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Obama Needs India to Make His Asia “Pivot” a Success

If America is to submit China to the liberal world order, it needs India’s Narendra Modi to succeed.

Barack Obama Naredra Modi
American president Barack Obama speaks with Prime Minister Modi of India during a state dinner at the presidential palace in New Delhi, January 25 (White House/Pete Souza)

If Narendra Modi can convince India to break with its nonaligned past and ally with the Pacific’s democracies instead, American president Barack Obama may yet succeed in counterbalancing China’s rise.

Since it was announced in 2011, the American “pivot” to Asia appears to have done little to affect Chinese behavior. Rather, the military component of what was later renamed a “rebalancing” strategy exacerbated China’s fears of encirclement. By raising troop deployments in the Western Pacific, the United States inadvertently confirmed the Chinese in their worst fears: that America intended to block their reemergence as a great power.

China has since pressed its revisionist maritime border claims in the East and South China Seas and bullied its neighbors.

Last year alone, China moved a deepwater drilling rig into waters that are disputed by Vietnam, rammed Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea and deployed three nuclear missile submarines to the area, engaged in a standoff with the Philippine navy over the Scarborough Shoal and declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over Japan’s Senkaku Islands — which America immediately exposed as useless by flying two bombers through it unannounced.

Beyond the military standoff — where, in spite of China’s army modernization and rising defense spending, America still has an overwhelming advantage — China’s more structural challenge to American preponderance in the Pacific is institutional. It pushes alternative rule-making forums that exclude the United States and continues to cooperate with Russia in spite of President Vladimir Putin’s isolation in the West as a result of his aggression in Ukraine.

Late last year, China seemed to walk back on that challenge when it entered into agreements with the United States on climate change and technology tariffs and signed a code to avert clashes with American planes and warships off its coast.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi argued at the time that China’s move away from unilateralism showed it was “increasingly comfortable being seen to act as part of an international effort.”

The American Interest‘s Walter Russell Mead similarly hailed the agreements as good news, “except perhaps for Vladimir Putin.” They made clear, he wrote, that China was “not going to join forces with him in an attack on the foundations of the post-1945 world order again.”

Getting China to accept international codes of conduct that the Chinese complain they had no part in writing and a liberal world order many Chinese see as serving the interests of America alone is the hardest part of Obama’s “rebalancing” effort. But it is also far more important than merely containing China if America is to keep the peace in Asia and raise prosperity on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Mead cautioned that last year’s diplomatic breakthroughs should not be taken as proof that China has come round altogether.

China believes that given peace and quiet in the region, it will continue to grow and that, if it chooses, it can challenge the world order and American primacy at a later, more convenient time when China is stronger and, perhaps, its potential adversaries are weaker.

To convince China that time will never come, the German Marshall Fund’s Daniel Twining argues in Foreign Policy magazine that the United States should form a “triple alliance” with Asia’s biggest democracies, India and Japan.

Twining laments Obama’s lack of emphasis on democracy in foreign affairs but believes that as a result of the “values-based diplomacy” of the nationalist prime ministers of India and Japan, Modi and Shinzō Abe, all three powers now “recognize that unsentimental national interest and shared political ideals require closer strategic collaboration to shape the Pacific century.”

Last September, after talks with Abe in Tokyo, Modi publicly condemned what he called an “eighteenth-century expansionist mindset: encroaching in other countries, intruding in others’ waters, invading other countries and capturing territory.” It was a rebuke to the sort of “might makes right” mentality that Putin’s Russia has embraced and that the rest of Asia desperately wants China to stay away from.

Although Japan is still the world’s third largest economy, overtaken by China only five years ago, it lacks the military wherewithal to resist Chinese hostility. “India,” according to Twining, “is the only Asian country with the weight and scale to offset China’s power and influence.”

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra cautioned at the Atlantic Sentinel earlier this month that an Indo-American alliance faces many obstacles. Whatever Modi’s interest in deepening ties with the United States, his bureaucracy “remains deeply anti-American and is ingrained in leftist nonaligned thought,” he wrote, while military interoperability is complicated by the fact that many of India’s tanks and warplanes are Russian-made.

Twining argues that to sustain India’s rise — which primarily hinges on Modi’s ability to liberalize his economy — Japan and the United States need to provide it with more capital, defense hardware and technology.

India has the advantage that other countries in the region will “view its emergence as an opportunity, even as they hedge against China’s resurgence.” If Modi is able to move India toward an alliance with the United States, it would be a “strong challenge to Beijing’s belief in its own preeminence,” Twining writes — “and its attempts to forge a ‘new type of major power relations’ with the United States over the heads of its allies.” If India, Japan, the United States and the smaller democracies of East Asia all share the same political values and priorities in international relations, it would be extremely difficult for China to try to work around them.

There is the risk that an Indo-American alliance could end up making Russia more belligerent, as former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski warned in Strategic Vision (2012).

In fact, such an alliance would be inimical in two significant ways to long-term American interests in Eurasia: it would reduce Russian fears of China and thus diminish Russian self-interest in becoming more closely tied to the West and it would increase Moscow’s temptation to take advantage of a distracted America drawn into wider Asian conflicts to assert Russian imperial interests more firmly in Central Asia and in Central Europe.

Then again, under Putin, Russia has already broken with the West and reasserted itself in the former Soviet sphere of influence anyway.

One comment

  1. Fascinating proposition. However, it would take somebody more decisive and bold than Obama to make the “pivot” to Asia successful.

    Japan, India and smaller powers like Singapore, Indonesia etc have the “right” governments to forge a geo-political framework and an alliance. Yet the USA lacks the political and military heft under Obama to build this “Asian Alliance”.

    The real danger the USA faces is if China tries to dilute such a scheme by forming its own coalition of nations – Pakistan, Iran, N,Korea, Cambodia offer willing nations to Chinese influence for Chinese continued benevolence.

    The ultimate irony would be the US being unable or unwilling to show sufficient commitment to the global order that Asian nations become reluctant to take a stand with the US for fear of antagonizing the Chinese.

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