January 16, 2012

The US Pivots to the East: Implications for India

Abhijit Singh

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

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.

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