The US Department of Defense (DOD) released its first ever Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) in the first week of June. The report outlines Washington’s approach in dealing with various stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region. It identifies China as one of the most important challenges to the US, noting that great-power competition has returned and threatens the stability of the Indo-Pacific region. The report emphasizes the need for alliances and partnerships to maintain peace and security in this region.
The IPSR identifies India as an important partner of the US. It takes a cue from a speech in 2017 by Rex Tillerson, then the US secretary of state, in which he identified India’s role in United States’ vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). India too believes in the principles of FOIP. There are a few parallels in the two countries’ visions for the Indo-Pacific region.
Both the US and India stand for a free, open and stable Indo-Pacific region. US President Donald Trump, in a speech at the APEC summit in 2017, announced that the US was committed to a safe, secure, prosperous and free Indo-Pacific region. The US believes in a rule-based order, where sovereignty for all nations is respected, disputes are resolved peacefully and international rules and norms are followed.
This converges with India’s approach of the Indo-Pacific as an inclusive region, anchoring on peace and prosperity for all stakeholders. Both countries believe in equal treatment of sovereign nation-states, which includes freedom of navigation and overflight.
Both countries view China as a potential challenge, though in different ways. India’s apprehensions are confined more to China’s increasing footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, said India’s Indo-Pacific approach was not directed against any country, repeated statements from different government officials indicate otherwise.
Recently, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said India needed to keep a close eye on increasing Chinese naval activity in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s naval chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, has conceded that China’s increasing presence in the northern part of the IOR is a challenge. There is a shared concern by both countries about China’s use of military, diplomatic and economic tools to influence the smaller actors in this region. However, unlike India, the IPSR goes a step or two further by calling China a revisionist power. It blames China for seeking Indo-Pacific hegemony in the near term, and global pre-eminence in the long run.
Non-traditional security challenges are another area where the interests of the two countries converge. The US National Defense Strategy of 2018 directed the DOD to employ more resources to the Indo-Pacific region. Both India and the US believe in tackling non-traditional security challenges such as humanitarian crises, disaster relief, threats from non-state actors, piracy, etc through bilateral or trilateral partnerships and regional architecture. The commonly used regional frameworks for these purposes are the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meetings + (ADMM+), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Bay of Bengal Multilateral, Sectoral and Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA), the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC).
However, despite parallels in numerous areas, Indian and US interests diverge on multiple issues in the Indo-Pacific region.
The first and most important divergence in the approaches of these two countries is regarding the geographical scope of the Indo-Pacific region. The US considers the area between the west coast of the United States and the western shores of India as the Indo-Pacific. Its primary areas of focus are the Pacific Ocean and what China calls the San Hai (three seas – the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea). However, India’s geographical vision for the Indo-Pacific is from the eastern shores of Africa to the western shore of the US. The IOR is India’s prime area of interest in the Indo-Pacific.
Although both countries consider China a challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, their approaches to dealing with it differs. The IPSR overtly points to Chinese military modernization, coercive actions and economic measures as threats to the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region. It demands upholding of the principled international order through self-preparedness (enabling capability), military alliances and partnerships.
But India, unlike the US, walks a tightrope by balancing its approach and being more subtle on China. It refrains from entering any alliance that would be overtly directed at China. Its limited participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is with the aim of forwarding FOIP, rather than containing China. This was also reflected through Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, when he said that the Indo-Pacific grouping was not a strategy or exclusive-members club. Its approach toward China in the Indo-Pacific region is more about engagement than containment.
Another major difference between India’s and America’s visions is regarding ASEAN centrality for the Indo-Pacific region. India’s Indo-Pacific vision is anchored around ASEAN. India believes that ASEAN has laid the foundation stone of the Indo-Pacific region.
For India, participation and dialogue through ASEAN-led architecture is vital for the peace and security of this region. ASEAN’s strategic location at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region and its land continuity (through Myanmar) with India make this region a pivot for India’s Indo-Pacific approach. But for the US, its Indo-Pacific outlook is centered more on bilateral alliances and partnerships, and less on the ASEAN-led regional architecture.
In the past, the US has conducted its engagement with the Quad over ASEAN-led regional forums. But changing geopolitical realities between the US and China have compelled some ASEAN countries to balance their approach. This makes certain ASEAN states less equal than others in the US approach to the Indo-Pacific region.