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The US Pivot and Indian Foreign Policy

15 Jun 2016
Reviewed by Professor Ian Hall

This pithy and readable book examines India’s responses to China’s increasingly assertive approaches to its neighbours and to the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific, signaled by Barack Obama in late 2011.

Harsh V. Pant and Yogesh Joshi argue that like most states in the region, India is hedging, uncertain of China’s intentions and perceiving that the United States may soon be able to take on the stabilising role it has long played. In that context, India is recalibrating its ties with the US, attempting to bring its relations with China into a more stable, normal format, and building strategic partnerships with other regional states, most notably Japan.

Rightly, Pant and Joshi observe that while the strategic elite in New Delhi have long favoured the emergence of a multipolar international order, India’s rise has occurred during the period in which the US has been the preeminent state. This has been facilitated, in no small part, by US patronage, not least in finding a deal to bring India back in from the cold after the 1998 nuclear tests. However, they rightly note that under the previous government, India fought shy of committing itself to a closer security relationship with the US, making only noncommittal noises about renewing an important defence framework agreement (DFA) and doing little to take advantage of US offers to share and trade defence technology. The present government, under Narendra Modi, has now renewed the DFA for another decade and seems to be making progress on defence technology. Pant and Joshi welcome these moves and urge New Delhi to further strengthen defence and security ties with Washington.

The chapter on China also points to failures in the approach of the last government. Under Manmohan Singh, Pant and Joshi argue, India tried to normalise its relationship with China, but the multidimensional challenge it poses—as a claimant to disputed territory, an all-weather friend to Pakistan, an increasingly active player in the Indian Ocean, a sceptic about India’s rise, and a rapidly strengthening military power—was too great, and the effort largely failed. The authors cautiously endorse Modi’s alternative approach of assertive engagement, but note India’s manifest relative economic and military weaknesses.

The second half of the book turns to India’s moves to build better strategic partnerships with Japan and with other regional powers including Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia, South Korea and Singapore. Pant and Joshi’s account of the Japan relationship is especially perceptive; they note not just the growing defence and security ties, but also the importance of what they call the economic and multilateral “hedges”. Between 2004 and 2013, they note, Japanese investment into India has increased 14 times over, and Tokyo has committed considerable funds for major Indian infrastructure projects. In international and regional institutions, moreover, the two have been trying to coordinate their approaches, while both reach out to other players in the region to construct formal and informal partnerships for mutual advantage.

The book concludes with four recommendations for India. First, the authors argue India needs to engage the US more enthusiastically, despite its relative decline. Second, they insist that India needs to set aside over-optimistic assumptions about its relationship with China and act to build its economic and military power. Third, they urge India to consolidate defence and security ties with other regional states. And last, Pant and Joshi call for reform in New Delhi to address dysfunction, corruption and the lack of strategic vision they perceive persists in the elite.

This is a sober book that makes no excuses about its uncompromising view of Chinese behaviour and possible intentions. Some will disagree with some of the judgements made, but it provides one of the best short accounts of India’s evolving approach to the changing strategic balance in the region.

Harsh V. Pant and Yogesh Joshi, The US Pivot and Indian Foreign Policy: Asia’s Evolving Balance of Power (Palgrave, 2016)

Ian Hall is a professor in the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University.