Last month, I had the privilege of taking part in a Track 1.5 strategic dialogue on Indo-U.S. relations. Held in New Delhi, the gathering was an unabashed success, and the richness and candor of the discussions aptly reflected the renewed momentum of the bilateral relationship. Over the course of the event, much mention was made of Obama’s recent visit, and of one document in particular: the U.S. India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.
Shortly after having completed my presentation on Indo-U.S. cooperation in the Indian Ocean, I was asked a pointed question by a retired Indian Navy Admiral. Should India, queried the Admiral, read more deeply into both governments’ decision to jointly reference the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? More specifically, did this mean that the United States would provide military assistance to India in the event of a Sino-Indian naval confrontation in maritime Southeast Asia?
As the distinguished veteran concluded his remarks, I could almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from some of the U.S. government participants. Thank God, they were no doubt thinking, that this question was addressed to a non-government employee. I found myself compelled, however, to give the vague and somewhat bureaucratic response that any U.S. official would have made.
Much would depend, naturally, on the circumstances of the incident, and whether China was clearly perceived as the aggressor. But, I added, one must not forget that while India was a valued strategic partner of the United States, it was not an ally. Strategic partnerships, however tight and wide-ranging they may appear, do not come with the binding security guarantees that traditionally characterize alliance structures.
And therein lies the rub. Even though the Indo-U.S. entente is perhaps this century’s single most important bilateral relationship, with the greatest potential to positively shape the Asian security environment, it is not-nor will it ever be-a formalized alliance. The reasons for this singular state of affairs are well known.
Indeed, since independence, New Delhi’s grand strategy has always been coterminous with a quest for greater strategic autonomy, and with a solid aversion for any form of partnership that could lead to entanglement. This autonomy is perceived as a key enabler, allowing India to practice a “multi-vectored” diplomacy that maximizes freedom of maneuver, while minimizing the risks of friction that could flow from more solidified alignments.
Historical studies have pointed to the inherent plasticity of any successful grand strategy. This is something that India’s foremost strategists have fully interiorized, with a much-discussed-and unfairly lampooned-2012 study placing a strong emphasis on subtlety over “narrow linear narratives about what serves our (India’s) national interest,” in a world which is described as both fragmented and in flux. India’s grand strategy, the authors pursue, “will require a skillful management of complicated coalitions and opportunities in environments that may be inherently unstable and volatile rather than structurally settled.”
As India’s growth in wealth, influence and power becomes more manifest, it has presented the United States with a unique form of diplomatic challenge. While Chinese nationalists have argued in favor of a “new model of great power relations,” India’s political leadership seeks, first and foremost, a new model of strategic partnership. This partnership may come to yield a number of rich dividends in the defense realm, in terms of technology and intelligence sharing, joint training, or arms sales. Yet singularly absent are the most important components of any alliance—a clear strategic direction, and a sense of reciprocal security commitments and/or guarantees.
India may, according to some reports, hold more joint military exercises with the United States than any other country, but nobody quite knows the conditions under which Indian jawans and U.S. grunts would find themselves crouching in the same foxhole.