"Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. The Ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the 20th century, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters." -Alfred Thayer Mahan
Many in the U.S. Navy view India as a latent menace and naval rival-if not an outright adversary. Current events lend this view some credence. In May, India conducted five nuclear tests, prompting international ostracism, economic sanctions, cutbacks in military assistance, and further isolation for a nation craving respect. The U.S. foreign-policy establishment wags its collective finger at India and lectures it on nuclear morality. Such perceptions are naive, condescending, short-sighted, and ultimately dangerous. The United States needs to take a long-term view of its strategic interests in South Asia.
At present, the U.S. policy toward India and the U.S. naval strategy in the Indian Ocean lack clear and substantive pronouncements. The United States should view India as the anchor of Asian stability and develop a long term military and commercial alliance with it. In doing so, the United States should deter a future war between India and Pakistan, and blunt China's hegemony in Asia.
The United States and India have too much in common not to be allies. They share a language, a similar road to independence, a culture dominated by a strong middle class (from which U.S. companies are now eagerly recruiting), an efficient bureaucracy, and a democratic government. Education, technology, and consumerism are on the rise in India. As India's prime minister puts it, India shares ". . values of democracy, freedom, and pluralism." He adds, "I hope the U.S. leadership and America's political, economic, cultural, and intellectual establishment recognizes India's due position in global affairs to promote these common values." President Bill Clinton responded to the nuclear tests by pleading to India that these actions are not the way to "manifest your greatness."
The United States has not developed a friendship with India as it has with western nations, even though the remnants of British administration, attitudes, and culture remain in India. This is because the United States and India see the world in fundamentally different ways. Professor Stanley Wolpert posits that ". . global differences in strategic perceptions were enhanced . . . by deep-rooted Indo-U.S. psycho-cultural differences in behavior." The difference in outlook concerning the recent nuclear tests demonstrate this fact. The Indian intellectual establishment and general population are virtually unanimous in their support, while India's counterparts in the United States are equally uniform in horror. Are Americans that much smarter than Indians?
The answer seems to lie less with intelligence than with experience. The way Dr. Samuel Huntington puts it, India has a unique "civilization identity" that stands in contrast to our Western civilization.5 This difference in civilization identity is not abstract. U.S. warships travel the world attempting to demonstrate not just military, but cultural, superiority. They are not just armed with better munitions, but also with better ideas. A "show of force" is the expression of a political idea, not merely a military one. The United States believes the policies that send its ships to sea are best. And while there may be no such thing as a Hindu ship, the people who command and deploy Indian ships take their civilization to sea with them also. Huntington's point overwhelms traditional concepts of national interest: "The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations," he says.
The short-term Western view is that India's decision to declare nuclear status was militarily unnecessary, provocative, and dangerous. Probably true. But what about the long-term? This is the time in which civilizations manifest themselves. From this perspective, India's emergence can be seen as a great development by the United States. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger envisions the ". . . international system of the 21st century . . . (containing) . . . at least six major powers . . . the United States, Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and probably India. . Kissinger's major powers correspond roughly to Huntington's civilizations.
The United States does not seem to trust India, for many reasons. The recent nuclear tests were the latest in a series of difficulties with India that includes reluctance on arms control, Cold War cooperation with the Soviet Union, leadership of a non-aligned movement that served as a sounding board for Third World anti-U.S. rhetoric, flirtations with communism, and a hostile economic nationalism. This friction between India and the United States is exacerbated by U.S. relations with Pakistan.
India and Pakistan have fought three major wars in the last 50 years. Throughout the Cold War, India justifiably feared U.S. arms deals with Pakistan—arms that could be used against it if hostilities resumed with its archenemy. The United States also had strong ties with the Pakistani military that grew stronger during the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan. The Pressler amendment, cutting off U.S. arms shipments to Pakistan since 1991, has served to reassure India. Nevertheless, a full-fledged arms race now consumes South Asia.
A future war between India and Pakistan could "go nuclear" quickly. Therefore, U.S. policy should be to deter any future war between them, and discourage both India and Pakistan from "weaponizing" their nuclear programs. This might mean declaring all, or part, of the Indian Ocean a nuclear-free zone, even if this means restricting U.S. deployments to the region.
This does not mean that the United States should shrink from the region. On the contrary, U.S. military presence is vital to regional stability. While respecting India's natural leadership in the region, U.S. policy must make it clear that an Indian threat to Pakistan's right to exist will not be tolerated. But the timid U.S. involvement in the conflict between India and Pakistan must end. If the United States wants genuine peace in South Asia, it must use its influence aggressively to broker an agreement over the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir. India categorically rejects such "meddling" in its affairs, however, the United States has valuable cards to play.
India and Japan have legitimate claims to seats on the U.N. Security Council. The United States should leverage these claims to pursue a "dual-membership" solution. After establishing a timetable for a democratic resolution of the Kashmir issue, India and Pakistan could be invited to share a seat on an expanded U.N. Security Council. The inevitable disputes on the "Indo-Pak" seat would be constrained by consensus votes and joint resolutions. If their ambassadors disagree on an issue, they would retain their votes in the General Assembly but forfeit their votes at the Security Council. Moreover, military conflict between India and Pakistan would abrogate the dual membership arrangement.
China now assists Pakistan with missile and nuclear technology. In fact, India declared that China's military buildup was the real motivation for its nuclear tests. Defense Minister George Fernandes claimed that China was India's "potential Number One enemy," warning that it was encircling India with missile and naval deployments of suspicious intent. India and China fought a brief war in 1962—a disgraceful loss for India that it has not forgotten. India insists even that China has nuclear weapons targeting India from Tibet.' In naval terms, India perceives "China trying to stretch its influence through Burma into the Indian Ocean." India seeks to counter this Chinese threat. "In South Asia, India seeks to dominate the region, including the sea. ‘After all,' said an Indian pundit, ‘it is called the Indian Ocean." This should not cause alarm. The United States should expect India to exercise control over its civilization. It is a nation—and a civilization—motivated by a need for security and respect, caught between two other potentially hostile civilizations. Because of this, India seeks to dominate the South Asian region-including the sea. This should not cause alarm. We should expect India to protect its civilization and territory as aggressively as we protect our own.
This deferential strategy toward the Indian Ocean should emphasize avoiding risky behaviors such as aggressive naval maneuvers, tactical suspicions, and unnecessary secret operations. In addition to Indo-Pak mediation, the United States should build its alliance incrementally with India by engaging in joint naval operations, and employing U.S. technology and resources in joint construction and renovation projects of Indian shipping facilities, contingent on access to both U.S. military and commercial shipping. Further steps could include enhancing officer contacts and exchanges, reserving seats at the U.S. Naval Academy, developing a naval liaison office, increasing port calls between nations and establishing standardized methods of communication to diffuse inevitable tensions that will flare-up in the Indian Ocean. Propping up an educated and globally minded officer corps as de facto national representatives could stabilize Indian foreign policy, which often is mired in petty rivalry and corruption. Unfortunately, military relations between the two nations have been curtailed by U.S. law, in response to India's nuclear tests. Now that India is a nuclear state, military cooperation is needed more than ever. Call it a mentoring relationship. The United States must encourage India to use its nuclear capacity in a responsible manner. Military contacts sponsored by the United States also can be used as a mechanism to bring elite Indian and Pakistani officers together. Today, many will not acknowledge each other even if in the same room. Implicit rules of engagement, confidence-building measures, and strategic understanding can be established in these meetings. Most important, the United States should coordinate a joint naval strategy with India. Forget nuclear nonproliferation; a comprehensive strategy to foster peace in South Asia is needed.
All U.S. actions with India should be aimed at developing a long-term alliance. If a dreadful future finds the United States and China at war, the United States will want India on its side. India is developing a nuclear triad. The Indian Navy deploys numerous surface ships with efficient missile systems; it maintains a competent submarine fleet; and it is developing aircraft carriers. It can fight and win a naval war of attrition. India has more reason to fear China than the United States. Therefore, the United States and India should development their common values as a wedge against Chinese hegemony in the region.
India has an incentive to cooperate with the United States. As Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro explain: "As for South Asia, Indian military planners have told us of their alarm over the prospect that China will be able to position a fleet sitting off their east coast. Already, the Chinese have personnel stationed on Burmese islands in the Indian Ocean monitoring Indian air and naval operations." Of course, alliance-building with India must be played out over time, in a nuanced manner. The United States does not need to provoke China. But the next time China conducts missile tests 30 miles from the coast of Taiwan, not only should U.S. aircraft carriers respond in the South China Sea, but U.S. warships should be dispatched to the Indian Ocean as well to conduct joint exercises with the Indian Navy. The Chinese should not have the privilege of defining their theaters of provocation.
China is a more distant civilization than India. The United States is ideologically opposed to Chinese authoritarianism to a far greater degree than any cultural differences we have with India. Although Chinese expansionism may not be apparent yet, world history suggests almost inevitable conflict between superpowers. In a perfect world, the United States would face no military conflicts. In this imperfect world, however, the United States should limit any future clash in Asia to one civilization, not two. Its alliance with India can serve either as a subtle, or—when necessary—blunt counterpoint to Chinese intransigence or belligerence. Each naval vessel deployed to the Indian Ocean should be seen as an ambassador to India. The Indian Ocean should be appreciated for its inherent strategic value, not just as a passage to a more important Middle East.
Although differences in civilization identity account for many conflicts, they need not mandate them. A conflict with China is not inevitable. But it is certainly more probable than one with India. The United States must choose its friends wisely. It has a convincing moral claim to build an alliance with India—a democratic, market-oriented nation. But overshadowing these moral claims is this military reality: an alliance with India could ensure victory were the specter of Chinese expansion ever to descend on Asia. Imagine the world as it will be 25 to 50 years from now. The choice is for us to make. Where shall we set our anchor in Asia?
Mr. MacKinnon was a sonar technician on the Louisville (SSN-724). He works at the U.S. Atlantic Command Joint Training, Analysis, and Simulation Center, and is attending Regent University School of Law.