In light of the struggle between the USA and PRC for influence in Southeast Asia, which has aggravated in recent years, other major players of the region are acquiring particular importance as they are able to tip the balance in one way or another. The main players in question are the Asian giants such as India and Japan. The situation with Japan is quite clear – historically, it hasn’t enjoyed the most friendly relations with China, and in case of a conflict, it has nobody to rely on except America.
However, the role of India in the growing confrontation is not evident yet. As one of the most powerful states, it has a strong army, fleet and possesses nuclear weapons. It is ranked the 7th in the world and the third in Asia in terms of GDP. India is traditionally considered one of China’s major opponents. This is brought about by its long common border with disputable territories. Memories of the border wars of 1962, 1967 and 1987 are still fresh while small disputes still continue to take place now. Both countries constantly construct military facilities along the border. India is also dissatisfied with China’s partnership with its major opponent, Pakistan, as well as with China’s attempts to strengthen its influence in other neighbouring states. For example, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. If China succeeds, India may find itself in a dense ring of Chinese allies.
All these disagreements are advantageous for the USA, which has tried to make India its ally in the struggle against China for a long time. US President Barack Obama has announced that partnership with India is vitally important for the American interests in Asia-Pacific region.
The USA is one of India’s major trading partners. In 2015, their mutual goods turnover totalled $64 billion. Since 1992, they have regularly conducted joint American-Indian Malabar military and naval training manoeuvres, which China reacts to extremely negatively. Every year, these manoeuvres acquire a more and more provocative nature. For example, Japan has participated in them since 2015. In June 2016, the American, Indian and Japanese navy conducted manoeuvres in the East China Sea near the Senkaku Islands, which is the subject of dispute between China and Japan. In May 2016, it was reported that America had assigned India defence industry partner status. This allows the US military officers to conduct closer cooperation with the Indian military officers and provide them with US military technology.
In June 2016, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi visited the USA and met with American President B. Obama. After the meeting, they reported that India and the USA’s major objective was the provision of the sea traffic security. Soon after the meeting, Delhi addressed Washington with a proposal to buy a batch of Predator Guardian, the unmanned aerial vehicle (a.k.a. drones) adapted to fly over the sea. These devices had attracted the Indian military officers for a long time, but their acquisition was impossible as India did not participate in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Agreement. However, in June 2016, some time after the meeting between N. Modi and B. Obama, India joined MTCR and obtained the right to acquire the equipment it wanted.
In August 2016, the Defence Minister of India Manohar Parrikar and the US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter signed a Memorandum on Material and Technical Cooperation. Then, in September 2016, the media reported the USA’s intention to sell India those very 22 drones, which the latter intended to acquire in June. It was officially announced that the sale of drones to the Indian naval forces would contribute to the strengthening of both military and political partnership of America and India.
All this news may be regarded as the proof of the fact that India is moving towards an anti-China military alliance led by the USA. However, we should bear in mind that relations between India and China are not so bad. The common border of 3,380 kilometres contributes both to disputes and reconciliation – both countries understand that they have to establish good relations. In 2005, India recognized Tibet as an autonomous district of China, while China acknowledged the border Sikkim State as Indian territory. Mutual trade is constantly growing. Thus, in 2008, China became India’s major trading partner. In 2015, the trade turnover between the two countries exceeded $71 billion.
India conducts joint military training not only with the opponents of China, but with China itself. Thus, the joint Indian and Chinese border troops training exercises entitled Cooperation-2016 took place in February. In April 2016, the Defence Minister of India M. Parrikar visited Beijing to meet his Chinese colleague Chang Wanquan. After the meeting, it was announced that the two countries attached great importance to their cooperation in the military sphere, and India and China were ready to provide security in the entire region.
As for the acknowledgement of India as a partner of the USA in the military industry, this status in Asia-Pacific Region has also been bestowed on Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines and Japan. This status facilitates access to American military technologies, but it is not binding. The Memorandum on Material and Technical Cooperation is also not binding. It means that India will use drones with pleasure, but it is not obliged to support any of the adventurous actions of the US naval forces.
Let us remember the visit of the Indian President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee to China in May 2016. Back then, he announced that India and China had made tremendous progress in their relations since 1990, and the trade turnover had increased more than 20 times over the last 16 years. In conclusion, the Indian President said that if 2.5 billion Indians and Chinese united and started working together, it would bring about rapid progress for the both nations. Perhaps, this is the best that can be said about India-China relations now.
If the USA believes that the provision of access to military technologies and various discounts to India may turn India into a reliable ally, it is sadly mistaken. Refusal to participate in military and political blocs has been one of the major principles of the Indian foreign policy since 1961, when the Non-Aligned Movement was created. One of the masterminds thereof was the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Moreover, the USA is far away, while China is close. India clearly understands that in case of a conflict with China, it will mostly face long-term difficulties, which means that it will use its partnership with the USA as a tool to curb Chinese expansion, but it will not take risks for the sake of American interests.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.