Prepare for America’s rebalanced world

US defence secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to India has to be visualised in the context of US efforts to contain China

The winds of change in the international security architecture were perhaps best illustrated by Leon Panetta, the US secretary of defence, when he recently enunciated America’s revised policy of strategic “rebalance” at the forum of the Shangri-La Dialogue in June this year in Singapore.

Simply put, “rebalance” announced a shift in focus by the US from its traditional involvement with Europe since the Second World War and the Cold War, and towards a new geopolitical centre of gravity in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. Mr Panetta’s whistle stop visit to India immediately after the Shangri-La Conference was to explain the change in focus to the Indian leadership.
India requires to visualise American perceptions in the overall context of its efforts to contain China and maintain America’s own interests worldwide. This is especially so in the Asia Pacific which is becoming the new heartland of international economic and commercial activity.
In many senses this perception of “rebalance” by the US away from Europe and the western hemisphere conveys a clear signal of changing times and a coming to terms with the revised realities and priorities of a multipolar world. It is also a reflection of the perceived economic and military power of China along with the simultaneous impact of political Islam spreading amongst an international diaspora in non-traditional areas of influence, where it is acquiring increasingly fundamentalist mutations. This is especially so in the regions of East and Southeast Asia. All these are of fundamental concern to India, which is located in this volatile and disturbed region centred on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
US President Barack Obama has acknowledged the situation in Asia Pacific and South Asia and the likely threat posed to world peace by developments in the region. In his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, Mr Obama devoted a major part of his address to the vexed issue of spread of fundamentalism in the world without of course designating its sources or prime movers. It was an attempt to pour oil on troubled waters, well intentioned but hardly effective.
Mr Panetta’s exposition of America’s revised policies at the 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore conveyed differentiated signals to the assorted audience from 28 countries, not all of whom could have felt fully comfortable with the longer-term implications of America’s revised worldview shifting eastwards from Europe. From an Indian perspective, it could perhaps be best described as watching the massive main armament of a super-heavy battleship swinging inexorably away from one target towards a new one on the horizon.
The Panetta pronouncements were intended not only for those attending the Singapore conference, but even more so for those not invited or not present, in this case the People’s Republic of China. During his address, the American defence secretary proposed what amounted to a revised world order featuring a redesigned “coalition of the willing” amongst the countries of the Asia Pacific region. Left unstated, but fully understood by all present was the objective of the proposed coalition — an “Eastern Nato” to engage, and where necessary, contain the rising presence and spreading influence of China. Mr Panetta’s visit to India has to be visualised in the context of US efforts to contain China.
The impact of his remarks on the Asian security scenario has to remain diplomatically muted. The US is the world’s strongest and militarily most capable power and remains quite prepared for all contingencies, including active unilateral intervention when perceived as required in its own interest.
But in the final analysis Asian countries are aware of the basic geopolitical facts of life, which is that they are located in the shadow of China. Discretion may well be the better part of valour in expressing their reactions to the concept of the “Eastern Nato”, which constitutes the core of the Shangri-La Doctrine proposed by Mr Panetta. This will also form the basis of the strategic and doctrinal philosophy governing the deployment of the US military worldwide. For India, however, the main concern always remains — will the views expressed by participants at the Shangri-La Dialogue and the shift of emphasis by the US affect India in any way?
These would undoubtedly be of vital interest to India and its troubled maritime environment in the Indian Ocean.
The possibility of active hostilities between China and the US appears quite remote in the immediate present and foreseeable future, but undercurrents of tensions are nevertheless gathering in the region caused by aggressive naval posturing in the East and South China seas among China, the US and the Asean countries. Over time, these have been gathering momentum and have every possibility of acquiring a life of their own like a self-fulfilling prophecy unless restraint is exercised on all sides.
India for its part has kept away from the sparring in the Asia Pacific between the littoral countries of the region, where China is the obvious heavyweight. But holding to the boxing analogy, India is no lightweight either but a heavyweight in its own right, with a hard punch in either fist, something that has to be firmly conveyed when occasion demands. India’s own interest is limited to exercising rights of free passage in international waters without maritime confrontations with any other country. But India will not accept any challenge to its legitimate rights from any quarter either as was demonstrated by the Indian naval vessel INS Airawat when allegedly challenged off the coast of Vietnam by a patrol craft said to belong to China.
India is also well aware of its proximity to a potential free-fire zone in Southeast or East Asia, including nuclear exchanges in a doomsday scenario, with even chances of the overshoots landing in South Asia. India must prepare accordingly. Not to do so would be like a particularly unwise ostrich.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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