Modi also insisted that a “stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region” is an “important pillar” of India’s strategic partnership with the United States. The US is equally passionate about the Indo-Pacific. The emphasis shown by the Donald Trump administration on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ can be termed as its most momentous strategic initiative towards India.
The Pentagon has already begun using the new term in the US official documents. The US military has renamed its Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command. The Defense Secretary James Mattis has remarked that “relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability... In recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, today we rename the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command.”
Although the move is being seen as largely symbolic, it nonetheless underscores the rising significance of India in America’s strategic calculations. In April, Alex Wong, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, acknowledged “the historical reality and the current day reality” that India plays a key role in the Pacific, East Asia and Southeast Asia.
Qualitatively speaking, Modi’s approach to the US is irrefutably different from his predecessors since strong ties with the US are seen as a vital tool for enhancing India’s strategic posture as well as its autonomy. Under Modi’s leadership, India has broken new ground in pursuing policies driven exclusively by long-term vision of national interest.
For example, New Delhi inked the LEMAO (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) with Washington in 2016, overcoming years of hesitation. Since Asia-Pacific, due to its non-inclusion of India, had largely confined India in South Asia, New Delhi has enthusiastically embraced the Indo-Pacific.
The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific framework, which recognises the strong connections between the Indian Ocean region and the Western Pacific, clearly puts India at the centre of this new geopolitical construct which however yields different interpretations to different countries.
But the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is straightforwardly strategic in its orientation and its political context is equally unmistakable: China. While the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ is still in the early phases of conceptualisation, it is matched in importance only by the Chinese assertiveness.
Beijing’s assertive external behaviour can be explained with reference to the persistent growth in China’s military capabilities, dramatic shifts in the global distribution of power, particularly those resulting from declining faith in America’s leadership capabilities. China’s increasingly active presence in the Indian Ocean region as well as its relentless efforts to expand geopolitical reach in Asia and beyond by the use of trade and military as twin instruments have reduced the gestation period for the emergence of Indo-Pacific region.
There is a near unanimity of a new ‘great game’ manifesting itself in the maritime domain in which the control of sea lanes and ports would be the game changer. China seems to have taken the lead in this new geopolitical chess game with President Xi Jinping’s pet geopolitical project—the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI)—which seeks to redraw the map of the Asian landmass while preventing India from adopting a more systematic approach to the region.
Responding to Xi’s grand strategy, the Modi government has also responded with the ‘Act East Policy’ which is aimed at substantial improvement of India’s relations with Southeast Asia where many countries remain deeply apprehensive of Chinese intentions in the wider maritime theatre.
Modi’s just-concluded visit to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore is a clear manifestation of India ‘acting east’. While characterising Singapore as India’s “springboard to ASEAN” and “a gateway for India to the East”, Modi has declared that the ASEAN must form the geographic core to any Indo-Pacific architecture. China is keeping a close watch at India’s engagement through strategic dialogues, military exercises and security agreements with many Indo-Pacific countries.
Matching China’s own tactics in its backyard, India is also trying to make innovative use of trade and diplomacy as its strategic arsenals. But the success rate of the BRI coupled with India’s perceptible lack of an alternate vision is putting a spanner in New Delhi’s efforts to effectively deal with Chinese manoeuvres.
And the evolving dynamics of Russia-India-China dialogue, the SCO, and the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) are also seen as components of New Delhi’s balancing act between Washington and Beijing. As illustrated by the resent ‘informal summit’ between Xi and Modi, and Modi’s positive comments at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, India’s hedging approach might be the most politically expedient device in the time of unprecedented disruptions in global geopolitics.
However, structural factors demand India increase its strategic alignment with the US in order to balance the security concerns emanating from China’s aggressive stance. In fact, when Modi referred to India’s conception of the Indo-Pacific as common rules-based order which is “based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few” and “based on faith in dialogue, and not dependence on force,” who could have missed his obvious reference to China riding roughshod over its neighbours?
The Modi government has time and again advocated freedom of navigation and adherence to rules-based order in various international forums, and what Modi argued at the Shangri-La Dialogue was the reiteration of this principle without directly pointing an accusing finger at China for its aggressive posture in South China Sea.
However, the US defence secretary James Mattis was less guarded in his address at the Shangri-La, when he argued that “China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness of our strategy.” Subsequently, Mattis’ praise of Modi for underlining the dangers of massive debts is a clear reflection of close alignment between New Delhi and Washington about BRI’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’.
It is therefore in India’s strategic interest that the Indo-Pacific emerges as a multipolar region which is structurally capable of countering the potential hegemony of one state, however powerful it may feel.