The defense framework signed with India this week during Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s trip to the Pacific is the most recent step in U.S. efforts to put together a coalition to counter China’s growing influence, including its aggression in the South China Sea.
Mr. Carter and Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar signed a 10-year agreement Wednesday in New Delhi to promote cooperation. Under the agreement, the U.S. and India will develop a mobile solar energy power source as well as a lightweight suit to protect against chemical and biological weapons and will build jet engines and an aircraft carrier for India.
The Pentagon said in an official statement that Mr. Carter’s trip to India was part of a broader “U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.”
Mr. Carter suggested that an increased U.S. role, along with the rising economic prowess of India, Vietnam, Singapore and other allies in the region, would help counter Chinese aggression.
“These two things come together when it comes to maritime security, maritime domain awareness,” Mr. Carter said.
China in recent months has tried to increase its power by expanding artificial islands in the hotly contested waters of the South China Sea. The islands are believed to house military weapons and a runway long enough for China’s largest aircraft.
The Chinese also have taken an aggressive posture by attempting to deny travel through these waters to Navy ships and others.
“I think what the U.S. is doing if you look carefully with the defense guidelines with Japan, Vietnam and elsewhere, is we’re putting together a loose coalition of allies and security partners that includes India, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia and so on,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “What we’re doing in India is kind of a piece of that counterbalancing strategy.”
Although India has its own interests in the South China Sea, for navigation and oil exploration, its overall strategy has been to remain independent on the world stage.
The U.S. agreement with India represents a step forward in the bilateral partnership, but Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, said India will continue to protect its independent posture. While the Indian government buys some defense equipment from the U.S., Mr. Lohman said, it also buys equipment from Russia to prevent the country from becoming too dependent on any single partner.
“They’re not on their way to becoming a plank in our strategy toward China because they’re too leery of falling into someone else’s strategy,” he said.
But the U.S. and India may have common interests in the South China Sea.
Beijing told India this week that it couldn’t explore for oil in disputed areas of the South China Sea, an issue Mr. Carter may have looked to leverage in his talks with Mr. Parrikar.
China has claimed almost the entire sea, which is a major shipping route and is believed to have large oil and gas reserves.
The Pentagon on Thursday declined to comment on Mr. Carter’s objectives during the trip, but the defense secretary said during a stay in Singapore that he expected countries such as Vietnam and India to play growing roles in regional security.
“That’s what the United States believes in and is championing: a vibrant Vietnam. It’s eager to do more, and we’re doing more with them. And India, an India that’s not only rising economically and militarily but is also a regional security provider now and in the future,” he said.
Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said cooperation in the South China Sea may be a long-term goal of a better relationship with India, but nothing in Wednesday’s agreement specifically mentioned the tension-filled international waterway.
“There’s really nothing explicitly in the agreement about the South China Sea,” he said. “Carter’s visit is about bilateral India relations and setting up a framework for 10 years of strategic discussions. In those, I’m sure the South China Sea will be a topic, but what it will mean practically is very unclear from what we know so far.”
Mr. Carter left May 27 for his second trip to Asia since taking office in February. He spent 10 days in Singapore, Vietnam and India to “reaffirm the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said at the beginning of the trip.
During the trip, Mr. Carter spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday and rebuked China for building artificial islands in the South China Sea that have increased tensions in the region.
Several nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have developed outposts in the contested waterway, but China has claimed more than 2,000 acres of land — more than all the other countries combined — in the past 18 months Mr. Carter said.
The Pentagon has said that China placed weapons on some of the artificial islands.
“We’ve all benefited from free and open access to the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. We all have a fundamental stake in the security of the South China Sea,” Mr. Carter said during the Singapore speech. “That’s why we all have deep concerns about any party that attempts to undermine the status quo and generate instability there.”
Mr. Lohman said the emphasis on building relationships with India, which began during the George W. Bush administration, is partly to increase the number of partners in the region to protect U.S. and international interests, but there is more to it.
“It’s getting friends and allies to protect the current order, basically,” he said. “What we have established in the Western Pacific after 70 years, it’s to preserve that and the Indians can be a part of that, but it’s a long process.
“The South China Sea is just part of our reason for getting closer to India,” he said. “Even where it’s about China, it’s going to be about more than just the South China Sea. It’s about India’s border, their long-standing rivalry with the Chinese, it’s about a lot.”