Notwithstanding the “Delhi disillusionment” that now prevails in Washington, a U.S.-India strategic coalition focused on China is steadily coming together.
The state visit to New Delhi by Wen Jiabao at the end of last year focused on the potential for mutual economic cooperation. The Chinese premier arrived with a large business delegation that promptly signed some $16 billion worth of deals. The two governments also pledged to take their $60-billion trade relationship to the $100-billion level by 2015.
But the India-China narrative in 2011 was more about strategic competition than economic collaboration. Two events over the last month signify how long-standing disputes along their Himalayan frontier have increasingly come to the fore. The first is the abrupt cancellation of border talks due to Beijing’s concerns about the Dalai Lama’s activities inside India. The second is the alarm sounded in the Indian parliament by Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former defense minister, that China is on the verge of launching an attack. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dismissed the claim but apprehensions about Beijing’s strategic intentions are growing in Indian public opinion.
New Delhi’s strategic activism in East Asia and the reactions it has elicited in Beijing were also on display this year. During his state visit last year, President Barack Obama urged India not only to “look East” but also “to engage East” for the sake of enhanced security and prosperity throughout Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton echoed this message during her own trip to India this past July.
The advice was seemingly taken to heart when the Indian government, in defiance of explicit Chinese warnings, proceeded with hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea, an area Beijing assertively claims in almost its entirety. New Delhi also moved to solidify security relations with Vietnam, a Chinese nemesis, and to strengthen its influence in Myanmar, which China and India have long regarded as an arena for geopolitical jousting.
Central to the “Delhi disillusionment” that now prevails in Washington are questions about whether the nuclear cooperation accord has succeeded in invigorating U.S.-India geopolitical cooperation in the face of a rapidly growing and more assertive China. But events over the last month demonstrate that a strategic entente focused on Beijing is alive and well. The United States, India and Japan this week held their first trilateral meeting on security issues in East Asia. Nirupama Rao, the Indian ambassador in Washington, has stated that New Delhi will use this dialogue to bolster its engagement in the region. The initiative also represents a further step in the security ties New Delhi and Tokyo have built up in the past few years and which Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s trip to India next week will add to.
A trilateral security effort (here and here) also seems to be congealing among the United States, India and Australia, even if New Delhi remains wary of a formal arrangement. And within its strategic backyard, India has started a tripartite security dialogue with Sri Lanka and Maldives that has China as a focus.
As a previous post noted, 2012 will not be a year of grand initiatives in U.S.-India relations. But officials in Washington and New Delhi should concentrate their energies in the next 12 months on two eminently accomplishable projects:
- A revival of quadrilateral security cooperation among the U.S., India, Japan and Australia that briefly flowered in 2006-2007. This initiative grew out of the cooperative efforts by the four navies after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but lost momentum following the collapse in late 2007 of the Shinzo Abe government in Tokyo and the John Howard government in Canberra. In view of the renewed geopolitical stirrings among the four capitals, the time seems opportune for putting this “Asian Democracies” initiative back on the agenda.
- New Delhi’s entry into the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Given India’s rising military and economic profile in East Asia, its absence from this grouping is a serious omission that ought to be rectified.