Writing at Via Meadia, one of my favorite public intellectuals, Walter Russell Mead, observes that the hoopla over Kim Jong-Il’s death obscured something far more consequential: this week’s trilateral security consultations among India, Japan, and the United States.
A formal compact has bound Washington and Tokyo together for decades. Yet no tripartite alliance is in the making, despite years of hopeful talk among Indian and U.S. elites about a “natural strategic partnership” uniting the world’s two democracies. Spooked by China’s increasingly visible presence in South and Southeast Asia, New Delhi is increasingly making common cause with the allies, not to mention with other prospective partners like Australia and Vietnam. As yet, though, Indians show little sign of spurning their history of “nonalignment” in power politics.
Nonalignment has been a mainstay of Indian foreign policy since the days of founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. On the other hand, Indians are largely eager for informal collaboration. Mead terms the arrangement now coalescing an “entente,” or informal coalition, rather than an alliance. The phrase evokes the “Triple Entente” that took shape in the years antedating World War I, when the mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm II drove great powers that historically found themselves at one another’s throats – France, Russia, Great Britain – into alignment against the “Central Powers,” an axis among Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and, sort of, Italy.
To call the Kaiser foolish slights fools. Wilhelm severed agreements intended to mollify Germany’s neighbors. He went out of his way to cow his rivals, most notably during twin crises in Morocco. The great powers reacted the way states under threat do, namely by joining forces to counteract the threat. For the ruler of Europe’s strongest power to deliberately frighten neighboring powers represented self-defeating behavior of the first order. The United States, a nonaligned state in its own right, ultimately joined the Allies on the Western Front, but only as an “Associated Power.” It stood apart from its co-belligerents while working toward more (and sometimes less) common goals. India could follow the same pattern.
Here endeth the historical sojourn – almost. For me the takeaways from the Triple Entente are three. First, it takes a threat of surpassing magnitude to transform an entente cordiale into a true alliance, inducing the partners to set aside strategic preferences of decades’ or centuries’ standing. Has Beijing’s conduct over the past two years been as provocative as that of Wilhelm II? Will it apply “glue” strong enough to patch together a countervailing alliance? Doubtful. Still, monitoring future Chinese actions and the responses they summon forth from entente powers is a must. The American diplomatic trajectory a century ago warrants revisiting. Will New Delhi remain an “associated power” or accept something more enduring?
Second, a dismal fate sometimes befalls ententes. After World War I, desperate for allies to hedge against a German resurgence, France struck up “Little Ententes” with weak Eastern European states like Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia. A look at the map suggests why the Little Ententes provide a cautionary tale. The external power, France, was geographically remote from its partners, separated by the territory of the potential aggressor that gave rise to the arrangement. The analogy to the Indian Ocean today is inexact for obvious reasons. But China, and seas where China covets primacy – most notably the South China Sea – lie between U.S.-Japanese forces and their entente partner in India. Working around geography is imperative.
And while no one would confuse India today with frail Eastern European states then, it does lag behind China by economic and military measures. A successful Indian rise to regional pre-eminence is by no means foreordained. Whether India constitutes a reliable security partner, whatever its sentiments toward cooperation, remains to be seen. Furthermore, entente armies, navies, and air forces must array their forces wisely. The recently announced deal between Washington and Canberra to base U.S. Marine forces in Australia marks a step in the right direction. Forces stationed there could bypass contested waters – maneuvering from side to side between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean while outflanking their major competitor. Interwar France is an example to avoid in a host of ways.
And third, there are operational, tactical, and hardware dimensions to the nascent Indo-Pacific entente. (Here’s a tie-back to the North Korean transition – how’s that?) For years, U.S. administrations were reticent about releasing high technology like the Aegis combat system or Standard Missiles – missiles capable of anti-air and anti-missile defense – even to trusted allies, lest the U.S. military suffer a repeat of industrial espionage cases like the illicit transfer of submarine quieting technology from a Toshiba subcontractor to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. This air- and missile-defense architecture is crucial to countering ballistic missiles lofted seaward by the likes of Pyongyang, Beijing, and Tehran. Hence Washington’s growing preparedness to loosen its export-control grip, out of sheer expediency.
The U.S., Japanese, South Korean, and Australian navies already field Aegis and ballistic-missile defense systems or are moving to acquire this technology for their guided-missile destroyers. Other prospective partners, notably the Indian fleet, don’t. This spotlights potential “interoperability” problems within the U.S.-Japanese-Indian entente. With disparate equipment and training, that is, Asian militaries could find it hard to work together smoothly. A caucus could form within Mead’s entente cordiale, not only up on the political echelon, but at the level of nuts and bolts. This bears watching.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.