Indo-Pacific map. Image: iStock
Indo-Pacific map. Image: iStock

India’s participation in the ongoing Indo-Pacific debate and its decision to join the revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the US, Japan, India and Australia) have raised concerns in the corridors of power in Moscow, Beijing and other capitals.

Even Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) member states view the two back-to-back “Quad” meetings last month in Singapore with concern, as they fear the informal body could eclipse the bloc’s leading role in regional affairs. Then there are several other extra-regional stakeholders who also remain wary of the role of the Quad in this tectonic shift from the continental “Asia-Pacific” to the maritime “Indo-Pacific” geopolitical paradigm.

Understandably, India has been trying to address some of these misperceptions of its policies. In this regard, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s  Shangri-La Dialogue speech in Singapore last month has since emerged as the best elucidation of India’s Indo-Pacific vision as Act East policy as well.

To say the least, the Modi government seeks to expand the Indo-Pacific dialogue beyond the Quad. It seeks to build a larger consensus for making the Indo-Pacific a truly “free, open and inclusive” region that extends from the eastern shores of Africa to the western Pacific. This consensus-building process will be an uphill battle that is pregnant with possibilities, and the goalposts may change. The Indo-Pacific paradigm’s mainly western proponents see it as a bulwark against Chinese regional hegemony.

As part of India’s efforts to engage various Indo-Pacific stakeholders, the month of March saw French-Indian maritime dialogue result in a naval cooperation deal in the southern Indian Ocean. This was followed in May by India signing another defense pact with Indonesia and gaining access for the strategic development of Sumatra’s Sabang port. The last week of June saw Seychelles President Danny Faure visiting India to reaffirm the country’s access to its strategic Assumption Island. Against this backdrop, last week India formally announced that it wants to open Indo-Pacific dialogue with both Moscow and Beijing. To say the least, this has come as a surprise to many, even in these three countries!

To begin with, India has proposed that the Indo-Pacific be discussed at the soon-to-be-convened second China-India maritime dialogue. The first one was held in March 2016, but the Doklam crisis in 2017 derailed this initiative. It is now being revived following the success of April’s “informal” summit between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, which is believed to have reset China-India relations.

India sees China as the most important trigger for this shift from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific. The most visible element that joins these to oceans today is the high volume of ships carrying Chinese exports from China’s eastern coastline and bringing home imports of large amounts of gas and oil. China is today the largest trading partner with most littoral nations of the Indo-Pacific and therefore the strongest stakeholder in the formulation of this vision. But with regard to Indo-Pacific geopolitics, China remains skeptical about India’s credentials for engaging in, let alone initiating, Indo-Pacific discourses with China.

Chinese media outlets view the Indo-Pacific paradigm as a counter to rising China and think India is just jumping on the American anti-China bandwagon. China was clearly upset with India obtaining access to Sumatra’s Sabang port. Its Communist Party mouthpiece, Global Times, for instance, advised New Delhi in a June editorial not to “wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers.”

Global Times warned New Delhi that the benefits from its Indo-Pacific strategy may be “greatly outweighed by the costs to India,” adding that Beijing can offer more support and knowledge than the US

Last week,  Global Times warned New Delhi that the benefits from its Indo-Pacific strategy may be “greatly outweighed by the costs to India,” adding that Beijing can offer more support and knowledge than the US. All this may have also put India on the defensive, but India’s response can also be read as New Delhi calling China’s bluff about India gaining more by engaging Beijing. Doubts also continue to be cast on whether this visible shift in India’s China policy is also Indo-Pacific policy, marking a decisive change, or is only a tactical move to avoid a second Doklam crisis before India’s coming general elections.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, Modi said, “India does not see Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members.” He even alluded to his strategy of building a consensus across the Indo-Pacific community using “partnerships in format of three or more” countries. Policy initiatives so far seem to follow that remit and, therefore, after achieving a Russia-China-India triangular dialogue on the Indo-Pacific, India may engage other members of Asean as well as East African countries.

However, the first stop on this new journey, Beijing, is not going to be easy. India’s talk of ensuring a “free, open and inclusive” scenario and ‘”rule-based” navigation and connectivity in the Indo-Pacific is often interpreted by Beijing as a swipe against China’s assertive policies in the South China Sea, though India has never been directly critical of Beijing’s maritime policies. If anything, the last 18 months of whimsical policies from US President Donald Trump have witnessed India’s silent drift toward China and Russia. This was clearly showcased by Modi’s recent “informal” summits with Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin before he outlined his Indo-Pacific vision in his Shangri-La speech. This speech did not even mention the South China Sea, which can be seen as a marked change from the January 2015 US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, which emphasized “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”

Modi’s Shangri-La speech focused on the need for China and India to be “sensitive to each other’s interests” and policy initiatives since have alluded to this being a genuine undertaking. Today, India surely does not wish to provoke China or Russia, especially when the US commitment to the regional security architecture remains uncertain, though India has so far managed its relations with the US with minimum disruptions.

Important questions remain as to how Beijing will respond to New Delhi’s efforts to make the Indo-Pacific paradigm a reality? It is important to note that Global Times has also published some less hostile articles about China-India relations.

The intensifying trade war with the United States has seen Beijing making some unforeseen diplomatic overtures toward both Tokyo and New Delhi. While there remain questions about when and how Russia, China and India will engage on the Indo-Pacific, their recent interactions indicate that there will be significant cooperation, which is bound to have deeper systemic implications for not just the US and its allies but also for all the littoral nations of the Indo-Pacific rim.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).

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