Why Does India’s Success Matter to the United States?

Though events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe have recently preoccupied the United States’ foreign policy focus, it is in Asia where its interests are most significant and most at risk. As a region with a number of rapidly developing economies and growing multinational institutions, Asia is coming to have increasing significance in global affairs. Meanwhile, China’s economic rise, military modernization, and increasing regional assertiveness have been met by many in Washington with concern. Recognizing this, the Obama administration has tried to reaffirm and refocus American commitment to the region through its foreign policy “pivot.” Perhaps overlooked in this discussion over the United States’ future in Asia, a discussion often dominated by the U.S.-China dynamic, is the role that India has and will come to play. As the United States and India share a number of security concerns and are working toward a deeper strategic relationship, a successful India can significantly abet American regional foreign policy. Indeed, the U.S.-India relationship will be vital to maintaining a favorable regional balance of power for the United States. Such is why India’s success is so important to the United States, and why recent American administrations have sought to support India’s ascendency in the region.

Doubtlessly, the coming relationship between the United States and China will define the state of world affairs for much of the 21st century. Some see the emergence of structural bipolarity between the United States and China, locked in competition for regional hegemony, as a distinct possibility. Yet in this increasingly globalized and economically interdependent world, a “Cold War” style confrontation between these two states is decidedly outside of their interests. Conflict emergent from Chinese challenges to the balance of power could have disastrous economic consequences for the region and, in turn, the world. As such, in order to preserve the existing balance of power in the region and offset China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, the United States has sought a closer strategic relationship with India. Indian strength and success, it has been reasoned, will serve as an effective balance against a rising China, and represents one of the few options the United States has in preserving its Asian interests. Bolstering Indian strength, and ensuring that India continues to see success in its rise as an economic power and regional player, is thus very much in the United States’ strategic interest.

This is not, however, to say that Indian success is important to the United States only as a means to contain China. Framing the U.S.-Indian relationship as such is counterproductive. Rather, India’s continued success and rise on the global arena should be seen as a way to support the United States’ efforts in solving global problems. Lasting peace in Asia, nuclear proliferation and safety, global climate change, piracy, and crime are all issues which affect both the United States and India; a strong, successful India working in concert with the United States to resolve these issues would be within the long-term interests of both countries. Bolstering India’s clout and capacity to effectively deal with global problems would be a boon to America’s efforts to support a peaceful, stable international environment; India’s success in this area would be quite beneficial to the United States.

Outside of the context of the coming U.S.-China relationship, India’s success supports and will support the United States in a number of ways. India’s relationship with Afghanistan and Iran could greatly abet the United States’ foreign policy goals. India has influence on Iran as a major importer of Iranian oil and an important supplier of their agriculture goods. As a member of Iran’s general neighborhood and a recent member of the global nonproliferation regime, it is in India’s interest to demand Iranian compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program. A more assertive, powerful India could support the United States’ commitment to a non-nuclear Iran by adding an influential voice in the calls for non-proliferation; doing so, after all, is within its interests. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, India provides significant investment in Afghani infrastructure, resource extraction, industries, and education and health. Indian reconstruction in Afghanistan has helped strengthen the legitimacy of the national government in Kabul and has won widespread support from Afghanis. India wishes to see an Afghanistan with durable governance which is capable of maintaining internal security; strife in Afghanistan could create an environment for terrorist groups to threaten India. The United States’ and India’s interests thus align in the case of Afghanistan, and India has the clout and local support necessary to play a significant role in supporting those interests. As such, India’s continued success and continued proactive policies of engagement in Afghanistan are of major help to the United States’ global counter-terrorism effort.

It is clear that India’s success is thus very important to the United States. Discussed here were the various geopolitical reasons for why Indian success matters to the U.S., but a multitude of other reasons exist as well. Indian economic success would give room for deeper trade relations with the U.S., more American investment, and, in turn, would support the growth and development of both countries’ economies. India’s success as a regional space power will likely come to support the United States’ space programs, will bring tangible benefits to millions of Indians, and will serve as an effective counter to China’s increasing ambitions for outer space. As the world’s largest democracy, success in the political realm through combating corruption and strengthening institutions can reaffirm the U.S.-supported democratic model of governance against China’s increasingly attractive single-party model. Bolstering India’s growth and seeing to its continued success should thus be a continuing policy for the United States. After all, as President Obama made note of, the relationship between India and the U.S. could become “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

Who Will Dominate Asia in the Coming Decade?

The Asia-Pacific today is characterized by a mixture of intergovernmental organizations, alliance blocs, and individual states of varying levels of strength, organization, and regional clout. Indeed, the Asia-Pacific as a region perhaps stands alone in the world for the extent to which the complex interplay of these various actors influences, and is influenced by, regional dynamics. Ultimately, it is difficult to predict which of these actors will come to dominate the region over the next decade. As stated, their development and regional position are all influenced to varying degrees by changes in regional dynamics. In the event of a belligerently rising China, for example, the region may come to be dominated by a bipolarity of alliance blocs. Alternatively, should regional prosperity and interconnectedness continue to grow, it may come to be dominated by intergovernmental organizations. Nonetheless, taking into consideration general regional trends, a basic prediction for the next decade can be made: the Asia-Pacific of 2024 will likely be characterized by the dominance of individual states, yet within a broad alliance bloc/treaty framework.

The Asia-Pacific is a rising region in which various states, such as China, Japan, and South Korea, are becoming increasingly more economically, militarily, and internationally powerful and significant. At the same time, the United States, which has largely dominated the region over the last half century, is experiencing a gradual decline. Even if the decline of the United States is overstated, as it often may be, the extent of its power relative to the rising states of the Asia-Pacific is narrowing. In light of this, the states of the Asia-Pacific are becoming more comfortable with and more willing to craft their own foreign policy goals and intentions, and are more capable of unilaterally engaging the regional and international community. Considering the complex interdependence and interconnectedness which has emerged in the region, individual states are beginning to reevaluate longstanding economic and security relationships and are starting to develop new ones in order to preserve their continued economic growth. Meanwhile, because of the security threats manifest from the rise of powers such as China, they are starting to come into arrangements which balance or “hedge” against potential threats. No longer is the character of international relations in the Asia-Pacific dominated by the United States and its alliance system; rather, it is coming to be dominated by the actions and interactions of rising regional states.

That said, the United States’ alliance system still serves as a framework in which this balancing takes place, and still plays a prominent role in the region. States that have traditionally been allied with the United States, such as Japan and South Korea, still look to it for protection against an increasingly hegemonic China, and such is likely to be the case in the next decade. Though these states may be more willing to make their own unilateral foreign policy goals and decisions, such decisions are likely to fall within the foreign policy interests of the American alliance system. Seeking a degree of protection against China, these states will turn to the American alliance bloc; as of yet, there is no other real option. Meanwhile, states which have historically fallen outside of the American alliance system may seek to join it as a strategy to “hedge” against China. Even if such a decision is taken by a state solely to maintain its own position instead of supporting the alliance, it will nonetheless reinforce the significance the American alliance bloc plays in the region. At the same time, China is seeking to foster its own close security and economic ties with various states in order to create a counter to the American alliance system. To a large extent, China is doing so in order to buoy its own strength against the United States. As such, a broad alliance framework is likely to be the method through which individual states will dominate the region.

Thus, rising states in the Asia-Pacific will likely come to dominate it in the next decade. As they seek to continue their economic and military growth, they are likely to forge their own foreign policy goals and unilaterally take action. Each state is now more actively making security calculations, and accordingly is now more willing to break old arraignments or make new ones in order to preserve that security. Yet, despite this coming dominance of individual states, they will likely still fall within a system of alliances blocs. These alliance blocs, such as the American alliance system or a future Chinese alliance system, provide individual states with a degree of security and support that they cannot and would not receive if alone. Accordingly, alliance blocs will still maintain a position of dominance in the Asia-Pacific, and, if not, will at the very least help individual states come to dominate the region.

The Asia-Pacific’s Most Significant Security Threat

The Asia-Pacific today is a region facing a diverse array of security challenges and issues, yet none appear to pose a significant and immediate threat to continued regional stability. Undoubtedly, issues such as piracy, terrorism, and climate change are present in the region; indeed, piracy is quite rampant in the Strait of Malacca, a major global shipping route, and acts of terrorism can be seen in the 2002 Bali bombings and the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway. Yet, despite these issues, they are not immediately pressing, and are being proactively dealt with: ultimately, regional piracy affects only a limited amount of global shipping, the region has taken active steps to countering terrorism through multilateral security arraignments and support from the United States, and the worst affects of climate change are decades away. Instead, the most important security threat facing the region today may not be an intrastate or transnational issue, but rather an interstate one. This may seem paradoxical – as a region “locked into” long-standing and stagnated international disputes, such as territorial disputes over the Senkaku islands and South China Sea, there seems to be no immediate chance for interstate conflict. Yet states in the region, especially China, have recently escalated their rhetoric involving such disputes, and have engaged in military “saber-rattling” over them. Such conditions present the opportunity for a serious security issue, that of unintended escalation into direct interstate conflict.

States “slipping” into conflict, or coming close to doing so, is not without historical precedent. One need only look at the Cuban Missile Crisis to see how military escalation and “saber rattling” over a source of diplomatic tension can bring two states to the brink of conflict, even when their leaderships have calculated that conflict is outside of their national interests. Scholars of security studies acknowledge that, though a state’s overall foreign policy goals, intentions, and actions are at the discretion of that state’s upper leadership, the “tangibles on the ground,” especially involving military action, are often under the command of the immediate military leadership. As such, military activity that brings two states into escalating levels conflict may occur if the military leadership in the immediate area of that conflict allows it do so. In the case of the Asia-Pacific, for example, a standoff between Japanese and Chinese warships in the South China Sea may escalate into conflict if the commanders of those ships unilaterally decide to conduct, or are forced to react to, a show of force. Alternatively, the circumstances of a situation may push the militaries of two states into a position of increasing hostility and tension. For example, a 2001 crash involving an American military surveillance aircraft and a Chinese warplane, which was tailing the American aircraft, quickly became a heated and tense issue between the two states, one which offered the potential for an escalation into military conflict.

Of course, as the example of the 2001 warplane crash demonstrates, the escalation of a conflict on a low level may not necessarily push two states into broader conflict and war. Yet, considering the circumstances of the region today, it seems increasingly possible that such might be the case. The states participating in territorial disputes, especially China and Japan over the South China Sea, have come to espouse strong rhetoric over those disputes. As these states’ governments increase their rhetoric, the increasingly premise their legitimacy upon a successful resolution to the issue which is within their favor. For the Chinese government, success in the South China Sea will demonstrate that the Communist Party has lifted China into a position of regional power, has made the country militarily strong, and has restored China as a rightful hegemon. For the Japanese government, success in the South China Sea demonstrates that it can successfully contain and curtail the threatening rise of China. As such, failure on the part of either state to accomplish its territorial goals will amount to the premise of what those goals are built around being delegitimized. Yet, because these goals have become a prominent part of these states’ rhetorical positions, and have become significant parts of their national perceptions and understandings, it is becoming increasingly difficult for those states to back away from the issue. Accordingly, should conflict begin to escalate on a low level, these states may be left with no better choice than to escalate it to a broader extent.

In the case of China and Japan, it may be that, should a military skirmish break out in the South China Sea, both states will need to escalate militarily in order to “save face” domestically and maintain their rhetorical position internationally. The Chinese Communist government cannot afford to back away from the South China Sea, especially after it has premised its continued governance on its ability to raise China to a position of prominence. The Japanese government cannot afford to allow China a victory in the South China Sea, thereby confirming the Japanese peoples’ fears of a rising China. The leaderships of these states have decided that it is more within their interest to escalate these territorial disputes to the brink of conflict instead of actually resolving them through conflict; however, should events spiral out of their control and conflict escalate beyond their intentions, they may be left with little option but to escalate further. A potential war between China and Japan would be devastating for regional stability and prosperity; as such, the potential for these states to slip into conflict, which seems more and more likely considering the extent to which they will “saber-rattle” and the character of their rhetoric, is perhaps the most significant security issue facing the region today.