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.
This new route from Chabahar is arguably the most efficient transit route to Central Asia. Though it is primarily aimed at accessing Afghan and Central Asian natural resources, Thomas Barfield argues that “India now has the capacity to dispatch troops and supplies directly to Afghanistan via Iran if it chooses to do so. Should the United States decide to withdraw from Afghanistan, India may well be tempted to step in to preempt the possibility of a Taliban takeover.” The new Indian-constructed link “may change regional power dynamics” in Central Asia.
In the maritime realm, China’s entry into the Indian Ocean, India’s traditional strategic space, has raised red flags in New Delhi. Its response is of increasing consequence. In addition to serving as a de facto coast guard to some of the island nations off the coast of eastern Africa, India is developing a blue-water navy replete with nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers—and shifting much of its navy to its eastern command on the Bay of Bengal in anticipation of a larger Chinese footprint.
In fact, it is here that any Indian advantage over China would be most pronounced. India’s Port Blair, on the Andaman Islands, lies at the western mouth of the Strait of Malacca. Malacca is, of course, one of the most trafficked waterways on the Indian Ocean, connecting the Indian Ocean to the Pacific—and East Asia to energy, raw materials and consumer markets. If push comes to shove, India’s naval base at Port Blair enables New Delhi to interdict trade through Malacca—or the activities of other Chinese assets in the Bay of Bengal—and push back against Beijing’s presence in the region.
Yet to make sure it does not come to that, New Delhi is using its “Look East” policy to keep Beijing’s South China Sea vulnerability alive and to balance against China’s “String of Pearls” with its own set of alliances. This includes efforts to partner with Singapore, Myanmar and ASEAN, strengthen Vietnam’s naval defenses, and join forces with Japan and Australia to police the area where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet.
A “Natural” Alliance?
Obama’s choice to unveil his Pacific Ocean strategy in Darwin, Australia, demonstrates how America’s broad strategic goals align with India’s. Indeed, the Indian and American militaries—particularly their navies—arguably have been far more coordinated than any other bureaucracy since their “natural” alliance was solidified with the 2006 nuclear deal. And given the liabilities of U.S. dependence on the Pakistani military—the flourishing of Islamist militants, unfettered nuclear proliferation and a volatile, undemocratic AfPak region—the United States may see India’s Chabahar route to Afghanistan as a better long-term solution to the stabilization of Central Asia.
At the moment, the issue of Iran is one place where New Delhi and Washington diverge. Others are Washington’s frustration with India’s positions on democratic interventionism, global trade and tactics for dealing with nuclear proliferation. And even when there is agreement in longer-term strategic issues such as balancing China, analysts in New Delhi fear American fickleness and myopia in their implementation.
But as Washington moves from the post-post–Cold War to the twenty-first-century world, it will begin to reassess not only strategies but also the tactical dogmas that underlie them. That will take more than a document. For one, Washington ought to enlist New Delhi’s help to engage Iran toward shared strategic aims in Central Asia, much as it reversed course with Myanmar and even Vietnam after their bitter histories.
While America tries to take on the “dragon,” it cannot overlook the “elephant” in the continent—and all it might bring.