US Rebalancing in Asia-Pacific: Indian Response and Way Ahead


There have been major transformations in the US foreign and defense policies over the last two decades. It is a well-known fact that due to its dynamic nature, foreign policy keeps changing according to the internal and external environment. Though it is not easy to understand the intricacies of foreign policy but there are certain factors at both levels, internal and external, which determine foreign policy decision-making. At the internal level, the economic situation of a nation is one of the factors which influence foreign policy. At the external level, international and regional environment are the major factors which play a critical role in the foreign policy decision-making.

Besides this, policy formulations by a nation determine its relations with other nations in the world. As far as the US rebalancing policy is concerned it is also influenced by both internal and external factors. Among the internal factors the ongoing economic recession and at the external level the changing geo-political and economic landscape of the Asia-Pacific region has been the major rationale behind the shift in the US strategy towards the East. The shifts in US policy also determine its foreign relations especially with the rising powers in the Asia-Pacific.

In view of the above, it is pertinent to understand the US defense strategy. This paper is an attempt to examine Indian response towards the US architecture in Asia-Pacific. In the end, some policy recommendations have also been suggested.

US Rebalancing Strategy: At a Glance

The US announced its defense policy in January 2012 in its official document. Thereafter, it has become the subject of study for analysts within the US and outside. Many interpretations have come from various sides and one analyst, Richard Weitz, stated that the rebalance encompasses two separate processes — one is that the US military is rebalancing its global assets from other regions to Asia, and second is rebalancing within the Asia-Pacific region, reducing the concentration of forces from Northeast Asia to the entire region.

Prior to this, US officials used the word “pivot” which became controversial in the US itself and experts stated that this word indicates the US’s disengagement with Europe and other regions of the world. As a result, the US policymakers had to replace the word with “rebalance” in the official document in January 2012.

The rebalance means that the US would focus not only towards the challenges of the world but also on the regions which will shape the global order in the decades ahead. Particularly, the US focus has shifted from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. It was realized that there is an imbalance in the projection and focus of US power in the world due to its Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), which created the imbalance. So, in order to maintain balance the US has given priority to the East.

According to the former US National Security advisor, Tom Donilon, the basic aim of the US strategy is to enhance its interests by helping to shape the rules and norms of the Asia-Pacific region. The other basic purpose is to ensure that international law and norms be respected and, commerce and freedom of navigation are not impeded.

Drivers of the US Rebalancing Strategy  

Following are the main drivers of the US strategy towards the region.

Economic Factor: The growing economic potential of the Asia-Pacific region was one of the major driving factors that compelled the US to adopt a new strategy. Over the last two decades the region has been emerging economically. It comprises 30 percent of global exports and its two-way trade with the US exceeds one trillion dollars annually. Due to the economic developments it has become the engine of global economy.

It is clear from the US official’s statements that the growing Asia-Pacific region is expected to be more important for future US economy. It was mentioned in the May 2010 US National Security Strategy that-

                   …Asia’s dramatic economic growth has increased its connection to America’s future prosperity and its emerging centers of influence make it increasingly important…

The US has taken many steps to engage with the Asia-Pacific region. President Obama’s move to pursue the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP) and the National Export Initiative of 2010 were the major steps to boost trade with the region. The TPP is built on its members’ shared commitment to high standards, eliminating market access barriers to goods and services, addressing new 21st century trade issues and respect for a rules-based economic framework. The TPP is envisioned as a growing platform for regional economic integration.

Strategic Factor: Strategically, maintaining peace and stability across the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly crucial to global progress whether through the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea or other aspects. Freedom of navigation is the basic goal of the US strategy. In addition, China’s growing military capabilities and its increasing assertiveness of claims to disputed maritime territory is a matter of concern for the US as well as its allies in the region. Politically united, economically vibrant and militarily stronger China has created concerns in the region.

The US apprehensions related to Chinese military capabilities has been promulgated by the former US Pacific Command Commander Robert F. Willard during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee in March 2010. He averred “… Economic wealth is funding a military modernization program that has raised concerns in the region over the lack of transparency into Beijing’s emerging military capabilities and intentions…”

Maintenance of Credibility: Another driving factor for the pacific rebalancing is to maintain its credibility in the region. Since the last two decades due to the US involvement in the Middle East and the economic recession its role in Asia was at stake. Consequently, its allies and partners were feeling ignored as the US is their sole security guarantor. Therefore, in this complex environment the US had no options besides announcing a new initiative to assure its allies and partners about its role in the region. Among others, it was one of the reasons that the US announced its complete drawdown from the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan). On many occasions, the US assured its allies about its presence in Asia, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated at the East West Center that US is not a visiting power in Asia, but a resident power.

Instruments of Rebalancing Strategy

To reinforce the American strategy, numerous steps have been taken by the US administration. Among others the deployment of troops to various places and enhancement of partners’ and allies’ capabilities are more prominent. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2012 related to the shift of the US forces from a 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and Atlantic to a 60/40 percent division between those two oceans by 2020. In addition to the above, six aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines are also included in the US force structure in the region.

The US has now developed a concept of rotational presence as opposed to traditional bases of the past. Rotational deployment includes marines in Darwin (Australia), Littoral Combatant Ships (LCS) in Singapore and forward stationing in Guam.

The first step in this direction was the bilateral agreement between the US and Australia in November 2011 to establish a rotational presence of 2,500 marines in Darwin and northern Australia for around six months at a time, where they will conduct exercises and training on rotational bases with Australian defense force. It was also decided that the initial deployment would consist of a small liaison element and a company of 250 US marines.

According to this agreement, the first detachment of 200 US marines arrived in Darwin in April 2012 as part of the US shift of military strength in the Asia-Pacific region.  Apart from the marines in Darwin, the first Littoral Combatant Ship, USS Freedom reached Singapore in April 2013 as part of the US force deployment strategy in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020.

The change in US foreign policy has been towards partners and allies; Washington has now focused on their capability enhancement. Earlier, for security, the US had signed security treaties with its allies (Japan, South Korea). But the US has now stressed on training and military exercises with partners and allies in order to ensure collective capability and capacity for securing common interests and to fulfill strategic objectives in the Asia-Pacific region.

India in the US Defense Architecture

The importance of India in the US Asia-Pacific strategy is not a new phenomenon and not an Obama administration initiative. Actually, the shift in relations between the world’s largest and oldest democracies can be deemed since the denouement of the Cold War when the world order had shifted from bipolar to unipolar. Concurrently, certain policy formulations by both nations have been the prominent facet which led to a shift in relations from estrangement to engagement despite certain differences.

However, the dramatic shift in relations had posited with President Bill Clinton’s historic visit to India in March 2000. This visit is considered a watershed event in the bilateral relations. Further, the rapprochement began in bilateral relations during the two successive tenures of President George W. Bush. Following Bush, President Obama has picked up the straw of friendly relations from where President Bush had left off. The successful November 2010 Indian visit of the US President had proved the consistency of the US policy towards India under the new leadership in Washington. The visit was very significant from the following perspectives.

  • President Obama called the Indo-US partnership as the “defining partnership of the 21st century” based on shared interests and shared values, like earlier former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had labeled relations between ‘Natural Allies’ during his Asia Society speech in September 1998.
  • The US President stated that both the nations have a shared vision for peace and stability in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.
  • It was for the first time when a US president supported Indian permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council during his address to the Indian Parliament.
  • The US also expressed its strong support to India’s Look East Policy and its growing engagement with the Asia-Pacific. President Obama advised India not only “Look East” but also to “Engage East”.

Further, in her article in Foreign Policy magazine in November 2011, former US Secretary Hillary Clinton made a strategic bet on India’s future—that India’s greater role on the world stage will enhance peace and security in the region. She also promulgated that bilateral relations with India has been expanded through supporting its Look East Policy and a new trilateral dialogue with India and Japan for a more integrated and politically stable Asia with India as a “lynchpin”.

Further, in January 2012 in the strategic guidance document, the US officially named India in its official document stating—

…The United States is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region…

Following the document, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also described the Indian role in US defense strategy in his address at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses during his visit in June 2012.  He stated that—

Defense cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy. India is one of the largest and most dynamic countries in the region and the world, with one of the most capable militaries. India also shares with the US a strong commitment to a set of principles that help maintain international security and prosperity…

On the eve of the seventh East Asia Summit, in November 2012 at Phnom Penh (Cambodia), President Obama met with then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. During this short and first meeting President Obama assured the Indian Prime Minister about the potential of bilateral relations and said that “India is a big part of my plans.” In June 2013 during the Shangri-La Dialogue’s address, then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel highlighted India’s role in the Asia-Pacific wherein he stated that–

… [As] the world’s largest democracy, India’s role as a stabilized power is of growing importance with the increase of trade and transit between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The US considers India’s efforts to enhance its military capabilities as a welcome contribution to security in the region.

Thereafter, during the fourth meeting of the Indo-US annual strategic dialogue which was held in June 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed the Indian role in the US defense strategy. During his address at the India Habitat Center in New Delhi on June 23, 2013, he averred that “… India is key parts of the U.S. rebalance in Asia. And we are committed to that rebalance. I want to emphasize this point. Our security interests with India converge on a wide range of maritime and broader regional issues, and we value India’s role in our mutual efforts to ensure a stable and prosperous Asia…”

While keeping the above, it is clear that India has now become one of the highest strategic priorities for the US in the Asia-Pacific region. Consequently, in its strategy towards the Asia-Pacific, the US has certain expectations from India.

US Expectations

Actually, a stable and balanced Asia-Pacific is the stated aim of the US. India, one of the rising economics in the Asia-Pacific region has become a priority for the US. Due to geographical compulsions it is not possible for the US to resolve the problems in the region alone. So, Washington wants capable and reliable partners for maintaining security and stability in the region. Hence, it turned to India and made a “strategic bet” for the future, that India would help in enhancing peace and stability in the region.

The US wants to work more closely with India in the Asia-Pacific lattice because of its potential military and leadership capabilities. The US has appreciated the Indian role in combating piracy throughout the Indian Ocean region. Indian engagement with the Asia-Pacific nations through ship visits, high level defense meetings, etc. are welcomed by the US. In 2008, by establishing the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium New Delhi has demonstrated its leadership capability. Consequently, the US labeled it as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India as a responsible power in the region is fully committed to it as then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh averred during the inauguration of the Indian National Defense University in May 2013 that “…we have also sought to assume our responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean Region. We are well positioned, therefore, to become a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond…”

The US expectations from India in the IOR can be seen from the maritime security perspective also. Freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean has been an important feature of US foreign policy. Many challenges persist in the region, viz. piracy, smuggling, illegal movement of weapons including weapons of mass destruction, illegal trafficking in people, terrorist movement and the like. These challenges constitute a serious threat to the interconnected industrial economies of the world. In order in counter these challenges and to provide maritime security, the US sees India as a suitable power in the region with an important role to play as it has the largest navy in the region.

Indian Response

Politically, India responded positively towards the US engagement and presence in the region to counter the security challenges. It is clear from the former Indian Ambassador to US Nirupama Rao’s lecture on the US rebalancing at Brown University in February 2013 wherein she stated—

All major powers in Asia and beyond work together to address the traditional and non-traditional challenges and to create a basis for a stable and prosperous Asia. These are the challenges that cut across national boundaries and require cooperative responses. Based on this vision, we welcome the U.S. engagement in the Asia of the Indo-Pacific (sic)…

The US rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific is being assessed both as a boon as well as bane for India among the strategic community in New Delhi. As far as the boon is concerned it created opportunities for a stable balance of power in the region, which India has wanted for a very long time. But on the other hand, it has always been wary of any type of cooperation and conflict between the US and China. In the past, India has also expressed its concern over the G-2 (US-China). China is worried about the US defense posture and feels that it is a US effort to build an Asian coalition against it in the Asia-Pacific region.

India would not be able to support fully the US strategy because of its principle of “strategic autonomy” in its foreign relations. India will never be on the US bandwagon against China in the region. It would not be consistent with the fundamental principle of its foreign policy. There were some media reports that India backed off from the multilateral exercises with Japan and the US in April 2013 because it did not want to create an impression of any type of military alliance in the region.

Needless to say, the US strategy has created a dilemma for New Delhi in the region. There is no doubt that if India extends its support to the US defense strategy, it would not be aimed at any third country in the region, whilst India’s closeness to the US may cause tension between New Delhi and its neighbors.

Way Ahead

It is clear from the above that India has welcomed the US engagement and presence in the Asia-Pacific region, but there is a need for a more robust Indian support toward this strategy for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

India, while keeping its strategic autonomy principle as the base of its foreign relations, needs to adopt a more balanced and practical approach.

For its part, the US should accommodate Indian concerns with regard to their partnership that it would not be aimed at any third country in the region in the coming days.

The main Indian objective in bilateral relations with the US is “capacity building and capability sharing” which is fully in conformation with the US defense policy. Actually, one of the basic tenets of the US policy in Asia-Pacific is the enhancement of capacity and capabilities of its partners and allies through exercises and other means.

As former US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also stated at the 12th Shangri- La Dialogue in June 2013, the US is also working to enhance its partners’ capacity for their own security and the security of the region. So, it could be in the Indian interest to respond positively towards the US overtures in the Asia-Pacific region in the near future.



Thus, there are considerable shifts visible in the US policy over the last two decades. The rationale behind these shifts is enormous, viz. economic, political, cultural, maintenance of leadership and credibility in the Asia-Pacific region in the future. The transformation in the US foreign and defense policies has been viewed differently among scholars and analysts throughout the world.

Any policy adopted by the US, the sole superpower, has some connotations for other nations of the world particularly the rising powers in Asia. India as one of the rising powers in Asia responded positively toward the US overtures in the Asia-Pacific, but practically it is facing certain predicaments because of the complex neighborhood.

It is an opportunity for India for fulfilling its interest in a bilateral relationship with the US. It is now up to India how to utilize the opportunity for the best interests of the country. On the other hand, the US needs a reliable partner in the region to fulfill its strategic objectives and in India it sees a partner despite knowing that India would not come with it at the expense of its relations with its neighbors.