Continental and maritime in US-India relations

Author: Evan Feigenbaum, CFR

With President Obama having visited New Delhi earlier this month, it seems like a good time to ask why Washington and New Delhi remain so burdened, even imprisoned, by continental preoccupations.

To Americans, India can be a real jumble of contradictions. It is a maritime nation—strategically situated near key chokepoints—but with a continental strategic tradition. It is a nation of illustrious mercantile traditions but for decades walled off large swaths of its economy. Much has changed, principally because rapid economic growth has allowed India to break from the confining shackles of South Asia. India is again an Asian player, better integrated into the East Asian economic system. And it has a growing capacity to influence the wider Asian balance of power.

So, here’s my question: Given all that change, why are the US and India so bogged down in (and over) continental Asia?

At one level, I suppose, it’s unavoidable: Pakistan’s choices complicate American policies. And elements of Washington’s partnership with Islamabad clearly complicate Indian policies too.

What is more, President Obama is determined to extricate the United States from Afghanistan. And the timing and manner of US withdrawal will affect Indian strategic interests—and quite possibly leave India holding the bag.

The president needs to address this, not least because disagreements over his administration’s policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a principal obstacle to strengthened US-India relations since he took office. Many in India remain deeply sceptical of his approach. And better aligning expectations and objectives could do much to strengthen the US-India partnership.

But it is maritime, not continental, Asia that is now the world’s centre of economic and geopolitical gravity. So at a moment when India’s own foreign policy has burst the confining boundaries of its South Asian strategic geography, Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would do well to focus greater attention there—and perhaps search for a new ‘big idea’ by connecting several policy initiatives across a series baskets, including energy, seaborne trade, finance, the global commons, and regional architecture.

Continental Asia has been an arena for US-India disagreement, even rancor. But maritime Asia offers natural affinities of interest—and the opportunity to turn common interests into complementary policies.

Just take the sea-lanes: It is an arena of mutual interest. It is an arena that raises questions about how to reconcile claims of sovereignty with the need to assure public goods. And it is an arena that will test China’s rise as a stakeholder in global order. When Beijing talks loudly about sovereign rights and claims, the US and India should speak loudly—and together—about international rights and customs.

Indeed, this is precisely the sort of issue that my friend, Raja Mohan, has argued could become central to building a more encompassing US-India partnership. As Raja has Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.

Likewise, in the regional architecture space. For instance, now that the US has decided to join the East Asia Summit, where India is already a member, the very least the two can do together is to try to build in some real capabilities. As I’ve argued before [LINK], EAS needs to do something. And with the US and India, as well as other major Asian powers present, EAS at least has the virtue of including the right players. Inevitably, US and Indian membership in EAS will reduce the role of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)–one of the few Asian groups where Washington and New Delhi have had the opportunity to work together in the past. And perhaps the recent ARF meeting in Hanoi—where 12 nations offered complementary perspectives and approaches to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea—offers an example for EAS of how to make political discussions current and meaningful. It’s a model that won’t sit well with Beijing, to be sure. But at least EAS would, in time, become more than just another leaders’ group-grope. The US and India can help to assure that.

Evan A. Feigenbaum is head of the Asia practice group at the Eurasia Group and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article was first posted here by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound blog.