There’s a conundrum at the heart of the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia, at least as it relates to India. The United States is eager to extricate itself from military conflicts in the Greater Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan) so it can focus on a region where, as President Barack Obama put it, “the action’s going to be.” Shoring up the U.S. strategic posture in East Asia amid China’s ascendance will entail a deepening of geopolitical cooperation between Washington and New Delhi. But the quickening withdrawal from Afghanistan will increase bilateral frictions, pushing relations in the opposite direction.
The Pentagon’s just-released strategic guidance paper calls for “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.” Both Obama during his visit to India in November 2010 and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her trip last summer have called on New Delhi to play a more active strategic role in East Asia.
One of the unheralded stories of the past year is how India has begun to do just that. In defiance of Chinese warnings, New Delhi asserted its rights to hydrocarbon explorations off the coast of Vietnam, laying down its own marker in the South China Sea dispute. It has moved to enhance defense and economic ties with Japan, culminating in Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s very productive recent visit to New Delhi. It also solidified security relations with Australia and Vietnam, and bolstered its influence in Burma vis-à-vis Beijing.
Washington and New Delhi hold regular consultations on East Asia policy, and a trilateral U.S.-India-Japan security dialogue was launched recently. A revival of quadrilateral security cooperation among the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia that briefly flowered in 2006-07 also appears likely. The expansion of Chinese power and aspiration will undoubtedly push New Delhi to align closer with the United States, though the process will neither be as smooth nor as speedy as many Americans would like.
Pushing in the other direction is the adverse effect on Indian security concerns caused by U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan. Key differences are bound to emerge between the United States and India regarding the political endgame. Looking to the exits, Washington won’t be overly concerned with the exact details of the makeup of Afghanistan or the viability of the government in Kabul. New Delhi, which has invested heavily in Hamid Karzai’s government, will be all too focused on how the strategic terrain is shifting to its detriment.
India has strong security interests in ensuring that any government in Kabul can be a bulwark against Pakistan, as well as a gateway to trade and energy links in Central Asia. Both goals would be undermined if Islamabad achieved a central role in shaping a political settlement or if a Taliban-influenced regime were to come to power.
One wonders how committed Washington will be to the current regime’s survival or the protection of Indian equities in an accommodation with the Taliban. This is all the more so as U.S. staying power is visibly waning. The security situation is likely to deteriorate as the military withdrawals that Obama announced last summer take hold and as remaining U.S. forces shift from direct combat operations to a back-stop role. A newly-minted National Intelligence Estimate reportedly is filled with pessimism about Afghanistan’s prospects.