While China continues to flex its growing military muscle in Asia, India’s cultivating allies and building up its military kit in a way that poses a serious threat to Chinese power in the region that few others there can match.
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, smiles as he talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, during a reception in the Mughal Gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace in New Delhi, India, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015.
While the American people remain distracted by goings on in the Middle East, recent events in Sri Lanka provide a reminder that the new great game in Asia continues regardless of whether we are paying attention. The latest chapter in the swiftly changing geopolitics of this combustible region began last September, when a Chinese Song-class submarine paid a visit to the Colombo International Container Terminal, a facility constructed through loans made available by Beijing. What followed is a quick lesson in just how effective Washington’s efforts to fight China to the last Indian have become.
The port call, timed to coincide with a visit to Sri Lanka by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, made waves not just because it was the first sub from China to pay a visit to the country, but because it highlighted Beijing’s growing clout in the Indian Ocean. It built upon Beijing’s long-standing policy to increase its naval presence there, plus more recent statements out of China that its navy would soon be sending nuclear-powered attack submarines to augment China’s Indian Ocean patrols. This has even sparked fears in India that Beijing might also post ballistic missile submarines and their nuclear arsenals to areas just off the subcontinent’s coasts.
Flexing its muscles further, another Chinese submarine and its support vessel followed up the original port call in October, garnering intense criticism from India — which believes China is trying not just to muscle in on what New Delhi considers its ocean, but to surround the subcontinent with a string of bases that aim to neutralize Indian influence. As evidence, India has pointed to signals from Beijing — although some analysts dispute their seriousness — that in support of this effort China may establish a fourth fleet to augment the three currently deployed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy to defend Chinese territorial waters. This fourth fleet, though, would be deployed into the disputed South China Sea through to the Indian Ocean.
In the months following the Chinese sub visit to Sri Lanka, India and its allies turned up the heat on Colombo. Japan immediately warned Sri Lanka against striking up too close a friendship with Beijing, while India, which occupied parts of Sri Lanka for three years during the 1980s, may have actually organized an electoral coup against the sitting president, who lost a snap election in January. Then, nailing home the message, Washington sent its assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asia to tell the Sri Lankans that the United States would be moving on another resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council on war crimes committed by the government during that country’s recently concluded civil war.
Sri Lanka folded like a cheap suit. Shortly after assuming office the new Sri Lankan government announced it would send a delegation to Beijing to discuss “concerns” Colombo had regarding the $5 billion in loans China had extended to it. This was followed by a Sri Lankan declaration that it will not allow foreign submarines, which nicely includes those from China, to dock in its waters. Rocked by this swift reversal of fortune, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country will be more “open minded” about Beijing and New Delhi’s mutual relationship with Sri Lanka — diplomatic code for acknowledging China would for the time being back off from efforts to pull the strategic island into a Chinese orbit.
India, however, isn’t about to let up the pressure to kick China out of what it considers its own backyard. New Delhi announced last month that it may sign a nuclear energy cooperation agreement with its island neighbor, while the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament, increased the Indian defense budget by 11 percent to $40 billion. This money will go toward a variety of weapons systems, including Japanese and Russian submarines, domestically-built surface warships, and a growing array of U.S.-sourced military items, including attack and naval helicopters and technology related to building aircraft carriers. In fact, India of late has become the biggest purchaser of American arms, edging out Saudi Arabia, and has replaced Russia with the U.S. as its primary source of foreign weapons.
A profitable friendship
These developments point to the growing reliance of the U.S. on what is both its newest and most important ally in Asia. Prior to all these events in Sri Lanka, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was in India in August touting cooperation between New Delhi and Washington, including the possible joint development and productions of arms.
Hagel’s visit was followed up by a visit by President Obama in January. Before jetting off to attend the funeral of the late Saudi King Abdullah, the president broke a log-jam over further U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation. This is critical for India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as it allows the country to begin upgrading and expanding its reactor fleet — a move that U.S. suppliers will naturally benefit from.
However, the strategic benefits are more important than the economic gains that will come from cooperating with a country now growing faster than China. Although the U.S. has strengthened its presence in the Pacific and has solid alliances with a host of countries which are arming themselves to the teeth in order to counterbalance growing Chinese assertiveness, the reality is that all of them combined, except for Japan, count for little in the balance of military power between the U.S. and China. They are all either too small or too far away to provide meaningful support. Aside from providing geographic access to China’s side of the Pacific for U.S. ships and aircraft, they can do little to actually influence a conflict between the two should one occur. This is concerning because China’s rapid growth means it could soon have more local naval power in East Asia than the U.S., despite ongoing attempts by Washington to balance China militarily.
India is different, though, which is why the U.S. has been courting the country so assiduously for the past several years. For one, India is a nuclear power that is developing missiles capable of hitting most parts of China. For another, India, like China, is huge in both population and geographic extent. Although India might not yet be as rich as China, India will eventually catch up, meaning that India’s current and most especially future military potential poses a significant challenge to Chinese security and does so in an area that counts: continental Asia. Whereas the U.S. and its allies along the East Asian littoral are a maritime challenge at best, India and its long border with China pose an actual threat to China’s territorial integrity in a way that only comes via sharing an actual land border. Indeed, the two fought a war over territory that India lost in 1962.
Birds of a feather
As important, India’s rise and the ascension of Hindu nationalism there in recent elections give the U.S. an important ideological ally. New Delhi is increasingly moving away from its founding beliefs of socialist, non-interventionist, Third-World solidarity and toward one more akin to how a nationalist, neo-liberal great power acts. As such, Washington perceives India as a non-revisionist power that does not seek to undermine the current U.S.-led world system. This basic agreement even extends to mutual concern over containing perceived aggression from Islamic extremists and Muslim-majority states that view New Delhi, like Washington, as a center of anti-Muslim imperialism.
Accordingly, New Delhi has also developed important ties to Israel, which includes extensive cooperation on arms and missile defenses. While India still periodically votes against Israel at the United Nations in order to pay lip service to its founding anti-colonialist beliefs and to placate its huge Muslim population, the ruling Hindu nationalists have begun to block Lok Sabha votes condemning Israeli actions at home, while Indian elites themselves are beginning to more openly admit to the existence of a growing axis of interest between India and Israel: two states that not only perceive that they have similar enemies, but view each other as democracies stuck in a tough neighborhood and, as a result, are forced to act accordingly — as India’s alleged actions in regards to Sri Lanka demonstrate.
As a result of all this it’s perhaps best to think of India not as a member of the developing world, but as something akin to the U.S. during much of the 19th and early 20th centuries: an essentially Western giant that had not yet grown into a world power but is nonetheless sowing its oats abroad. There are important differences, of course, but as India becomes richer and more self-confident amid its modernization, these basic affinities with the U.S. and the West as it is currently organized will grow. As for what that will mean for world politics going forward, watch this space.