Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the BRICS summit last year. Photo: AFP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the BRICS summit last year. Photo: AFP

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalistic government is taking a more proactive role in regional military cooperation than its predecessors – and the reason, according to Jeff M Smith of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Centre, is that China has emerged as a regular actor in the Indian Ocean.

That also means, Smith argues in a May 8 interview with the National Bureau of Asian Research, that Modi is less inhibited by India’s history of non-alignment and less suspicious of strategic collaboration with the United States and its security partners than previous administrations.

The past decade has seen a gradual deterioration of relations between China and India, which has manifested itself in a border dispute in the Himalayas, the Tibet question and China’s patronage toward India’s arch-enemy Pakistan. But mainly, as Smith says, it is a reaction to “the substantial growth of China’s military strength, economic footprint and political influence in both South Asia and the Indian Ocean.”

China has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and has become closely involved with political developments in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Chinese president Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, which includes a US$60 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and rumors of a planned Chinese naval base at Gwadar on the coast of Pakistan, is seen in New Delhi as part of a strategic encirclement of India.

As a consequence, India is showing interest in renewing formal quadrilateral cooperation with Australia, Japan and the United States, a multilateral partnership that’s called the Quadrilateral Security Dialog, or Quad, which has been dormant for nearly a decade. India has also entered into several defense-related agreements with France, a major Indian Ocean power.

Naval cooperation between India, Japan and the United States is especially noteworthy. According to Smith: “India’s voice on the maritime disputes in the South China Sea has gradually grown louder. Since 2011, New Delhi has become an increasingly outspoken advocate for freedom of navigation, the rule of law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Importantly, the Indian government was also supportive of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling delivered in July 2016, which invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim to nearly the entire South China Sea. At the same time, China-India bilateral trade reached  US$84.44 billion in 2017, an historic high, making China India’s largest foreign trading partner. So war is hardly on the horizon, but tensions will remain – and India’s traditional policy of non-alignment is definitely a thing of the past.

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