Article in The National Interest – ‘The Elephant and the Dragon’

My article in “The National Interest” discusses the role of India in America’s “strategic pivot.”

The piece discusses India’s contributions to the Asian security dynamic, particularly in Central, South, and East Asia. It specifically looks at two of India’s geographic assets that have received scant coverage: the Chabahar road that opens up a new route to Central Asia, and India’s presence at Port Blair, which would enable New Delhi to restrict China’s entry into the Indian Ocean from Malacca.

The published piece is available at the TNI website here, and the original version, which includes a discussion of India’s role in South Asia, is included below.

The article is my first to use the cliches “Elephant” and “Dragon”.

The Elephant and the Dragon

Neil Padukone | May 3, 2012

The Pentagon’s Defense Strategic Review, released in January, recommended a “strategic pivot” to East Asia. A turn away from the military conflagrations that have been occupying America in the Middle East over the last decade, the focus of this long-term pivot is of course a rising China. It acknowledges that Beijing’s economic and military rise could challenge the American-backed order of the western Pacific and ignite a major conflict; the Taiwan Strait could be the Fulda Gap of the 21st century.

If the shift is to be successful, Washington needs a strategic partner that can bridge U.S. priorities in the Pacific with its enduring concerns in Central Asia. Sitting astride the Indian Ocean, democratic India may be what President Obama has called a “natural” ally—but any alliance must be based on mutual interests. What these are and how they translate into points of cooperation for Washington and New Delhi will largely depend on what unites them: on China’s strategy.

China’s Military Strategy

There are two key pillars of China’s strategic expansion, the first based on Beijing’s naval strategy. The energy supplies that fuel China’s economic growth must traverse the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Accordingly, a blockade of its economically vibrant eastern coast, launched from bases in the Philippines, Japan, Guam and Taiwan, is Beijing’s primary external threat. This threat compels Beijing to seek to ensure the security of—and its own extended influence in—those sea lines of communication, particularly in South and Southeast Asia.

China has safeguarded the buffer regions to its north (Manchuria, Mongolia and Siberia) and west (Tibet and Xinjiang), leaving it with the freedom—and, for the first time in its history, the funds—to invest in a navy that will ensure against such a blockade and pursue naval expansion. This is seen in China’s “String of Pearls” across the South China Sea and Indian Ocean: the Sanya naval base in the South China Sea (replete with area-denial weapons technology), and ports and naval facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Beijing even has plans to develop road and waterways across Myanmar and Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra, respectively, to give China more direct access to the Bay of Bengal and the local militaries—Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar—that it is refurbishing. Influence in the Indian Ocean will allow it to access theaters further afield, such as the Gulf and Africa. As Drew Thompsonwrites, “milestones such as the PLA Navy’s around-the-world cruise in 2002 and its anti-piracy mission off the African coast indicate that China is looking to operate more globally,” putting Beijing in a place to challenge Washington’s Mahanian navy.

Central Asia is the second geographic thrust of China’s expansion. In 1996, China established what would become the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a mutual security and economic engagement organization with the countries of the region. The SCO has facilitated China’s extensive involvement in the region’s hydrocarbons sector, including infrastructure investments in Afghanistan and some of the only regional energy projects to have actually been given life: a Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline and the Turkmenistan-Xinjiang natural-gas pipeline, both of which enter China through its northwestern border in Xinjiang province. This orientation has required a heavier Chinese military presence in its western Xinjiang and Tibetan provinces, and arguably even further into Afghanistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.According to Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen,China is the power of the future in Central Asia,” decisively changing the meaning of America’s decades-long engagement in Eurasia after the Cold War. The challenge from China to America’s dominance in the East and Central Asian theaters as well as its role in Washington’s strategic shift is clear.

India’s Strategic Response

At the geographic and political center of these two spheres lies India. While this fact was essential in Washington’s decision to reverse fifty years of history and offer India a nuclear deal, what exactly would this mean for the geopolitics of Asia?

China’s westward expansion most immediately affects India along its northeastern border at Arunachal Pradesh, adjacent to Tibet, where Beijing’s access and military presence has increased in recent years—and which is China’s only outstanding border dispute that it has not resolved in favor of the other country. China’s military buildup has ignited an escalating conventional-arms race along McMahon Line that demarcates the de facto Sino-Indian border, largely supplied by Western defense firms. Yet the United States has never made its position on Arunachal Pradesh clear: Would Washington side with India or intervene on its behalf in the case of a confrontation with China? In fact, it may not be in America’s interest to involve itself in another major conflict in which it has little at stake. Regardless, as Nitin Paiargues, “nuclear weapons are the New Himalayas that keep [India] secure. As long as they are high—that’s where the minimum credible deterrent comes in—it is inconceivable that China will see merit in mounting a direct military invasion.” India’s recent, successful test of its Agni-V missile, which has a 5000-kilometer (3100-mile) range that can reach Shanghai and Beijing, demonstrates that credible deterrence is, indeed, intact.

Instead, it is likely that India and China’s strategic competition will take place in other spheres, Central Asia being a key one. New Delhi is slowly developing an air base at Ayni, Tajikistan, and has established itself as a major investor in Afghanistan and Central Asian energy infrastructures. Most consequentially, India has gained strategically pivotal access to Central Asia by constructing a road from Iran’s Chabahar port on the Arabian Sea to western Afghanistan. This road, along which India is constructing a railway, is shorter and more stable than the two other land routes that pass through Pakistan and connect landlocked Afghanistan to the sea. Importantly, Afghanistan is no longer beholden to Pakistan’s monopoly on its maritime trade, which has been a key enabler of Islamabad’s pernicious influence in Kabul’s affairs.

This new road from Chabahar is arguably the most efficient transit route to Central Asia. Though it is primarily aimed at accessing Afghan and Central Asian natural resources, Thomas Barfield argues that “India now has the capacity to dispatch troops and supplies directly to Afghanistan via Iran if it chooses to do so. Should the United States decide to withdraw from Afghanistan, India may well be tempted to step in to preempt the possibility of a Taliban takeover” or an enhanced Chinese presence. The new Indian-constructed link “may change regional power dynamics” in Central Asia.

In the maritime realm, China’s entry into the Indian Ocean, India’s traditional strategic space, has raised red flags in New Delhi. Its response is of increasing consequence. In addition to serving as a de facto coast guard to some of the island nations off the coast of eastern Africa, India is developing a blue-water navy replete with nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers—and shifting much of its navy to its eastern command on the Bay of Bengal in anticipation of a larger Chinese footprint.

In fact, it is here that any Indian advantage over China would be most pronounced. India’s Port Blair, on the Andaman Islands, lies at the western mouth of the Strait of Malacca. Malacca is, of course, one of the most trafficked waterways on the Indian Ocean, as it connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific—and East Asia to energy, raw materials and consumer markets. If push comes to shove, India’s naval base at Port Blair enables New Delhi to interdict trade through Malacca—or the activities of other Chinese assets in the Bay of Bengal—and push back against Beijing’s presence in the region.

Yet to make sure it does not come to that, New Delhi is using its “Look East” policy to keep China’s South China Sea vulnerability alive, and balance against China’s ‘String of Pearls’ with its own set of alliances. This includes efforts to partner with Singapore, Myanmar, and ASEAN, strengthen Vietnam’s naval defenses, and even join forces with Japan and Australia to police the area where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet.

A “Natural” Alliance?

President Barack Obama’s choice to unveil his Pacific Ocean strategy in Darwin, Australia, demonstrates how America’s broad strategic goals align with India’s. Indeed, the Indian and American militaries—particularly their navies—have arguably been far more coordinated than any other bureaucracy since their “natural” alliance was solidified with the nuclear deal of 2006. And given the liabilities of America’s dependence on the Pakistani military—the flourishing of Islamist militants, unfettered nuclear proliferation, and a volatile and undemocratic AfPak region—the United States may see India’s Chabahar route to Afghanistan as a better long-term solution to the stabilization of Central Asia.

And what of South Asia itself? As Amitai Etzioni wrote in these pages, “For Pakistanis, conflict [with India] poses an ominous existential challenge that drives their behavior on all things,” including domestic politics, and “their approach to the West and the war in Afghanistan…If the India-Pakistan confrontation could be settled, chances for progress on other fronts would be greatly enhanced.”

Indeed, refutation of the ‘India threat’ narrative is already underway. In order to remain focused on its new strategic horizons beyond South Asia, India is reorienting its defense apparatus away from Pakistan and towards China and the southern Indian Ocean, ending what conservative Indian strategist Bharat Karnad calls the Indian military’s “Pakistan fixation.” Together with Pakistan’s focus on the Durand Line and events within its own borders, political breathing space between Islamabad and New Delhi has allowed an increasingly vigorous Pakistani civil society to begin to question the assumptions at the heart of its national identity crisis.

India-Pakistan talks and other confidence-building measures have already produced a number of important breakthroughs that portend better bilateral days to come: the granting of Most-Favored Nation status, enhanced trade measures and mechanisms, as well as discussions on the specific parameters of a Kashmir peace based on economic integration. Full realization of this promise will require more space, and time, between the two countries.

At the moment, the issue of Iran is one place where New Delhi and Washington diverge. Others are Washington’s frustration with India’s positions on democratic interventionism, global trade, and tactics for dealing with nuclear proliferation. And even when there is agreement in longer-term strategic issues such as balancing China, analysts in New Delhi fear American fickleness and myopia in their implementation.

But as Washington moves from the post-post–Cold War to the twenty-first-century world, it will begin to reassess not only strategies but also the tactical dogmas that underlie them. That will take more than a document. For one, Washington ought to enlist New Delhi’s help toengageIran towards shared strategic aims in Central Asia, much as it reversed course with Myanmar and even Vietnam after their bitter histories.

While America tries to take on the “dragon,” it cannot overlook the “elephant” in the continent—and all it might bring.

Neil Padukone is a fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and the author ofSecurityinaComplexEra. He is currently writing a book on the evolution of India’s strategic doctrine. His writings are available at

This entry was posted in China, India, Iran, South Asia, Strategy, Uncategorized, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s