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Continental and Maritime in U.S.-India Relations

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
November 1, 2010

The Indian financial newspaper, Business Standard, has published my latest “DC Diary” column.  With President Obama landing in New Delhi this week, it seemed like a good time to ask why Washington and New Delhi remain so burdened, even imprisoned, by continental preoccupations.

To Americans, India can be a real jumble of contradictions.  It is a maritime nation—strategically situated near key chokepoints—but with a continental strategic tradition.  It is a nation of illustrious mercantile traditions but for decades walled off large swaths of its economy.

Much has changed, principally because rapid economic growth has allowed India to break from the confining shackles of South Asia.  India is again an Asian player, better integrated into the East Asian economic system.  And it has a growing capacity to influence the wider Asian balance of power.

So, here’s my question:  Given all that change, why are the U.S. and India so bogged down in (and over) continental Asia?

At one level, I suppose, it’s unavoidable:  Pakistan’s choices complicate American policies.  And elements of Washington’s partnership with Islamabad clearly complicate Indian policies too.

What is more, President Obama is determined to extricate the United States from Afghanistan.  And the timing and manner of U.S. withdrawal will affect Indian strategic interests—and quite possibly leave India holding the bag.

The president needs to address this, not least because disagreements over his administration’s policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a principal obstacle to strengthened U.S.-India relations since he took office.  Many in India remain deeply skeptical of his approach.  And better aligning expectations and objectives could do much to strengthen the U.S.-India partnership.

But it is maritime, not continental, Asia that is now the world’s center of economic and geopolitical gravity.  So at a moment when India’s own foreign policy has burst the confining boundaries of its South Asian strategic geography, Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would do well to focus greater attention there—and perhaps search for a new “big idea” by connecting several policy initiatives across a series baskets, including energy, seaborne trade, finance, the global commons, and regional architecture.

Continental Asia has been an arena for U.S.-India disagreement, even rancor.  But maritime Asia offers natural affinities of interest—and the opportunity to turn common interests into complementary policies.

Just take the sea-lanes:  It is an arena of mutual interest.  It is an arena that raises questions about how to reconcile claims of sovereignty with the need to assure public goods.  And it is an arena that will test China’s rise as a stakeholder in global order.   When Beijing talks loudly about sovereign rights and claims, the U.S. and India should speak loudly—and together—about international rights and customs.

Indeed, this is precisely the sort of issue that my friend, Raja Mohan, has argued could become central to building a more encompassing U.S.-India partnership.  As Raja has nicely put it, cooperation on the regional and global commons “has the potential to connect India’s traditional universalism with its new responsibilities as a rising power and further enhance its relationship with the United States.”

In short, maritime spaces, not continental ones, seem the more promising place to define a shared vision of Asia’s future.  So the U.S. and India could look to a series of new ideas in each of these various baskets:

In the commons:  new cooperation in the naval, air, space, and cyber domains, including enhanced exercises, bureaucratic coordination, and Indian membership in efforts such as the U.S. Megaports program or Proliferation Security Initiative.

In the economic and financial space:  a Bilateral Investment Treaty, U.S. support for Indian membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum as the moratorium on new members expires, and perhaps even eventual association with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

There are a variety of overlapping ideas in the energy space, and India already participates with the U.S. in regional groups, such as the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.

Likewise, in the regional architecture space.  For instance, now that the U.S. has decided to join the East Asia Summit, where India is already a member, the very least the two can do together is to try to build in some real capabilities. As I’ve argued on this blog before, EAS needs to do something.  And with the U.S. and India, as well as other major Asian powers present, EAS at least has the virtue of including the right players.  Inevitably, U.S. and Indian membership in EAS will reduce the role of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)–one of the few Asian groups where Washington and New Delhi have had the opportunity to work together in the past.  And perhaps the recent ARF meeting in Hanoi—where 12 nations offered complementary perspectives and approaches to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea—offers an example for EAS of how to make political discussions current and meaningful.  It’s a model that won’t sit well with Beijing, to be sure. But at least EAS would, in time, become more than just another leaders’ group-grope.  The U.S. and India can help to assure that.

Do check out my column in the Business Standard.  And for a broader set of prescriptive ideas for Obama’s visit, including some in these various baskets, take a look at the new report of a bipartisan study group on U.S.-India relations, issued by the Center for a New American Security.  I participated in this group, chaired by Richard Armitage and Nicholas Burns and directed by Richard Fontaine.

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Kamal Kishore

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Sandeep Bhardwaj

    I liked the idea of moving from continental to maritime vision but in my opinion it is not practical for the short-term given Indian geo-strategic mindset. With tremendous amount of energy spent worrying over Pakistan and the growing threat perception of China, India is bound to keep looking north towards Asia. Moreover, New Delhi sees Tibet and not South China Sea as the primary theater of threat.

    Consequently, while India is getting involved extensively in maritime activities and South East and East Asia, it all bureaucratic motions. The real leadership is still spending all its time and energy in looking up towards the continental Asia.

    A true US-India partnership will, therefore, have to be continental until there is a drastic change in New Delhi thinking.

  • Posted by neel123

    The issue has been in discussion for some time now, that the US wants India to cooperate on larger global issues, while its policies in India’s immediate neighborhood directly affects India’s security.

    From the point of view of an ordinary Indian, it is simply a ploy to corner the Indian defense and nuclear deals on offer worth billions of dollars in the name of strategic partnership, while pumping in the profits to bolster Pakistan’s military against India. This would mean that India would actually fight the Americans in any conflict with Pakistan. This is not acceptable to India, while the so called US-India strategic dialogue takes place at regular interval.

    The bottom line is, to state bluntly, the US can not have India as well as Pakistan, as long as Pakistan is hostile to India.

    The key is to bring about a fundamental change in Pakistani Army’s policies in the region, through what ever means.

  • Posted by Don

    > So, here’s my question: Given all that change, why are the U.S. and India so bogged down in (and over) continental Asia?

    That’s right — Pakistan’s choices do complicate both American and Indian policies. Pakistan has been covertly getting closer to China. There’s a failure on part of the US (even after all that financial aid) and India (diplomatically) in preventing Pakistan from getting too cozy with the Chinese. What’s interesting is that Pakistan’s national interests (including energy security) converge with those of the US and India, not China. Pakistan, simply ‘cos of its strategic location, will remain a geopolitical game changer. The focus on continental Asia we’re witnessing is a direct result of that. Pakistan is also well-known for taking US aid with one hand and undermining US interests with the other. So what we are seeing is a continuation of Pakistan’s long double game. Unless, a US-India partnership definitively resolves continental issues (including Afghanistan and Pakistan), maritime collaboration is moot.

  • Posted by Chandrashekar Mudraganam

    It is an interesting idea worth exploring. But keeping the ground realities and history in mind, India’s security perception currently is limited by its focus on Pakistan and China. Pakistan will not dare to take on India directly due to the consequences and China, although being India’s largest trading partner, supports Pakistan to check India’s rise. US-India cooperation on maritime Asia can be a balancing act to China’s growing influence in the region. In the years to come these three countries will be the major powers in the Indian Ocean region. China is already in pursuit of developing a “string of pearls” to checkmate India in South Asia and would try to do all it takes to pin India to a sub-regional status.

    Over the next few decades, the Indian Ocean will replace the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as the main maritime theater due to the rise of Asia. US-India interests converge in ensuring the Indian Ocean Region remains free for international commerce and limit the influence of China.

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