As Sino-American rivalry acquires a new momentum to the east of India, New Delhi will come under pressure to modernise its armed forces and ramp up military diplomacy across Asia. But it is not clear if India's defence leadership can shed its current doctrine of masterly inactivity.
The naval muscle-flexing by Washington and Beijing in the last few weeks - in North-east and South-east Asia — reflects a rapid evolution of the strategic environment in our Asian neighbourhood.
The US and Chinese naval muscle-flexing in the waters of the Korean Peninsula and the visit of the US aircraft carrier George Washington to Vietnam last week point to a historic shift in Asia's international relations.
As old partners — China and the United States — try to stare down each other, new alliances are being forged between former adversaries — Vietnam and America. That this rearrangement has little do with ideology should draw some of our defence decision-makers out of the time warp they seem to be caught in. After all, China and Vietnam are among the few communist states left in the world.The current shift could be as consequential as that in the early 1970s. After more than two decades of war and conflict with Chinese communists and refusing to recognise the People's Republic as the legitimate representative of China, Washington reached out to Beijing in 1971. As Washington played the China card against the Soviet Union, the rest of Asia ended its hostility to Beijing and welcomed its integration into the international system.
The Sino-American partnership against Moscow survived the collapse of the Soviet Union at the turn of the 1990s. As the economic interdependence between the two deepened in the last decade, some American analysts made the case for an informal Sino-American political condominium called “G-2”. Beijing's new assertiveness on a range of issues, however, shattered these hopes.
China's muscular military and foreign policies have put it at odds with its neighbours. The smaller nations of Asia are coping with the rise of China through internal and external balancing.
Internal balancing is about building one's own military capabilities. According to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, arms purchases by the South-east Asian nations have doubled in the period of 2005-09 in comparision to the previous five year period.
External balancing involves combining one's own capabilities with those of a great power. Most of China's neighbours are turning to the United States for protection against a rising China. Japan and South Korea, who seemed to down play their traditional alliance with the United States in recent years, have in the last few months decided to re-embrace the United States. Many of them also want to expand their defence cooperation with India.
As America reaffirms its primacy in Asia, a rising China is unlikely to back down. Beijing, instead, will seek to step up its own military capabilities further vitiating the regional security environment.
Asia's new military dynamic means India can no longer afford its current laidback approach to military modernisation. Nor can New Delhi ignore the growing demands from its friends and partners to contribute to Asian security amidst the rise of China and the perceived decline of the United States.
Most of Asia sees India's emergence as a valuable factor in constructing a stable Asian order. New Delhi's problem has not been a shortage of money but the lack of strategic imagination. The absence of a purposeful defence leadership has emerged as the biggest constraint on India's ability to raise its strategic profile in Asia.