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Consequences of Obama's 'Asia Pivot'

03/18/2013 02:20 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2013
  • Franz-Stefan Gady Senior Fellow, EastWest Institute; Editor, The Diplomat Magazine; Occasional Conflict Reporter

In the kaleidoscopic world of power politics in Asia, the United States' pivot to that region may yield the unintentional consequences of fostering closer strategic ties between the two Asian giants -- China and India -- which could result in a strategic alliance ostensibly hostile to Western interests in the region.

Analysts will be quick to point out that the 'all weather friendship' between the two countries, has hit a natural ceiling due to the strategic competition between the (re)emerging powers. For example, China is deepening its ties with Pakistan militarily (both countries signed a military cooperation agreement in September 2012), provides nuclear support, and has finally taken over management of the port of Gwadar on Pakistan's Makran coast. India on the other hand is trying to counter China's influence in Asia by fostering closer ties with the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially in the field of naval cooperation, which adversely affects China's position in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Both countries' increasing energy demands also put the two giants on a collision course.

Yet, a 'diplomatic revolution' may be in the making should the United States decide to overplay its hand during President Obama's second term. The United States assigns a key role to India in its turn towards Asia, which in almost its entirety is aimed at balancing China's influence in the region. Nevertheless, as India's former Foreign Secretary, Kanwal Sibal, points out: "India is already distancing itself from the pivot by the notable friendly discourse towards China." The reasons for this are complex, yet they are in large part based on the gradual waning of U.S. influence in the region and the fact that geographical proximity between India and China mandates some sort of rapprochement for the sake of both countries' economic development.

The original 'diplomatic revolution' occurred in 1756 on the eve of the Seven Year's War between France and the Austrian Empire. In a reversal of alliances, Austria abandoned its long-term ally, Great Britain, for its most formidable continental rival, France, thereby breaking with its traditional foreign policy doctrine. The principal reason was Austria's gradual realization that Britain, primarily a sea power, could or would not adequately be able to support its ally militarily in a new European war. Great Britain's real diplomatic ambitions were overseas.

The Austro-French alliance was in many ways counterproductive and an unhappy experience for both countries. Because of their divergent interests and continuing rivalry, both parties paralyzed each other, and they could not effectively cooperate during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Dr. Marco Cesa in his book "Allies Yet Rivals - International Politics in 18th Century Europe" referred to the Austro-French alliance as a "deadlocked alliance," in which both parties decided to "preserve their union, since their alliance gave each a means with which to control the other, and also because without such an alliance they would probably have ended up fighting each other." Paul W. Schroeder called this a "pact for management and mutual restraint of one's partner, not for capability aggregation and aggrandizement."

Similar to Austria's realization in 1756, India may think that she is better off seeking closer ties to a continental military power and a neighbor, rather than an Asia Pacific sea power such as the United States, which may not have the stomach to compete with China's power projection capabilities on mainland Asia. However, should China and India move closer together, the result in all likelihood will be a form of a deadlocked alliance in which both countries, similar to Austria and France, will be at loggerheads with each other.

Yet, there are very good strategic reasons for both countries to move closer. As D.S. Rajan points out: "Beijing and New Delhi share the same views on two key factors forming the basis for partnership -- multilateralism and economic cooperation." Both are interested in peace in their respective peripheries and a 'peaceful rise.' Both depend on each other for economic development. For example, 80 percent of China's total oil import passes in proximity to India's southern coast through the straits of Malacca. More importantly in the short run are China's deteriorating relations with Japan and the United States' grand strategy for Asia during President Obama's second term, both of which will weigh heavy on Beijing's motivation to create a Indo-Sino alliance. Already in 2005, China and India have formed a "strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity" and held various bilateral discussions on their future strategic partnership. In January 2013, during the fifth annual Indo-Sino defense dialogue both countries agreed to resume joint military exercises.

There are a host of issues that could undermine closer Indo-Sino relations in the years to come such as unresolved border issues, China-Pakistan relations, energy security, cyber-espionage, Tibet, India's eastward expansion of its economic ties and Myamar just to name a few examples, where both countries' interests are at variance. For the sake of stability, the United States should encourage closer Indo-China ties. Austria and France were at peace between 1756 to 1792, not a small achievement given the volatility of European power politics at the time. Once the alliance dissolved in 1792 both countries were involved in a life and death struggle, which lasted until 1815. Closer Indo-Sino ties mean a more stable Asian security environment based on mutual restraint, and - because of the inherent nature of a deadlocked alliance -- little growth of both Indian and Chinese power.

Ambassador's Kanwal Sibal's mollifying prediction about U.S.-India relations in the next four years should be seen as good news to U.S. foreign policy makers: "All in all, therefore, India and the U.S. will neither enter into an embrace nor disengage; they will continue to shake friendly hands as Obama's second term unfolds."

Franz-Stefan Gady is a Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute. A version of this article has appeared on chinausfocus.com.

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