If he felt any disappointment at not achieving any substantial breakthrough in talks with Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta didn’t show it publicly. On a swing through Asia that started with Singapore’s annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Panetta had hoped to bring the Indian defense establishment on board for a rebalancing strategy that many believe is aimed squarely at China.
But it wasn’t to be.
Antony, known as a particularly cautious policymaker, reportedly told Panetta politely but firmly that India doesn’t wish to be seen as a U.S. alliance partner as it embarks on its Asia-Pacific strategy. His comments came within days of Panetta’s announcement in Singapore that the United States intended, by 2020, to have 60 percent of its naval fleet based in the Asia-Pacific even as it looks to build new alliances in the region.
Speaking to an audience of strategic thinkers, defense officials, diplomats and journalists at one of the biggest events on the annual Asia defense calendar, Panetta stated that the “United States military…will be smaller, it will be leaner, but it will be agile and flexible, quickly deployable, and will employ cutting edge technology in the future.
“While the U.S. military will remain a global force for security and stability,” he added the United States “will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region. We will also maintain our presence throughout the world. We will do it with innovative rotational deployments that emphasize creation of new partnerships and new alliances.”
Yet while New Delhi has been open to increasing bilateral engagement with Washington – and does in fact undertake a number of joint exercises across the three defense services – the establishment in India is still wary of any military alliance, or even a formal partnership with the United States.
Why? It’s partly because India doesn’t want to upset China, its main competitor in Asia, by openly embracing the United States.However, more fundamentally, Indian lawmakers and politicians continue to have reservations over the United States itself, doubts born largely from India’s perception of the past half a century that Washington has tended to side with India’s arch rival, Pakistan.
Antony, who last month became India’s longest serving defense minister, has been especially careful not to publicly cozy up to Washington. Indeed, he has often instructed ministry officials to downplay joint bilateral exercises with the United States, resisted signing deals tied to weapons systems weapons, and he has consistently told officials that India believes any U.S. disputes should be dealt with bilaterally.
As a result, even as India has agreed to scale up training for Afghanistan’s armed forces, it has refused to openly back the U.S. lines on the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Although India is aware (and wary) of China’s increasing assertiveness in both expanses of water, it prefers to work with smaller countries in the region – such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia – as well as China to resolve regional tensions.