Saturday, January 24, 2015

India's Pivot East

From India's "Look East" policy to the new "Act East" policy, how long will it be before India has a "Fight East" policy?

President Obama's trip to India highlights our "pivot" to focusing on Asia and the Pacific (notwithstanding that it still isn't safe to pivot away from Europe and the Middle East).

India is worried about China looming over them on land to the north; and is worried that China's navy is making inroads to challenge India's naval power in the Indian Ocean, where China's trade routes cross to the Middle East and Africa.

India, too, is focusing more on opposing China to India's east:

India has pushed back against China elsewhere in the region since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May, improving ties with Japan and Vietnam, both locked in territorial disputes with Beijing, and contesting a port project in Bangladesh that could otherwise have been a cakewalk for China.

The new robust diplomacy, which Modi calls "Act East", has delighted Washington, which has been nudging India for years to dovetail with the U.S. strategic pivot toward the region.

When President Barack Obama makes a landmark visit to India starting Sunday, he will be the chief guest at New Delhi's showpiece Republic Day military parade, and rarely for a presidential trip, is not scheduled to visit any other country before returning to Washington.

Evan Medeiros, Obama's point man for Asian diplomacy, told a conference at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday that Obama would discuss Modi's shift from “Look East” to “Act East” when he was in India.

Economic outreach to compete with China made for the looking. This could slow China's push past the Malacca Strait by complicating alliances and basing rights for China.

Acting east may involve increased military cooperation with those east of the Strait of Malacca. This type of diplomacy could be a speed bump to Chinese efforts to push into the Indian Ocean and hopefully tie down Chinese assets away from India.

Slowing down the Chinese and bleeding off their power before it can reach India's shores is important.

Eventually, if India acts in the east enough, India will be able to "Fight East"--by projecting aero-naval power into the South China Sea to take the war to China's backyard.

If India gets enough friends east of the Malacca Strait, of course.

Say, as long as India wants to act east, why not share submarine expertise with Taiwan, which wants to build their own?

UPDATE: President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have agreed to nuclear technology cooperation and other agreements on military matters:

They emerged with a 10-year framework for defense ties and deals on cooperation that included the joint production of drone aircraft and equipment for Lockheed Martin Corp's C-130 military transport plane.

Other deals ranged from an Obama-Modi hotline -- India's first at a leadership level -- to financing initiatives aimed at helping India use renewable energy to lower carbon intensity.

These agreements will certainly help hasten the transition from Act East to Fight East:

In a veiled reference to China, the leaders reiterated the "importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea". They also called for the peaceful resolution of territorial conflicts.

The Defense Department has more details:

By finalizing the renewal of our 10-year framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship, we will continue to build on the growing momentum in our defense cooperation over the last decade. This renewed framework will support stronger military-to-military engagement, including deeper maritime cooperation and increased opportunities in technology and trade.

By establishing a new military education partnership, we will help shape the next generation of military leaders in both our nations, fostering relationships that will draw our defense establishments closer together for years to come.

And by agreeing under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) to focus on four "pathfinder" projects; form a working group to explore aircraft carrier technology sharing and design; and explore possible cooperation on development of jet engine technology, we will begin to realize the enormous potential of the U.S.-India defense industrial partnership. We have further strengthened this partnership with an agreement that will allow us to continue science and technology collaboration for the next 15 years.

This was a good day for American diplomacy.

UPDATE: If India can fight east, they could leverage their military cooperation with Japan which may gain the ability to fight south:

The United States would welcome a Japanese extension of air patrols into the South China Sea as a counterweight to a growing fleet of Chinese vessels pushing China's territorial claims in the region, a senior U.S. Navy officer told Reuters.

With these two powers in the South China Sea, smaller powers worried about China will be willing to join the coalition to resist Chinese territorial claims rather than cut deals to save themselves at the expense of others.

And we'd be more able to project power into the maw of Chinese anti-access nets extending into the South China Sea.