Returning to the Land or Turning Toward the Sea? India’s Role in America’s Pivot
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Returning to the Land or Turning Toward the Sea? India’s Role in America’s Pivot


Few diplomatic overtures have generated loftier expectations in recent years than Washington’s rapprochement with New Delhi. Frequently at loggerheads during the Cold War, then kept apart by the U.S. commitment to counter-proliferation and India’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent, the two sides have never had a warm relationship. That began to change during the George W. Bush administration, a transformation that was symbolized by a controversial agreement allowing the United States to sell civilian nuclear technology to India, despite its status as a nuclear-armed nation that is not recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Obama administration has since picked up where its predecessor left off. The president, for example, has called India a “natural ally” of the United States, while his former secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, declared that India was “a linchpin” of America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific.

While there were many reasons for the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy to mend fences, perhaps the most important reason was the one that few officials could point to in public: the rise of China. In modern times, tensions between New Delhi and Beijing date back to their border war in 1962. In fact, the contested boundaries between these two powers are some of the only land border disputes that China has yet to resolve. To keep up with Beijing’s growing military power, India needs to modernize its armed forces, which means moving away from its reliance on Russian hardware and looking toward Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, Washington is searching for ways to preserve its position in the Asia-Pacific as China’s strength continues to increase. Having the region’s other rising power on its side is a good place to start.

If a partnership between the United States and India makes sense on paper, so far improved relations between the two nations have hardly been game changing. There are a host of explanations why the fruits of strategic collaboration have been relatively modest, from bureaucracies on both sides that have impeded potential arms sales, to broader considerations such as the fear of antagonizing China. One important factor, though, is the mismatch between what the United States wants India to do and what New Delhi is best suited to do.

Proponents of closer ties between Washington and New Delhi often view India as a budding maritime power. As then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared in 2010, “India can be a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.” For example, with a bigger and better navy, India could help patrol vital sea-lanes, deter or counter smuggling operations, combat piracy, provide humanitarian assistance far from home, and respond quickly when natural disasters strike. All of this could help relieve some of the burdens shouldered by the U.S. Navy, which is juggling its day-to-day role as a global security provider and first responder with the longer-term challenge of a shifting military balance in the Western Pacific. Not surprisingly, areas like counter-piracy and humanitarian assistance are at the center of U.S.-India security cooperation today.

The only problem is that India isn’t a maritime power: it’s a land power. To be sure, New Delhi is building and buying new ships and submarines, and seems determined to bolster its naval capabilities, which is hardly surprising given its location astride some of the world’s most important sea-lanes. But the major military challenges it faces come from on shore, and the Indian Army continues to be the nation’s dominant military service in terms of size, influence, and budget share.

Assuming that the underlying goal of closer U.S.-India ties is to help maintain a stable balance of power across Asia, a larger Indian navy is likely to have a marginal long-term impact. Actually, it could even be counterproductive. The rivalry between China and India may have begun on land, but it is starting to move into the maritime domain, particularly as Beijing makes inroads with island and littoral nations in the Indian Ocean while New Delhi continues to bolster its maritime capabilities. Building a robust, blue water fleet that would enable India to project maritime power throughout its region and beyond could give China an added incentive to double-down on naval modernization, conduct more deployments outside of East Asia, and perhaps develop a permanent overseas military presence to secure its sea lines of communication against the latent threat of Indian interdiction. Given the cost and difficulties of fielding a large, modern, and effective naval force, as well as the pull of more pressing security challenges on land, there is no guarantee that India will succeed.

avatar singh
March 31, 2014 at 04:22

this was a deliberate attempt by US to divert us Indians from looking away from West and make us lock horns with China to wear both us and China down?
If it smells like a fish it is a fish!

avatar singh
March 31, 2014 at 04:20

s it just me or everything india does is an obsession with china? the chinese wants to compete with the US and the West while Indians are content to be inferior to the West. why else everything they do they have to mention China?

The present Indian government is the most malleable because in fact they have done absolutely nothing to raise the standard of living of poor people for the last 50 years. So they are more than willing to play this game.
Indians are known for bragging. The still brag they are going to be world’s next superpower.
India’s self-bragging about being the “world’s largest democracy” is a joke. Until they can field a candidate that isn’t related to the Gandhi family, they’re really the world’s largest nepotistic cult of personality.
More than that the Indians have not yet revolted at unlelcted American agent manmoahns ingh being imposed as Pm when he cannot even manage to win a seat in the parliament in free elelction.

avatar singh
March 31, 2014 at 04:19

Still have 40% of the nation’s children malnourished, 80% of rural areas lacking sanitation, and 400 million people living on $1/day or less, Minister?

“Half a dollar a day is “adequate” for an Indian villager to spend on food, education and health, the country’s main planning body has said headed by an uneellcted traityor sikh brought by an unelelcted traitor sikh priemmisnter an American agent par execellant.”
==== For the west, pinning India against Chinese don’t solve their own problems. And Indians are just too coward and backward to do that.

For Indians, naming China doesn’t solve their problems neither. The west won’t give them the free money and technology. They still have to pay the 1st rate price for the 2nd rate weaponaries, make 4 rate themselves.

No one is fool here.

avatar singh
March 31, 2014 at 04:14

India is a great country – only a fool can deny this. However the present and past Indian governments need to play the Pakistan and China as enemies card so they do not have to face the music on the domestic front.

The Chinese government is not democratic but has won 10 times over in education and raising the living standards of its many people.

India is still a basket-case………with some very rich billionaires running around. Is that so-called economic progress?
How much of this tension and rivalry between India and China is manufactured by the USA?

March 19, 2014 at 07:46

China needs to change its aggressive policies and this will draw many neighbouring nations towards China. This will help the whole region to foster peace. China has never really fought a war and there is no evidence it is superior to India and Vietnam. They were driven back in the case of Vietnam and they retreated in the case of India as it was a suprise attack and the Chinese could not hold their gains because of the terrain. India and Vietnam has a lot of experience in warfare and this is going to be an asset. China is not stupid to start a war with India because the results will be devastating and India and China will cease to be a nations.

August 16, 2013 at 14:12

USA should win back the goodwill that it has lost gradually after Vietnam war. It remains the only great and noble but it is being led by warmongeres in this century. USA must realize that with great power comes great responsibility. Instead of playing with weaker nations and trying to influence regime change through hard power and espionage, it should use it's soft power to tame the enemy. Communism was defeated through the use of soft power and International deals. Military power and nukes are good for posturing but useless in modern world. USA should also stop carrying out British foreign policy through aggressive wars. British leadership is myopic and it had pushed the world towards worldwide conflicts in last century. USA should not follow in Britain's path of self destruction.

USA should lead the world towards prosperity and peace and strive for world government. It should aim for the stars and colonize space. India will be a steadfast ally of USA in the coming century since they share many noble values. Together they will lead the world.

August 16, 2013 at 14:04

In your dreams….lol
India is not a regional bully like China. India does not wield any military power in South Asia thanks to it's meek foreign policy. It has considerable soft power in Asia and a long history of goodwill. In case of an external aggressor threatening India, the smaller neighbours will help India out since their survival depends on it.

China has no true friends in International arena except North Korea and Burma. It uses all other nations for it's ambitions but the game is exposed now. Watch the noose tighten slowly around China's throat…

USA is the only country that can achieve this and has the means to do it and they surely have the intentions to do it. In any major conflict in Asia, India will stay neutral unless invaded by China or Pakistan.

August 15, 2013 at 17:30

In the beginning of the article, author highlights a few reasons for coldness in Indo-US relationship in the past. Interesting to see lack of mention of US' continuous support – morally and materially of the Pakistan's terrorist and military extremism against India!

May 19, 2013 at 19:54

I hope that you didn't go too far into debt with your student loan?


For if this is the level that you reached in analysis then I must say that you failed.


I could educate you, but then if the professors you had failed so badly, it would be pointless for me to waste my time.


Just one point; friends don't always include your next door neighbor, sometimes they live a couple of streets or even towns away. Though, Burma/Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka are not Indias enemies and while they may not marry your daughters, in International Relations an aquaintance/ friend who tells you what issues he has with you is better than a person who lies to your face while aiming a knife at your back.

May 19, 2013 at 14:23

India do not need to stop Pakistan. Pakistan has already stopped moving in to positive direction. It is going to be second Afganistan a Talibanized country which want to move back 300 years insted of moving forward. Pakistan will keep on modernizing it's weapons and it's people will be forced to eat grass (A dream of former Pakistani Prime Minister)

May 14, 2013 at 16:16

India is a country of 1.2 billion people while its leadership behaves like that of Taiwan,south Korea or Japan because of its lack of understanding of issues. India must behave like China and this pivot has no meaning unless India has the self reliant power ro fight a land war with China. India is the largest importer of arms while China is the fourth largest exporter of arms.

May 13, 2013 at 22:41

Your comments are wise. Brutal supression of citizens will spring back in due time – as the Tibet self immolations show. In India, citizens have problems and they are vented out – no substantial & sustained build-up of resentment of governance. What is important is winning of hearts & minds. Communism cannot inspire patriotism as effectively as in a democracy. No amount of military hardware can overcome patriotism – as seen in Vietnam. Our armed forces are motivated – the Chinese were simply stared down and out, without a bullet being fired, in the recent 5 tent episode !

May 8, 2013 at 00:00

It would be better to divide united states of america..Not only its disintegrating in economy but in all aspects..n coming to china it itself is creating so many enemies that it wont be able to handle..n btw from outside it looks composed but china has the most internal few years tibet,xinjang will break off and only the polluted prc will remain..

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