Two years ago, in testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, retired marine, General James N. Mattis, had called for an expansion of the United States’ naval and expeditionary budgets, laying out his vision of how to tame the rising dragon. “While our efforts in the Pacific to keep positive relations with China are well and good,” he warned, “these efforts must be paralleled by a policy to build the counterbalance if China continues to expand its bullying role in the South China Sea and elsewhere. That counterbalance must deny China veto power over territorial, security and economic conditions in the Pacific.” Now, as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Pentagon, General Mattis has begun to lay out the architecture for that counterbalance — and India has a key role. “India, Australia, Japan and several of the Gulf Cooperation Council states are key partners for addressing the security challenges in the region,” he said during his confirmation hearings, “and it is my view that increasing our security assistance and military-to-military engagement with strategically positioned nations such as these is essential.”
For the Narendra Modi government, these will be welcome words of reassurance. In September 2014, he had told business leaders in Japan that “the world is divided in two camps”, in remarks read to refer to China’s territorial disputes with Japan. “One camp believes in expansionist policies, while the other believes in development,” he said. India’s relationship with China, initially hopeful, have entered a steady, downward spiral, with Beijing blackballing New Delhi’s efforts to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and providing Pakistan growing comfort on terrorism.
New Delhi’s legitimate frustrations with Beijing, though, ought not lead it into a too-quick embrace of a US-led military alliance in Asia — something a growing chorus of voices are throwing their weight behind. For one, it is far from clear what gains might accrue from being locked into an Australia-India-Japan-US maritime alliance in the Pacific; indeed, the more likely consequence could be China escalating tensions along its disputed borders with India, as it has done in the South China Seas. The partnership might give India gains in military technology but that, by its mere existence, is unlikely to deter small wars and conflicts on the China-India border. It is legitimate to argue that India has often cast Chinese intentions as policy as benign on the basis of little evidence. To rashly jump, however, into the battle for primacy in the Pacific, might be risk too much for too little gain. In uncertain times, great reflection must precede action; the price of miscalculation, after all, could be more than India is willing to pay.