances of bilateral cooperation on operational matters have been scarce.
So why even mention India in the document? For the simple reason that the United States is making, in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words “a strategic bet” that India will promote peace and security in the long term. While Washington waits (and hopes) to benefit from its bet, Washington and New Delhi should continue working toward a security partnership that evolves from conducting exercises to becoming reliable partners during crises. Such an evolution will take time. However, Asia is currently experiencing a dynamic and changing security environment. Asian countries are rejuvenating regional security architecture through their respective partnerships, not just with the United States but with each other, in response to China’s growing military power. India has been a party to some of this change with the U.S.-India-Japan trilateral dialogue and its participation in the East Asia Summit in Bali last year. But a country with India’s growing political, economic and military capabilities has more to offer than just participation in multilateral forums. New Delhi knows that the security landscape in Asia is rapidly changing, and it should act accordingly to prevent any missed opportunities for playing a more decisive role in Asia.
To that end, India should develop its own strategic guidance for deploying its military and seriously consider closer engagement with the United States in shaping Asia’s evolving architecture. Partnering more closely with the United States in Asia amplifies India’s strategic impact in a way that India cannot have acting alone. Rather than viewing such an endeavor as sacrificing its strategic autonomy, New Delhi should view this as an opportunity to augment its own capabilities until such time as it can confidently act on its own and have strategic impact. In the meantime, U.S. military planners will implement the new strategic guidance and continue “investing” in the India partnership with the hope that one day soon India will become that provider of security for which the United States and Asia have been waiting.
Dr. S. Amer Latif is a visiting fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS in Washington, D.C.