IDSA COMMENT

The US Pivots to the East: Implications for India

January 16, 2012

The release of the US’ new strategy guidance review on January 3, 2012 is a development of far-reaching strategic consequence for South-East Asia and its immediate neighbourhood, including India. Entitled 'Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense', the document outlines the revised US defence posture with regard to its force deployment in future operations. While making a strong case for “rebalancing towards the East”, it proposes a realignment of US force structure away from Europe, towards the Asia-Pacific – a region it characterizes as being "inextricably" connected with US economic and security interests.

A review of the US’ strategic posture has been in the offing for some time. The first signs of a shift in strategy came in November 2011 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an essay published in the Foreign Policy magazine, listed five focus-areas for a renewed US strategic thrust in the Pacific: bilateral security, deepening working relationships, multilateralism, trade, and human rights and democracy. This was exactly the pitch a month later, when President Obama declared the US’ intention of forging a trans-Pacific trade zone at the Asia Pacific Economic Summit (APEC) and announced a strategic tie-up with Australia. But it was the East Asia summit (EAS) a few days later, and the dissonance on display during the US President’s discussions with the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, that provided proof (if any was needed) that the US had indeed decided to shift its gaze to the East. The review merely formalizes a popular strand of thinking within the US political establishment that the time has come for Washington to follow its own economic interests. More significantly, it indicates a departure from the present US strategy of preparing for war simultaneously on two fronts, instead opting for credible second-region deterrence while already engaged in large-scale operations against the principal adversary.

The review acknowledges upfront that the US must revitalize its trade relations with Southeast Asia. But significantly, there is an underlying assumption that for nations in the Pacific Rim, the promise of American ‘security guarantees’ which accompanies increased cooperation in trade and other spheres, is an assurance much sought after. Indeed, as China marches on relentlessly, there is consternation among nations in South-East Asia over Beijing’s growing military and economic clout. But these countries are also quite happy to feed-off China’s economic growth. Even so, the review presumes that for China’s neighbours, the option of aligning with American interests may be too tempting an ‘insurance policy’ to resist.

To be sure, the document does not hint at any overt confrontation with China. All it purports to do is to give new direction to the US’ strategic vision. That the adversary happens to be China is made to appear as a ‘deductive conclusion’. In keeping with its 'mild' tenor, the language used in articulating deep-held fears concerning China is ‘calibrated’ and the tone ‘measured’. There is a conscious attempt at sounding ‘reasonable’ and ‘fair-minded’ in laying out the new imperatives necessitating a dramatic change in the US strategic posture. So even as the review recognizes the criticality of shifting focus to East Asia, it sets out clearly the rationale for the significant downgrade in the US military presence in Europe – a region, that the review professes, is now in itself a net provider of security.

But the biggest indication of the dilution in the US’ overall geo-strategic posture is the lack of fervour in articulating the policy position in the Middle East. The review enunciates the US’ strategic stance in the region in an unimaginative and pro-forma way, suggesting a reduced American military involvement in the region. In light of the recent developments in the Persian Gulf and Washington’s litany of problems with the regime in Tehran, a more ‘nuanced’ and ‘qualified’ position on Iran would have helped in a clear delineation of US’ strategic intent in the region. Alas, the review only repeats the long-held position on countering Iran’s nuclear programme and challenging the Iranian Navy’s strident posturing in the Persian Gulf. Conceivably, Iran is that ‘second front’ that the US plans only to deter in the future.

The review acknowledges the imprudence of entering into costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and proposes a course-reversal. Creditably, some of its propositions on reducing military presence are “bold” in thought and expression. More importantly, perhaps, they are reflective of serious introspection among US policy-makers over the needlessly high commitment shown by America in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly, the US policy elite now feel that the Afghanistan and Iraq type of engagements are extravagances that their nation can no longer afford to indulge in. The new thinking in Washington appears to be that the Taliban and Haqqani group are not adversaries worthy of full-spectrum engagement by the US, and that American diplomatic and military assets must in the future only be deployed in regions where the country stands to gain economically.

It has been clear for some time that in light of the prevailing bleak fiscal environment, the American military’s external presence will be reduced to significantly lower levels. The Obama administration is set to inflict $500 billion worth of cutbacks on the US defence budget in the next five years. The review suggests that much of this austerity would be directed at the US Army and the Marine Corps. Not surprisingly, the review proposes a leaner, fitter and better-prepared military. But even as it places emphasis on coalition operations, Special Forces deployments and streamlined capabilities, there are tantalizing clues that point to a radical shift away from large-scale operations. In other words, the US’ ‘nation-building’ and ‘stabilizing operations’ will soon be a thing of the past, and its military will conceivably shift focus to a ‘counter-terrorism’ approach - more focused on ‘neutralising hostiles’ and ‘political point-scoring’, than bringing about any long-term change on the ground.

To its credit, the Pentagon team that drafted the document has come up with an honest appraisal of the prevailing geo-strategic dynamic by recognising two fundamental truths; the unstoppable rise of China and the perceptible decline in US economic power. The ‘pivot’ towards East Asia is candidly described as an 'imperative' for America, as it is just that region where the high-trajectory of economic growth lies. It is also, quite simply put, a place too strategically significant for the US to leave to the whims of the regional superpower, China.

The review documents key features that would allow for a decrease in the size of the US overseas deployments, even while laying greater emphasis on future technologies and R&D. This is perhaps driven by the fear of being severely impacted by China’s A2/AD capabilities, a key theme in the US defence discourse. So there are proposals to invest in emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles and cyber security to ensure a more flexible response to emerging threats. This may also be one reason why the US Air Force and Navy may be spared the ill-effects of the budgetary cut-backs as they shoulder many of the cutting-edge technology that the US now proposes to heavily invest in.

For India, the implications of this document are ‘too stark’ and ‘too serious’ to miss. The document is replete with signs of a dramatic change in the balance-of-power in the region – a re-alignment of forces that would demand of India to take sides. One of the clearest signs of the US’ pitch for a strategic compact with India came early this month when Admiral Robert Willard, the US Pacific Fleet Commander, in a keynote address at the Hawaii Military Partnership Conference, spoke about the review and noted that it stressed on building a comprehensive strategic and economic relationship with India. With a long-term strategic partnership with India, he said, the US also wanted New Delhi to support its ability to serve as an "economic anchor" in the Asia Pacific region.

India’s policy elite have surely not been ‘oblivious’ of the tectonic changes occurring in the region. But they have been rather ‘impervious’ to the rapidly emerging equations. For too long, India’s political and diplomatic establishment has been wary of getting into a comprehensive strategic pact with the US. But New Delhi’s inability to figure out China’s long term strategic intent in the region too has been striking.

Needless to say, now is the time for India to undertake a comprehensive appraisal of its strategic options.