This week US secretary of defence Leon Panetta will visit India. His visit is part of a larger US engagement with Asia, especially countries in the eastern part of the continent.
US strategy in this theatre needs to be understood in light of two interlinked developments. One, after the Iraqi and Afghan wars, there is both political and, to an extent, military exhaustion. Two, the US is anxious about Chinese intentions in the South China Sea. The region and its vicinity are home of some of its close allies (Taiwan) and prospective friends (Vietnam). Clashing claims crisscross the map of the region: even a cursory look at the submissions made at the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in last few years shows the contentious nature of these claims.
A file photo of Leon Panetta, US secretary of defence (Reuters)
It is these factors and the possibility of conflicts over them that have forced the US to take a harder look at the region. Panetta made this clear in his speech at the Shangri La dialogue on Saturday. He talked of the US commitment to shared rules and said: “These rules include the principle of open and free commerce, a just international order that emphasizes rights and responsibilities of all nations and a fidelity to the rule of law; open access by all to their shared domains of sea, air, space, and cyberspace; and resolving disputes without coercion or the use of force.”
If there is one part of the world where these principles matter most today, it is the South China Sea.
In this context, Panetta’s visit to India and Vietnam is important. While not making any announcement of overt “balancing” against China, the US secretary of defence made it a point to say that he “will travel to India to affirm our interest in building a strong security relationship with a country I believe will play a decisive role in shaping the security and prosperity of the 21st century.” India’s security concerns are well known and developments in the South China Sea, where it has had less than pleasant encounters with China, are part of these concerns. The Indo-US security and strategy dialogue has been on for a while. It is time both countries took a hard look at what needs to be done to push these ties to the next, higher, stage.
What is the next logical step in deepening Indo-US ties? Tell us at email@example.com