The Pentagon’s Defense Strategic Review , released in January, recommended a “strategic pivot” to East Asia. A turn away from the military conflagrations that have been occupying America in the Middle East over the last decade, the focus of this long-term pivot is of course a rising China.
If the shift is to be successful, Washington needs a strategic partner to bridge U.S. priorities in East Asia with its enduring concerns in Central Asia. Sitting astride the Indian Ocean, democratic India may be what President Obama has called a “natural” ally—but any alliance must be based on mutual interests. What these are and how they translate into points of cooperation for Washington and New Delhi will largely depend on what unites them: China’s strategy.
China’s Military Strategy
There are two key pillars of China’s strategic expansion, the first based on Beijing’s naval strategy. The energy supplies that fuel China’s economic growth must traverse the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Accordingly, a blockade of its economically vibrant eastern coast, launched from bases in the Philippines, Japan, Guam and Taiwan, is Beijing’s primary external threat. This threat compels Beijing to seek to ensure the security of—and its own extended influence in—those sea lines of communication, particularly in South and Southeast Asia.
China has safeguarded the buffer regions to its north (Manchuria, Mongolia and Siberia) and west (Tibet and East Turkestan/Xinjiang), leaving it with the freedom—and, for the first time in its history, the funds—to invest in a navy that will ensure against such a blockade and pursue naval expansion. This is seen in China’s “String of Pearls” across the South China Sea and Indian Ocean: the Sanya naval base in the South China Sea (replete with area-denial weapons technology), and ports and naval facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Beijing even has plans to develop road and waterways across Myanmar and Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra, respectively, to give China more direct access to the Bay of Bengal and the local militaries that it is refurbishing. Influence in the Indian Ocean also will provide access to theaters further afield, such as the Gulf and Africa. As Drew Thompson writes, “milestones such as the PLA Navy's around-the-world cruise in 2002 and its anti-piracy mission off the African coast indicate that China is looking to operate more globally,” putting Beijing in a place to challenge Washington’s Mahanian navy.
Central Asia is the second geographic thrust of China’s expansion. In 1996, China established what would become the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a mutual security- and economic-engagement organization with the countries of the region. The SCO has facilitated China’s extensive involvement in the region’s hydrocarbons sector, including infrastructure investments in Afghanistan and some of the only regional energy projects to have been given life: a Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline and the Turkmenistan-Xinjiang natural-gas pipeline, both of which enter China through its northwestern border. This orientation has required a heavier Chinese military presence in its western Xinjiang and Tibetan provinces, and arguably even further into Afghanistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. According to Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen, “China is the power of the future in Central Asia,” decisively changing the meaning of America’s decades-long post–Cold War engagement in Eurasia. The challenge from China to America’s dominance in the East and Central Asian theaters as well as its role in Washington’s strategic shift is clear.
India’s Strategic Response
At the geographic and political center of these two spheres lies India. While this fact was essential in Washington’s decision to reverse forty years of history and offer India a nuclear deal, what exactly would this mean for the geopolitics of Asia?
China’s westward expansion immediately affects India on its northeastern border at Arunachal Pradesh, adjacent to Tibet, where Beijing’s access and military presence has increased in recent years—and which is China’s only outstanding border dispute not resolved in favor of the other country. China’s military buildup has ignited an escalating conventional-arms race along McMahon Line demarcating the de factoSino-Indian border, largely supplied by Western defense firms. Yet the United States has never made its position on Arunachal Pradesh clear. Would Washington side with India or intervene on its behalf in the case of a confrontation with China? It may not be in America's interest to involve itself in another major conflict in which it has little at stake. Regardless, as Nitin Pai argues, “nuclear weapons are the New Himalayas that keep [India] secure. As long as they are high—that’s where the minimum credible deterrent comes in—it is inconceivable that China . . . will see merit in mounting a direct military invasion.” India’s recent, successful test of its Agni-V missile, which has a 5,000-kilometer range and can reach Shanghai and Beijing, demonstrates that credible deterrence is, indeed, intact.
Indeed, it is likely that India and China’s strategic competition will take place in other realms, Central Asia being a key one. New Delhi is slowly developing an air base in Tajikistan, and it has established itself as a major investor in Afghanistan and Central Asian energy infrastructures. Most consequentially, India has gained strategically pivotal access to Central Asia by constructing a road from Iran’s Chabahar port on the Arabian Sea to western Afghanistan. This road, along which India is constructing a railway, is shorter and more stable than the two other land routes that pass through Pakistan and connect landlocked Afghanistan to the sea. Importantly, Afghanistan is no longer beholden to Pakistan’s monopoly on its maritime trade, which has been a key enabler of Islamabad’s pernicious influence in Kabul’s affairs.