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Foreign Policy

Is India a Strategic Pawn for the US to Counterbalance China?

Oct 06 , 2014
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi has completed his first state visit to the United States after taking office in May this year. There was an expectation that closer ties between the two countries would shift the power dynamics in Asia. Specifically, it was believed that India would play an important role in the US rebalance strategy and join the US alliance to counterbalance China.

It is true that Modi’s visit has provided an opportunity for India and the US to strengthen the relationship. Both countries value the chance. Before Prime Minister Modi set off for New York, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs publicized an article, portraying Modi’s visit as “the defining partnership of the 21st century” with a new burst of energy and vitality. The US side also spoke highly of the significance of Modi’s visit.

Politically, the India-US relationship is in the process of development. This is based on shared values. Modi has stressed that the two countries are respectively the world’s oldest and most populous democracies, and have convergent interests and complementary strengths. At the same time, the US takes India’s self-esteem and policy concerns into consideration. The two countries set up a global partnership in 2005 and started strategic dialogues in 2010. In the recent joint statement, the two leaders extolled the broad strategic and global partnership between the United States and India and endorsed the first “Vision Statement for the Strategic Partnership” to guide their cooperation over next ten years. They also committed to a new mantra for the relationship: “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go.”

Economically, India expects the United States to play a role in reviving India’s economy. The country is facing quite a few difficult tasks in economic development. From the year 2011, India’s GDP growth slowed down. Modi’s meetings with US business elites were important arrangements, aimed at finding more opportunities for cooperation and an increase of investment in India.

From a security perspective, both countries have the willingness to strengthen cooperation. The US is implementing a rebalance, in which security is a highlight. NATO will probably finish the withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and the negotiations with the new Afghan government are faced with uncertainty. In this context, the US needs India’s “consultations and cooperation in support of Afghanistan’s future”. What is more, India and the United States have a common interest in arms sales. The export of weapons boosts the US economy and India is eager to realize military modernization. Actually, the US has already become India’s largest supplier of arms.

India and the United States are exploring the potential of a bilateral relationship. However, it is unlikely that India will get deeply involved in the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy.

There is still fragility in the political relationship. The diplomatic turbulence at the end of the year 2013 caused serious damage to bilateral ties, reflecting the fact that mutual trust and crisis management between the two sides is not mature. In the short term, the US will not make India an important pillar of its rebalance, and India’s position in its diplomatic framework cannot match the strength of traditional alliances, such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The US relies on old friends to expand its military presence and its role in regional security affairs. The cooperation between India and the US focuses on the sales of weapons. It will be a long time before the two countries can coordinate on military actions.

The most important tool for realizing the economic perspective of the US Asia-Pacific strategy is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). The US is seeking a leadership in the Asia-Pacific free trade zone construction, with the support of the TPP. Obviously, India is not invited to participate in the related negotiation.

It is impossible for the US to utilize India as a pawn for counterbalancing China. India is reluctant to take sides between the US and China. Fundamentally, India was one of the initiators of the non-alignment movement. The Indian government has used non-alignment as the basis of its diplomatic policies for decades. Currently, India implements an overall major power diplomacy, which means that the country has a good relationship with both the US and China.

Even though China and India still have unsolved territorial disputes, it doesn’t mean that the US can seize an opportunity to intervene in the China-India relationship. The US witnessed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s fruitful visit to India not long before Modi’s visit to the US. China and India have agreed to build a closer developmental partnership.

The United States, India and China are all important players in Asia. It is unlikely that any two countries can unite and exclude a third party. Compatibility rather than competition is in the interests of all the three countries as well as peace and prosperity in the region.

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