As the United States and China circle each other in Asia, many in Washington hope and some in Beijing fear that India might become a military counterweight to the middle kingdom. However, two recent visits to Delhi by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie suggest that India's prudent approach is likely to disappoint some of its American supporters without reassuring many of its Chinese friends.
Traveling to Delhi in June, Panetta pronounced that India was a "lynchpin" of the new U.S. military strategy in Asia and promised to remove all the bureaucratic obstacles in Washington for a stronger defense partnership with India. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter arrived in Delhi a few weeks later to follow through with Panetta's promises. Despite the American impatience with the slow progress in bilateral relations, Washington is leaving no stone unturned in its defense outreach to India.
Both Panetta and Carter were careful not to define the security partnership with India in opposition to China. Amidst widespread perception to the contrary, India's defense ministry went out of the way to reaffirm that Delhi had no interest in containing China and nor a desire to be dragged into an unwanted conflict with Beijing.
Yet, as India seemed to acquire a new salience in the U.S. rebalancing towards Asia, China was quick to step in and repair its wayward defense relationship with India. In a visit that was organized at short notice and on Chinese initiative in early September, Liang arrived in Delhi declaring that China is not a threat to India and expressing Beijing's eagerness to stabilize and expand the military engagement with India. If China is baring its military claws to Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in the Western Pacific, it has apparently decided to turn on a mild charm offensive with India.
Keeping the Indian front quiet at a time when China's eastern frontiers are live would seem to make sense for Beijing. Delhi, too, could do well with a peaceful periphery as it seeks to revive its faltering economic growth and strengthen its strategic capabilities.
The two sides agreed to renew bilateral military exercises that India had suspended two years ago, when China refused to issue a normal visa to a senior Indian general serving in Jammu and Kashmir, a state that India and Pakistan both claim as their own.
They also decided to expand their fledgling maritime cooperation and work together for the stability of the Asia-Pacific region. This is probably the first time that China has acknowledged India's role in East Asia.
While India's recent defense diplomacy with the United States and China might smell of "non-alignment," widely seen as the foundational concept of India's foreign policy, there is a vast difference between the quality of Delhi's defense engagement with Washington and Beijing.
Having been on opposite sides of the Cold War, India and the United States have had little defense engagement until George W. Bush took office. But with Bush openly backing India's great power aspirations, the defense interaction between the two has advanced rapidly. The militaries of the two countries conduct more military exercises with each other than with anyone else. India, which bought no arms from the United States during the Cold War, has notched up nearly $9 billion worth of purchases in the last few years.
India's military engagement with China, in contrast, has been about confidence-building and limiting conflict rather than cooperation in pursuit of shared objectives.
If the United States is the distant power, with which India has no direct quarrels, Delhi shares a long and contested border with Beijing and the legacy of a deeply competitive relationship. Their respective political positions on Kashmir and Tibet would seem to challenge the territorial sovereignty of the other.
The two sides have long sought to balance each other in Asia. India cozied up to Russia amid the Sino-Soviet split and Sino-Indian border tensions at the turn of the 1960s. China has long propped up Pakistan to keep India off balance in the Subcontinent.
Given this legacy and the growing Chinese penetration of India's presumed sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, Delhi would seem to have every incentive to balance China in East Asia and the Pacific. Realists in China would not be shocked if India "aligned with the far" to "balance the near." And the United States is indeed urging India to play a larger role in East Asia and is eager to strengthen India's defense capabilities. Many in East Asia, chafing under Chinese pressure, are looking to India to restore the regional balance.