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Making friends with the middle

Flexible Asian coalitions that don't include America or China should become a critical element of India’s strategy.

By: C. Raja Mohan and Rory Medcalf

Asia is home to many countries with substantive capabilities; some have long-standing alliances with America, others are traditionally non-aligned.

When External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj sits down with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi on Monday, a widely shared concern in Asia will be at the top of the agenda: How does one deal with an increasingly assertive China and the uncertain dynamic in Beijing’s relations with Washington?

During his visit to New Delhi earlier this month, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel declared, “India need not have to choose between [a] closer partnership with America and improved ties with China.” Hagel added, “In our relations with Beijing, both Delhi and Washington seek to manage competition, but avoid the traps of rivalry.”

Hagel was trying to dispel concerns in Delhi that drawing closer to America is likely to complicate India’s relations with China. Those concerns were seen as responsible for the UPA government’s decision to slow down defence cooperation with the United States.

As America warms up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, China is not sitting back. President Xi Jinping dispatched Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Delhi within days of Modi’s election, and hosted India’s vice president, Hamid Ansari, in Beijing. Xi also met Modi on the margins of the BRICS summit in Fortaleza in July. Modi will receive Xi in Delhi next month and head out to Washington soon after.

Modi is acutely aware that the rise of China is altering the power equation between Washington and Beijing and is testing the region’s inherited security frameworks — alliances, collective security and non-alignment.

Even America’s closest allies must be wondering if Washington will be prepared to defend them against a rising China. Meanwhile, Asia’s hopes of building a collective security system have taken a beating as Beijing turns muscular in its maritime territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Most Asian nations want peaceful relations between Washington and Beijing, but they are also hedging against the new uncertainties in the relationship between America and China. They worry about the constancy of American purpose in Asia. For example, the Obama administration has moved from seeking a degree of accommodation with China to announcing a high-profile pivot to Asia and then a seeming de-emphasis of the rebalance strategy — all in the past six years.

Asians also worry about the combination of America’s continuing preoccupation with the Middle East, the breakdown of post-Cold War understandings with Russia, hints of renewed isolationism and an increasingly dysfunctional domestic polity in Washington. All of this will make the US a less predictable variable in the Asian power calculus.

Many governments in the region weigh the risks of US-China confrontation and conflict. But they must also be pondering a very different long-run scenario, an American accommodation of China that subordinates the interests of many countries in between. Any form of accommodation between the dominant power, the US, and the rising challenger, China, would involve Washington ceding additional space to, and roles for, Beijing in the management of the regional order. This would have been welcome if Beijing’s neighbours were politically comfortable with China’s rise.

Today, they are not. For those in Asia with significant concerns about how Beijing might use its growing power, American support or legitimisation of a larger Chinese role would create strategic anxieties. Asia is home to many countries with substantive capabilities; some of them have long-standing alliances with America, others are traditionally non-aligned. These nations don’t want to put their security at the mercy of the fluctuating relationship between America and China.

Unsurprisingly, there has been growing security cooperation among these countries in the last few years. India, for example, has initiated defence engagement with a large number of countries, including Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia and Singapore, over the years. In a recently published report by the Lowy Institute, Sydney, we argue that India now must turn its tentative defence engagement with Asian nations into a solid web of strategic partnerships, bilateral and trilateral.

Building a set of flexible Asian coalitions that do not include America or China should become a critical element of India’s strategy of coping with the historic power shift in Asia and the uncertain evolution of US-China relations. This would help Delhi relieve the tension in its policy between balancing a rising China and avoiding an entangling alliance with the US.

It will help India deepen ties with the allies of the US as well as non-aligned Asian nations, who are all seeking an extra layer of insurance against the possibility of China’s non-peaceful rise.

Last week’s talks in Delhi between Defence Minister Arun Jaitley and his counterpart from Singapore, Ng Eng Hen, underlined the growing interest in East Asia for stronger security cooperation with India. The NDA government has a historic opportunity to transform India’s defence diplomacy in Asia.

Modi will be travelling to Japan at the end of this month for a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is eager to deepen strategic ties with India. Modi will also host Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is equally bullish on India, in Delhi. Next month will also see President Pranab Mukherjee travelling to Vietnam.

Delhi’s strategic cooperation with these and other Asian middle powers, including Indonesia, is likely to win greater domestic support than an Asian strategy that relies solely on American commitment to maintain the regional balance of power. It will also be less vulnerable to the Chinese campaign that regional security cooperation is merely a part of Washington’s efforts to contain Beijing.

Crafting multiple middle power coalitions as a complement to engaging China and deepening the strategic partnership with America would help strengthen India’s independent role in Asian security. Swaraj, then, must instruct the Indian ambassadors in East Asia, who are gathering in Hanoi this week, to raise the quality and intensity of India’s defence engagement in the region.

Raja Mohan is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’. Medcalf directs the international security programme at the Lowy Institute, Sydney

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