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New Delhi rebalancing defense relationships

by Harsh V. Pant

Special To The Japan Times

America’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific continues to hog the limelight even though the official phrase in Washington is now “strategic re-balancing.” Much of this pivot to the Asia-Pacific continues and expands policies already undertaken by previous administrations, as well as earlier in President Barack Obama’s term.

Since Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the United States has given considerable time and emphasis to Asia and to regional multilateral institutions.

Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. emphasized the strengthening of relations with existing allies in Asia, began moving toward a more flexible and sustainable troop presence in the region, concluded a free-trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea, brought the U.S. into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, and forged new partnerships with India and Vietnam. All of these steps have been furthered by the Obama administration. There are, however, a number of new aspects of the shift.

The most dramatic of these shifts lie in the military sphere. As part of a plan to expand the U.S. presence in the southwestern Pacific and make it more flexible, the Obama administration has announced new deployments or rotations of troops and equipment to Australia and Singapore. U.S. officials have pledged that planned and future reductions in defense spending will not come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific (nor the Middle East).

Additionally, underlying the “pivot” is a broader geographic vision of the Asia-Pacific region that includes the Indian Ocean and many of its coastal states. These shifts in American focus will undoubtedly have an influence on how existing and potential allies of the U.S. create and use their own naval power.

The “pivot” or “strategic re-balancing,” articulated by the Obama administration in its first term, is being operationalized his second term as Washington disengages from Afghanistan and tries to focus on the management of the domestic economy. What keeps the discussion alive and kicking is the fact that in response to America’s policy shift, other regional players have also started to renegotiate the terms of their engagement in the region.

India is no exception. The Indian defense minister’s trip to Singapore, Australia and Thailand in early June merely underscored how seriously New Delhi is having to respond to the rapidly evolving regional geostrategic realities.

Indian defense diplomacy was in full swing in Singapore where the Indian defense minister signed a new pact to extend the use of training and exercise facilities in India by the Singapore Army for five years. An agreement of this sort already exists for the Singaporean Air Force.

This is a unique arrangement as Singapore is the only country to which India has offered such an arrangement reflecting the underlying comfort level that exists between the two nations.

In Thailand, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony reaffirmed the success of the Indian prime minister’s visit to Bangkok. Thailand has expressed a keen interest in India’s defense sector, and Antony invited Thai teams to visit various defense production facilities in India. The two nations have decided to enhance cooperation in anti-piracy operations as well as work toward ensuring the safety of navigation in the Indian Ocean

Antony’s trip to Australia was the first trip to the country for any Indian defense minister, and after ignoring defense cooperation with Canberra for years, New Delhi recognizes the need for a robust defense partnership. The two states have a shared interest in managing the Indo-Pacific commons, including the important sea lanes. Closer maritime cooperation between New Delhi and Canberra is crucial in managing the growing turbulence in the Indian Ocean region. The geostrategic environment in the Indo-Pacific has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years with the rapid rise of China.

Washington has been working to transform the U.S.-Australian partnership from “an Asia-Pacific alliance to an Indo-Pacific alliance.” Julia Gillard’s visit to India last year and her decision to sell uranium to India as well as the elevation of ties with India to the highest priority for Australia — in the same league as those with the U.S., China and Indonesia — have made it possible for the two nations to envision a defense relationship that would not have been possible just a few years back.

During Antony’s visit, the two nations decided to step up military exchanges and pursue regular dialogue on maritime security. Joint naval exercises have been scheduled for 2015 with the two states underlining that maritime security and freedom of navigation in accordance with principles of international law are critical for the growth and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region.

India is gradually emerging as a serious player in the Asian strategic landscape as smaller states in the region reach out to it for trade, diplomacy and, potentially, as a key regional balancer.

The “Look East” policy initiated by one of the most visionary of India’s prime ministers, P. V. Narasimha Rao, is now the cornerstone of India’s engagement with the world’s most economically dynamic region. States in South and Southeast Asia also remain keen on a more pro-active Indian role in the region.

India’s proximity to the region and its growing capabilities make it a natural partner of most states in East and Southeast Asia. At the broader regional level, India continues to make a strong case for its growing relevance in East Asian regional security and economic architecture with greater urgency than ever before.

Indian defense diplomacy will have to play an increasingly important role as India tries to emerge as a credible strategic partner of the regional states.

Neither India nor other regional states have the incentive to define a relationship of opposition to China. But they are certainly interested in leveraging their ties with other states to gain benefits from China and bring a semblance of equality in their relationships. The great power politics in the region have only just begun.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.