Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. Photo: AFP / Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik

The US recently came out with the latest iteration of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The document has a clear imprint of the ongoing great-power competition across political, ideological and military-technical domains between US and its allies on one side and China and Russia on the other. 

US-India divergences

The document has a realist tone, admitting that the US seeks “a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable” to it. It is no coincidence that Russia and China take issue with the US rhetoric on a “rules-based order” that would only be advantageous to US and countries closely aligned to it. 

The US and India still have diverging interests, even if they agree on countering China. India prefers to maintain relationships with several other partners such as the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Russia.

The controversy around the so-called “freedom of navigation” operation (FONOP) conducted by the USS John Paul Jones in India’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) remains fresh in Indian minds almost a year later. 

The US, despite its rhetoric advocating “freedom of navigation” and a “law of the sea” has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), nor is it likely to do so under President Joe Biden’s administration. The strategy’s references to this issue thus come off as hypocritical and self-defeating. 

Before embarking on his December visit to India, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly called India “one of the authoritative centers of the multipolar world.” The US strategy’s reference to India as a regional leader and Washington’s willingness to consider “autonomy and options” may signal that even if it does not endorse them, is at least ready to tolerate the ties between New Delhi and Moscow. 

As the strategy references, the US has in recent years helped India bolster its naval assets, and capability of providing greater maritime-domain awareness and conducting anti-submarine warfare. The Indian Navy’s US-supplied fleet of P8i maritime patrol aircraft, the leased and soon-to-be-procured MQ-9 drones as well as the MH-60R ASW helicopters indeed provide better undersea capabilities than their Soviet-origin predecessors.

As the strategy highlights, under its Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), the US intends to deploy precision-strike missiles on the territory of allied nations within the so-called first island chain. Japan and Taiwan are both seen as key partners and locations for these missiles to be deployed as a conventional deterrence measure against China and North Korea. 

Because of the range and area-denial role of these missiles, Russia also sees them as a threat to its Far East. India would have seen no problem with supporting the PDI if it didn’t have implications for Russia. As things stand, India depends on Moscow for more than three-quarters of its arsenal and can hardly hope to decouple from or alienate Russia in the near future.

The technology focus

When the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was revived in 2020, the non-China-centric focus of the alliance that the leaders of the four states argued for was buttressed by their commitments in the field of critical and emerging technologies. So far, the Quad partners have actually lived up to their word and not merely treated collaboration on critical technology as lip service.

The Quad Supply Chain Initiative was a testament to the fact that the United States saw the Indo-Pacific states as potential partners to counter China’s rise in the semiconductor industry. The 2022 US Indo-Pacific Strategy has again dedicated a considerable chunk of its commitments to technological growth of the region. 

When Huawei overtook the rest of the field and became the worldwide telecommunication leader in fifth-generation (5G) technology, the United States was left scrambling to figure out an alternative to counter the rise of the telecom giant. With the help of the Chinese government, Huawei managed to secure the most patents as well as set the majority of the global standards related to 5G technology.

This in effect decreased the leverage the West and its companies had in the 5G domain. The creation of the Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) alliance bolstered the chances of the US creating a global telecommunications alternative. 

The strategy document goes into how the US is committed to promoting resilient and secure global telecommunications, especially with a focus on 5G vendor diversification and O-RAN. The latter supports interoperability among different vendors’ equipment and offers network flexibility at an affordable cost.

The focus of the US is to use O-RAN to create a telecommunications supply market that remains open to multiple vendors. Along with that, the US seeks to push O-RAN as the global communications standard itself. This would in effect reduce the reliance on Chinese telecommunication equipment and standards for various countries across the region and the world, limiting its sphere of influence. 

Another technology component that the United States throws light on is the partnership approach to advance and regulate emerging technologies, the Internet and cyberspace.  Preserving the integrity of international technology-standard bodies by preventing other regimes from influencing standard-setting processes remains one of the priorities of the US.

The US has also clearly said it will strive to implement a framework of responsible behavior in cyberspace and its associated norms. It is clear that the US is looking at potential allies in the Indo-Pacific region for promoting consensus-based technical standards as well as enforcing cyberspace norms.

The green push 

The strategy document also emphasizes the risks and threats posed to the Indo-Pacific region by climate change. The United States looks to position itself as the torchbearer for promoting climate action in the region by helping states mitigate climate disasters and formulate goals to tackle the climate crisis. 

Reduction in emissions and helping developing states in the region achieve a net-zero emission goal in the future is a priority for the US.

The Clean Edge initiative to increase clean-energy technology investment and deployment, drive energy-sector decarbonization, and foster climate-aligned infrastructure investment are on the radar of the United States when it comes to climate financing in the Indo-Pacific region.

This can also be viewed from a strategic perspective, as China has remained the primary supply market for renewable sources of energy such as solar. Helping ASEAN members and other Indo-Pacific countries achieve their climate goals without China’s imports is what the US has in mind in its green push. 

The document also delves into the commitments made by the United States to work with partners in reducing their vulnerability to environmental degradation. The sustainable use of the region’s vast oceans, the legal use of their resources, and the promotion of beneficial trade also find mentions in the strategy document.

Reading between the lines, the US seeks to maintain the status quo in the South China Sea despite the Chinese aggression by ensuring the protection of the region’s economic resources. While the United States may continue to position itself as a leader of the green initiative, one cannot help but see that this is another way to check and limit the influence of Beijing in the region.

Rare earths 

Despite their centrality to the discourse on clean energy and emission-reduction technologies like electric vehicles, the US strategy makes no reference to securing supply chains for rare earth elements. China’s dominance of that sector is a common concern for all Quad member states, yet there is little concrete action in the sector that involves India.

Unilaterally, India is also yet to make any significant moves either domestically or internationally to carve out an alternative supply chain, decoupled from China and oriented toward its Quad allies.

It is clear that the latest US strategy for the Indo-Pacific region has substance and is founded in realist thinking around managing great-power competition. However, omissions like the neglect of securing rare earths for the Quad, and the divergence on maritime zones and navigation in India’s EEZ, signal that challenges in pursuit of common causes remain.  

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.

Arjun Gargeyas

Arjun Gargeyas is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, a public policy think-tank in Bangalore.