Adjusting the Pivot: Long Term Engagement with India

The next administration will be faced with a complex and uncertain security environment which places many demands on our military and diplomatic resources. While I am a big supporter of the Administration's "rebalance to Asia" much of this policy has been centered on East and Southeast Asia, and much of the focus has been on U.S. force posture in the region. It may be time to take a broader look at our Indo-Asia-Pacific strategy, particularly India’s role in that strategy. 

Having lived in Asia and commanded U.S. Naval Forces in Korea, I had a real appreciation when then Secretary Clinton's Foreign Policy article "America's Pacific Century" was published in late 2011 as I felt that it quite clearly articulated America's strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific. During my most recent tours in the Pentagon, I became increasingly convinced that we needed to expand our thinking from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Asia-Pacific more broadly. The use of the Indo-Asia-Pacific lexicon not only recognized the reintegration process that was underway among East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, and East Africa, but also gave a nod to the other great rising power and civilization in Asia, India. And for all the China-Watchers, I felt that this allowed us to view China in the larger context of Asia rather than overly focusing on what was going on in the South and East China Seas.

India's geostrategic importance has long been recognized by U.S. leaders, and the U.S. has sought to strengthen ties, with some temporary success, most notably under Ambassadors Chester Bowles and John Kenneth Galbraith during the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations.  However, India maintained its position as a leading non-aligned nation throughout the Cold War, and eschewed military alliances with either side, although India did commit to strategic cooperation with the Soviet Union.  India's strategy of collaboration with many partners, while avoiding military alliances, has been validated by the development of the post-Cold War multi-polar world in which India is a regional leader.  India policy has remained consistent with the five pillars of non-alignment articulated by Prime Minister Nehru in 1954.  India's commitment to mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and mutual non-aggression contrasts sharply with recent Chinese behavior, with peaceful resolution of India's maritime claims in the Bay of Bengal with Bangladesh last year illustrating this difference in approach.
Having had the privilege to lead a small team in charge of the U.S. Navy’s drafting of a new maritime strategy in 2015, we deliberately used the term Indo-Asia-Pacific instead of the traditional description Asia-Pacific. We did this because we recognized the Indo-Asia-Pacific as a single geopolitical theater with multiple centers of gravity and regional leaders, and because we saw this as an opportunity to broaden our strategic approach. As a new administration contemplates and formulates new strategies for the Indo-Asia-Pacific, we should place India squarely in the center of that strategy.  This remains the most dynamic region in the world, with big tectonic geostrategic shifts occurring in terms of GNP growth, demography and systemic power transitions. We need to think very carefully about how to deal with these issues to secure America's interests in a Pacific century.

Once you recognize the Indo-Asia-Pacific as a single theater, it becomes clear that having a strong strategic partnership with India is central to U.S. objectives of maintaining security and stability throughout the region. U.S. and Indian interests generally align, and closer cooperation with India is in the interests of both nations.  However, the extent and form of our collaboration will be shaped by India's historical preference for informal cooperation rather than alliances or formal commitments.  We must be clear that our strategy is not about confrontation or achieving victory in some decisive campaign, but rather about keeping the peace, upholding international norms and a rules-based international order, and maintaining and expanding relationships in a manner that preserves options for both nations. Moreover, we must recognize that India is more comfortable with ambiguity than we are.

As we look for opportunities to strengthen ties with India I see naval cooperation as a natural starting point. The security competition that is taking place right now in the Indo-Asia-Pacific is happening largely in a maritime context, and future regional crises could very well occur, and be decided in the maritime domain.   Most other security, economic, and environmental issues have a significant maritime dimension. The scope and nature of the maritime security challenge is too great for any Navy or nation to handle on its own, making it natural to develop a network of partners.  India maintains cordial relationships with most of its neighbors in the Indian Ocean region and could facilitate U.S. engagement and access.

Having worked with the Indian Navy, I am impressed by their professionalism and capability. While India already possesses a large and capable fleet, they recognize the challenge posed by Chinese military developments and are seeking to build capabilities in a number of areas where they could benefit considerably from U.S. assistance. Some areas for potential collaboration include working together on Maritime Domain Awareness, Humanitarian Assistance/ Disaster Relief training, and non-combatant evacuation (NEO) coordination.  The case in point for the latter being the example of the Indian Navy NEO off of Yemen in April of 2015. The large Indian diaspora could make these operations more likely in the future and this could be a great opportunity for us to learn from one another.

Because a stronger, secure, and prosperous India is in our best interests and the interests of the region, I believe we should seek to help the Indians build their capacity to ensure regional security independent of the closeness of our official relationship, and that we should be willing to work directly with India at appropriate levels without pressing for explicit acknowledgement or commitments from Indian senior leadership.  We should also seek to avoid the temptation to insist on immediate payoffs, complete alignment of policies and preferences, or quid pro quo. We need to play the long-game here, and a strong, confident India means a region that is more free and prosperous in the decades to come. This must be our ultimate goal.


William C. McQuilkin retired as a Rear Admiral in the U. S. Navy after more than 33 years of service, has commanded three U.S. Navy warships and was Commander of U.S Naval Forces, Korea from 2011-2013. From 2013-2016, he served as the Director of Strategy and Policy Division on the U.S Navy Staff in the Pentagon.