The Indo-Pacific is currently the most talked-about theatre of global geopolitics and diplomacy, with commentators deconstructing every policy move in the region. But what is the Indian perspective on it? The following is the picture which emerges when viewed through the prism of five key bilateral or trilateral relationships. They reflect the mix of contestation and collaboration, which characterises regional politics today.
First, the U.S.-China equation, as the most fundamental relationship, has experienced unprecedented stress during the past year. Trade issues remain unresolved, with each side imposing escalating tariffs on the other, thereby showing a strong inclination to continue the trade war. They also accuse each other of bad faith, of reneging on concessions advanced. Stridency in the U.S. voice against the Chinese side is much stronger, as President Trump recently urged the U.S. companies to withdraw their investments and operations from China and transfer them elsewhere. He now calls China a threat to the world.
The word from Washington is that the conflict is no longer about trade only, and therefore it may not end even if a trade deal is worked out. China is perceived as the most potent adversary in the long term, out to curb America’s strategic influence and interests, first in Asia and then the rest of the world. Therefore, the U.S. policy on which the establishment, including the White House, is agreed is to be resolute vis-à-vis China.
Second, the functioning of the U.S.-India-China triangle has become even more complex than before, especially due to Afghanistan and the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) issue. As the U.S.-Taliban negotiations, facilitated by Pakistan, failed to culminate in a deal, paving the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Washington continues to be ambiguous about paying a reasonable price for Pakistan’s cooperation. Pakistan is clamouring for U.S. help in coping with India’s assertive stance on J&K and categorical refusal to begin talks until cross-border terrorism stops. While the U.S. government, mindful of the strategic value of relations with India in the context of the threat from China, makes moves welcome to New Delhi, but after the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, the president, mercurial and unpredictable as ever, flirted again with the chance to ‘mediate’ in the India-Pakistan confrontation. This, besides Trump’s constant harping on the trade deficit with India, has cast a shadow on the otherwise warm and growing relationship between the U.S. and India.
Third, India-China relations, nurtured well on the Wuhan spirit for a few months and resulting in Beijing’s delayed agreement to list Azhar Masood as a global terrorist, have come under palpable strain due to Beijing’s adversarial moves in backing Pakistan on the J&K question, particularly its initiative to hold closed consultations at the Security Council. Irked by the UK’s fairly explicit support for the joint China-Pakistan approach, India banks on the support and understanding of Russia and France. In this context, careful hedging on Indo-Pacific issues by New Delhi is indispensable as it prepares for the second bilateral India-China summit in October.
Fourth, the China-Japan-India triangle has also been undergoing an interesting, though less noticed, change. During the past year, China and Japan developed a good rapport, mitigating acrimonies and tensions of the recent years. Japan adopted a conciliatory, even accommodative, stance on Xi Jinping’s favourite child, the Belt and Road Initiative. The Japanese managed to persuade India to quietly drop the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor initiative in favour of low-profile bilateral cooperation projects in different geographies. This pattern of developments matched limited improvement in India-China relations too – until the J&K issue erupted in early August. Relations among Japan, India and China are likely to remain within an arc of cooperation and strategic competition.
Fifth, subtle but significant changes in the Russia-India equation should also be factored in. With a successful visit to Russia’s Far East in early September, Modi is striving to strengthen investment and technological linkages that give a role to Indian companies in the development of a resource-rich region. Russia is amenable, keen as it is to reduce its over-dependence on China for this purpose. Drawing in Russia as an Indo-Pacific power helps in improving the regional balance, as far as India is concerned.
The ASEAN angle
After a year of painstaking internal negotiations, the 10-state regional grouping announced its “Indo-Pacific Outlook”, a theme on which it had preferred to maintain silence for the past several years. Three central components of its new strategy are: inclusivity, ASEAN centrality, and insistence that ASEAN-led institutions, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), are capable of addressing all issues facing the region. That the ASEAN, at last, found its voice and was able to project a unified stand on the Indo-Pacific is a welcome development. But if relations among the major actors, as outlined above, are marked more by conflict, tensions, and trust deficit than mutual understanding and cooperation, then ASEAN – with all its good intentions – may still be unable to make much of a difference to the region’s peace and stability.
Pointers for India
To make its Act East and Indo-Pacific policy more result-oriented, South Block can:
- ensure the operationalisation of the Trilateral Highway, linking India-Myanmar and Thailand, by May 2020, when the Modi government completes its six years in office;
- be ready to begin construction of this highway’s extension to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia;
- come up with a more attractive substitute to the proposed project for digital connectivity between India and ASEAN (for which a concessional credit facility of $1 billion was offered by India), but which has had no traction;
- implement in time-bound fashion India’s new scheme to award 1,000 fully-paid Ph.D fellowships to ASEAN citizens in the next three years;
- correct the balance in the security-development matrix in the Indo-Pacific in favour of development. Regional initiatives to promote possibilities of cooperation in the Blue Economy domain are a priority. The missing link in the discourse is business and a regional conference of industry leaders to harmonise ideas and craft a few bankable projects will be worthwhile.
These steps apart, BIMSTEC, which has received a shot of political adrenalin, needs to show concrete progress by quickly finalising agreements that have been under negotiation for long; launching new projects of connectivity; accelerating its reform agenda; and creating a new development financing facility.
Finally, the crunch time to decide if India will be in or out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), is drawing close. A fine and delicate balancing of strategic political, diplomatic and, above all, trade and economic considerations is needed. Stretching negotiations beyond end-2019 appears an increasingly less attractive option, but India-China trade issues continue to be a stumbling block.
The next nine to 12 months will bear watching as a fascinating and complex series of developments unfolds in the Indo-Pacific.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House. A former Ambassador to Myanmar, he is the author of India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours (Routledge 2016).
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