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Getting Asia's Approval for an Indo-U.S. Partnership

John Lee

On her first trip abroad as Secretary of State which was to Asia in March 2009, insiders in both New Delhi and Washington were privately critical when Hillary Clinton neglected to include India in her itinerary. Having now completed her inaugural visit to India, Clinton’s broad mission was to show that the administration of Barrack Obama is just as serious about a strategic partnership with New Delhi as the previous one under George W. Bush. But strengthening the US-India bilateral relationship is one part of the equation. To be sure, there is much work to be done in this area. But the other part of the equation is to get ‘buy-in’ from American partners in Asia for any blossoming US-India strategic partnership. Without regional ‘buy in’, a growing US-India strategic relationship will be seen as a destabilizing relationship for Asia rather than a constructive one.

One attraction of a US-India strategic partnership, for many Asian states as well as India and the US, is the potential of the partnership to help ‘manage’ the rise of China. As eminent India scholar C. Raja Mohan argues, India has been balancing China since the day China invaded Tibet in 1950.

However, just as the US worked hard to gain broad regional acceptance for its alliances with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia, it must do the same as it forges new links with India. Asian states in particular are obsessive when it comes to ‘strategic hedging’. The various alliances with the US are welcome in Asia because they provide the ultimate guarantee against the potential of future unchecked Chinese ambitions. But these alliances do not explicitly attempt to contain China, nor do they hinder countries such as China if it chooses to rise within the rules and customs of the region. Because China is so important to the regional economy, most Asian states will not tolerate the establishment of an explicitly anti-Chinese alliance. Attempting to do so would cause Asian states to become disapproving and even disruptive in the earlier stages of the US-India relationship.

After all, India’s economic importance to East and Southeast Asia is growing but is still far behind China’s importance to the region. For example, while trade between China and ASEAN already surpasses US$200 billion, trade between India and ASEAN only reached US$38 billion in 2008. China is still viewed as a potential adversary by most Asian states but not yet an inevitable or actual one. While this is the case, no Asian state will be prepared to put at risk the economic benefits arising from friendly relations with Beijing, or prematurely incur the wrath of a rising China.

A case in point is the 2007 Quadrilateral Initiative between the US, India, Japan and Australia which was seen by many ASEAN states as too explicit a containment initiative against China and one that was likely to cause Southeast Asian states to openly declare their hand in ‘choosing’ between China and Quadrilateral members. After much initial fanfare, Australia and then the US wisely allowed the Initiative to quietly lapse.

The key to successfully bringing India in as a strategic partner of the US is to identify a constructive role for both the US-India relationship, and for India, that is consistent with, and complementary to, an economic and security structure that Asian states are prepared to accept.

In terms of the US-India strategic relationship, the focus should be on economic and trade cooperation. Regarding military matters, both Washington and New Delhi should concentrate on institutionalizing ground-up tactical cooperation – especially naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean without talking too much about any grand, strategic vision. Any talk about the latter would immediately cause Beijing to accuse the US-India relationship of being one that will be used to keep China down.

In terms of building acceptance of a greater role for India in Asia, New Delhi needs to convince key Asian states that it is an emerging great power looking to rise and compete without challenging the existing order. India needs to enmesh itself in the manifold and sometimes tedious multilateral institutions that characterise diplomacy in Asia. This will not be easy for a traditionally aloof Indian foreign service bureaucracy. But New Delhi can learn from the diplomatic tactics employed so successfully by Beijing. Even though multilateral institutions in Asia such as ASEAN forums are weak in terms of compliance and enforcement procedures they serve the purpose of reinforcing norms of counter-dominance and counter-interference in each other’s affairs.

These weak institutions are an important complement to the US-led hierarchical structure that has underpinned stability since World War Two. Even China, for example, has learnt that it is much more effective to work within tiresome ASEAN structures to build influence and legitimacy as a rising power than attempt to explicitly push its weight around. The argument that ‘weak’ institutions such as ASEAN serve no strategic purpose is clearly rebutted by the fact that China is careful not to alienate ASEAN but seeks to relentlessly work within it to build influence.

If India can continue to grow economically, and if a rising India is to be welcome and successfully integrated into the existing US-led hierarchical order in Asia, then the twin prospects that China’s rise can be peacefully managed and that the existing liberal order in Asia can be sustained improve dramatically.

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