Is America Cozying Up to India to Counter China?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama watch India's Republic Day parade from behind rain-streaked bulletproof glass in New Delhi on January 26, 2015. The author writes that as long as the U.S. maintains its close links with Pakistan, Indian leaders will view with skepticism U.S. professions of loyalty to India’s vital interests. Jim Bourg/reuters

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

The just-completed visit of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to India has generated considerable speculation.

That is especially true in China, where opinion leaders noted not only was this Carter's second trip to India during his relatively short tenure as Pentagon chief, but that he canceled a previously scheduled trip to Beijing so that he could make this latest journey.

That move, they feared, suggested a rather unsubtle tilt against China in favor of one of its potential geostrategic competitors.

The agreement that came from Carter's visit will do nothing to reassure the Chinese. Carter and his Indian counterpart, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, pledged to increase logistical cooperation in the military arena, especially maritime cooperation.

Although that agreement is still a considerable distance away from constituting a full-fledged military alliance between the two nations, it continues a trend that has emerged over the past decade of ever-deepening strategic ties. And mutual concerns about China's ambitions appear to be the driving force in the bilateral relationship.

At a minimum, the United States appears to be trying to put in place the building blocks of a containment policy directed against China, if U.S. leaders later decide that such a full-blown policy has become necessary. On this same trip, Carter made a stop in the Philippines to reassure that country of strong U.S. backing in its South China Sea territorial dispute with China.

Apparently, previous statements by the secretary of state and President Obama himself, combined with a buildup of U.S. troops in the island nation, were not sufficient evidence of resolve.

And Carter's sojourn in India must be seen in the larger context of Washington's efforts to strengthen its long-standing alliances with South Korea and Japan and to forge cooperative military ties with such former adversaries as Vietnam. Along with Japan, though, India would be the biggest prize as a strategic ally.

Despite the wishes of some Sinophobes in Washington, we are likely to see a more measured response from India. Delhi has much to lose and little to gain by becoming a cat's-paw ally of the United States against China.

That is especially true if Washington is not willing to sever its close ties with India's archenemy, Pakistan. Yet as long as U.S. leaders insist on waging a "war on terror" with a major Central Asia/South Asia component, centered in Afghanistan, they will not cut Washington's supposed Pakistani ally loose.

And as long as that is the case, Indian leaders and the Indian public will view professions of U.S. loyalty to their country's vital interests with justifiable skepticism.

Moreover, shrewd Indian policymakers may conclude that the best position for their country is one of constructive neutrality in the growing tensions between the United States and China. Whatever side India would take, it would anger one of those great powers, lose potential benefits and increase its risk level. Only if China truly adopted a policy of rogue expansionism is that sober calculation likely to change. In the meantime, Ash Carter and other American suitors may press their courtship of India, but they are likely to come away disappointed.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.