Since my first visit to Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) more than two decades ago, relations between India and the United States have steadily improved and have become one of the most important relationships in world affairs. There is so much that our two great democratic nations share in common, and it is of great satisfaction to see that we have overcome previous difficulties and have forged a truly comprehensive and strategic relationship — which is important for peace, stability, and security in the India-Asia region, and indeed in the world.
I will be looking into Sino-American relations, and the rising US-China strategic competition in the region — this is a subject that definitely bears on India-US ties.
The relationship between India and the US must be built on its own merits, and not as a tactical or strategic expedient. This includes in the security/defence sphere — where there are a wide range of complementary strategic and security interests between our two countries, and it therefore needs to have a broad-based foundation.
But it is certainly the case that our mutual concern about China’s expanding footprint in Asia is one of our important commonalities. China’s expanding footprint certainly includes its military capabilities — its naval surface/sub-surface fleet and growing area of operation (AOR), its ballistic and cruise missile capabilities, its cyber warfare capabilities, its improved airlift capabilities, and the PLA’s doctrine to develop “expeditionary” force capabilities over time.
These are all realities of growing Chinese military power — and they are realities for both the US and India. And these Chinese capabilities are — to some extent — driving the strategic and defence cooperation between our two countries. But it would be a mistake to anchor our bilateral or multilateral security cooperation on the “China Factor” alone — we need to have a broad-based India-US security relationship just as we need to have a broad-based ties in general (diplomatically, commercially, educationally, culturally, in science and technology, and other spheres).
Similarly, when we look at China’s position in Asia, we need to view it broadly, and not simply through the security lens. We need to view China’s entire diplomatic, commercial, and soft power efforts too. This includes understanding the potential significance of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, which is far more than an initiative to build infrastructure. It is very much an initiative to expand China’s geostrategic and geo-economic influence.
Viewed from Washington, it has been increasingly difficult to find equilibrium in relations with Beijing — much less a positive narrative and trajectory into the future. And this was pre-Trump. We are into entirely new territory now with the new US president and administration. All signs are that the Trump administration is going to become much more confrontational towards China. This will have the net effect of not only dramatically worsening US-China relations, but also severely straining relations between virtually every Asian state that has tried to balance its ties between China and the US. Few Asian states wish to choose one power over the other.
As the Trump administration confronts China, we likely are going to see a number of states in Southeast Asia cease their equidistant balancing behaviour and will increasingly tilt towards China. In South Asia, my impression is that we see similar trends to Southeast Asia. Some countries are being successfully co-opted by Beijing (Bangladesh and Nepal). One shows discomfort with China’s suffocating embrace (Sri Lanka). One tilts strongly towards China, but at the same time maintaining significant ties with the US, Pakistan — I do not think it’s entirely accurate to describe Pakistan as being completely in China’s pocket. I also think the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (part of the OBOR) will encounter significant difficulties in being realised.
In the case of India, we see a strong strategic tilt towards the US while attempting to maintain a modicum of normalcy in diplomatic, commercial, and cultural relations with China.
Other nations — Japan, Singapore, Australia, and India in particular — will likely solidify their ties to the US and with each other. They have no desire to drift into China’s orbit. This will prove a strong counter-current to other states that draw closer to China. This will lead to an increased polarisation of Asia.
Much depends, though, on the Trump administration and how it approaches the region. If is confronts China without parallel efforts to reassure the region, it could end up seriously damaging America’s strategic position. At such a fluid time, it is highly important that America’s allies and strategic partners make their voices heard in Washington.
(This article is an abridged version of a speech delivered at the Institute of Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi)
David Shambaugh is distinguished visiting professor at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
The views expressed are personal