|By Nilova Roy Chaudhury, India Strategic||Published: November 2017|
New Delhi. China’s assertive maneuvers to dominate the Indian Ocean and the Pacific are changing the global dynamics. India is certainly concerned as the Chinese are building their biggest naval base at Gwadar in Pakistan, just about 700 km from the Indian coast.
China has already claimed nearly the entire South China Sea, and built artificial islands with military facilities, notwithstanding opposition from all its neighbours except its military dependency of North Korea.
The US, which is the only super power with global naval and military presence, and Japan and Australia, naturally want to align forces with India. So much so that in the new emerging order, the description Asia Pacific has given way to what is now being called the Indo-Pacific in acknowledgement of India’s importance in the global arena.
To recall, the US State Department under Condoleezza Rice, during the George W Bush administration, declared its policy goal “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century.” Ever since, successive administrations have sought to de-hyphenate India and Pakistan but, because of Afghanistan, have not been effective in curbing the ‘deep state’ of army and ISI in Islamabad which has kept the region in a spiral of violence.
On October 19 however, in a seminal speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank , US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took India out of the South Asian context into the Asia Pacific arena and the much larger Indo-Pacific sphere.
Describing India and the US as “bookends of stability” on either side of the globe, Tillerson advocated a strong “emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership” which has the potential to anchor the rules-based world order for the next century.
“China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for,” Tillerson said, speaking at CSIS on “Our Relationship with India for the Next Century.”
Shortly after, but ahead of his visit to India and (very briefly) Pakistan end-October, he also said both countries were “important elements” in the US policy for stabilising South Asia, while describing China as the destabilising force.
New Delhi hailed the speech and is appreciative of the sentiment and the proposed synergy in working with the US to meet common goals, of combating terrorism and unhindered access to security infrastructure and commerce and development and conveyed as much to Tillerson when he was in New Delhi.
However, it was clarified that India will not enter into any Indo-Pacific ‘alliance’ with the United States.
India is aware that it will have to face the regional challenges that confront it, like terrorism emanating from Pakistan, and Chinese bullying along the border, by itself, with perhaps a little help from friends. This it demonstrated during the standoff with China at the Doklam tri-junction, with quiet support from Bhutan.
Tillerson was also informed that India would continue its ties with both Iran and North Korea, though New Delhi has just a token presence in Pyongyang. The vital importance of the Iran links became apparent when India sent its first consignment of wheat to Afghanistan via the Chabahar port end-October. India is developing the port as a critical conduit for its aid and exports to Afghanistan and further into Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan, which has refused to allow it transit rights for goods and humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan.
While it has not keeled over with the Trump administration’s calls for closer cooperation in Afghanistan, steadfastly refusing to place ‘boots on the ground,’ India has decided to be part of the revived ‘quadrilateral’ of democracies of the Indo-Pacific region along with the USA, Japan and Australia.
It is a level of the maturity and confidence it has in its own strengths that New Delhi has determined that it will take part in the first meeting of the quadrilateral, slated for later this month, but it will not be party to any overt anti-China stance.
The impact of such a group and its first meeting at the level of senior officials will primarily be in the optics. Whatever agenda the officials decide upon, whether cooperating to keep maritime channels open or anti-piracy operations or disaster relief drills, the nuanced message will reach the intended capitals, without any overt shows of hostility, or even provocation towards Beijing and its junior allies, Islamabad and Pyongyang.
Japan mooted the revival of the quadrilateral. Just re-elected with a larger mandate for his agenda to re-shape Japan’s pacifist constitution and pursue a more aggressive, self-reliant foreign and defence policy, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed the formation of the group to US President Donald Trump in Tokyo November 6.
Tokyo has emerged as New Delhi’s key partner in the Indo-Pacific region. Aiming to provide a viable alternative to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dream ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have mooted an Asia Africa Growth Corridor, which builds upon the Japanese ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.’
This is effective acknowledgement that the erstwhile Asia Pacific region has now become the Indo-Pacific, with India as an integral part.
India’s ‘Act East Policy,’ which revolves around the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), could synergise well with Japan’s strategy to stabilise the vast Indo-Pacific region. In an unprecedented gesture, leaders of all 10 ASEAN nations would be joint chief guests at India’s Republic Day celebrations on January 26, 2018.
Prime Minister Modi is headed to the Philippines in mid-November for the East Asia Summit and the India-ASEAN annual summit. The concept of the Indo-Pacific will further crystallise in Manila, where Modi will meet Abe and a host of other leaders, including Trump.
Adding Australia to the close India-Japan-US trilateral partnership will further enhance and improve the scope of security cooperation and of leverage. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has indicated her country’s willingness to be part of the political-security quadrilateral dialogue. The idea is for leaders of the four countries to promote free trade and defence cooperation across a stretch of ocean from the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean and all the way to Africa, a development Beijing will monitor very closely.
An old Chinese curse, apparently heaped upon enemies, says ‘May you live in an interesting age’. This is indeed a very interesting age and, in the evolving domain of foreign and strategic policy architecture, very interesting times for India, though far removed from being cursed.
India really down not want hostility with its neigbours, but just as Pakistan guides the terror troubles, the assertive behavior of China all along its southern borders, be it land or waters, will dictate the fate of the region.
How meaningful the transition from Asia Pacific to Indo-Pacific is in the coming years will be determined by how calm the Chinese temperament is.