In the latest round of Shangri La Dialogue held last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi specifically outlined the contours of India’s Indo-Pacific policy by emphasizing the phrase, “free-open and inclusive”. This phrase marks its distinctiveness apropos India’s Indo-Pacific policy in two ways, if not more. First, the phrase broadened the idea of the Indo-Pacific for India, especially in comparison to the preceding definition of the region led by the US-Japan narrative, both conceptually and geographically. Both the US and Japan have led the Indo-Pacific narrative through a slightly different phrase, “free and open”, describing the intended rules-based order in the region. However, India’s use of the word ‘inclusive’ sets a nuanced demarcation in the Indo-Pacific discourse.
This phrasal addition by India seeks to add an ‘Indian dimension’ to the Indo-Pacific discourse and tries to distinguish its own vision of the region from how the region is perceived by the Pacific powers. However, in its attempt to create this distinct narrative, the intended clarity might have been lost. Essentially, the Indo-Pacific remains the region where the countries involved in the region are still nurturing, recalibrating, re-adjusting and re-orienting their strategies, even as the region remains in flux, geopolitically as well as geo-strategically. The extant regional flux in the Indo-Pacific are symbolised by the following uncertainties in the region. First, the United States ceases to remain the same reassuring power that it was from the end of the World War II up until the end of the decade after the end of the Cold War. Amidst several retracting geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific from Washington, like its decision to pull out of regional mega economic initiative, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP); its threats of pull out and dwindling resources allocated to non-NATO allies in the Pacific like Japan and the Philippines; and an unprecedented uncertainty surrounding regional security from Trump Administration have together left its traditional Pacific allies hankering for alternative security and economic assurances and dependencies. Most of these new regional reliance choices have shifted to China’s shoulders, mostly under compulsions of national interests for various countries.
China’s assertive behaviour across the Indo-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has led to an altered geopolitics in the region, particularly through a combined economic-strategic leverage generation. As other great powers have moved to resist this regional security reformulation, a dual-dependence on China and the US is threatening to become a geopolitical norm in the Indo-Pacific, where countries haven’t severed their military alliances with the US but have not shied from increasing a commensurate economic dependence on China. Amidst these, strategic hedging has become the safest way to navigate for countries of the region.
Even as separate dependency categorizations have taken place in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis great powers of the region, the latters’regional standing have been economically and strategically fluctuating. To this end, India finds itself in a tough geopolitical spot, even as it proximity with Washington is growing and that with China remains strained and laced with suspicion. This contradiction becomes starker when seen against trade realities with China, with the latter being India’s largest trade partner, and a growing bilateral trade with the US, which has risen to become India’s second largest defence exporter. With China, historical hostilities, suspicion and trade dependence leave very little room for healthy navigation. These compulsions have pushed India to productively engage with most countries in the Indo-Pacific, including those that are antagonistic to each other, thereby also drawing a distinct line in the Indo-Pacific region.
Towards underscoring its distinctiveness in the Indo-Pacific, India has specifically emphasized on two things. First, India has underscored the de-coupling of the four nation Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad) from its Indo-Pacific strategy. This deliberate de-coupling has provided India the necessary navigation room to carry out its policies in the desired manner, foremost, without antagonizing another major player in the region – in particular without necessarily obviating the perception of its policies as being markedly anti-China.
The Quad, comprising Australia, Japan, Indian and the US, was invoked with intentions of a collective security group in the Indo-Pacific, whose one among several purposes was to provide alternative models of regional growth and prevent China from violating regional rules with the same disregard that it practices in the South China Sea. As such, India’s own position in the Quad and its intended interests in the Indo-Pacific appear contradictory to each other. To the extent that the Quad represents a security grouping in the Indo-Pacific whose perceived purpose is to ‘contain China’, India seems to be distancing itself from the group’s regional goals. This is one of the main reasons why Indi has added the word, “inclusive” in its Indo-Pacific policy discourse. However, the word ‘inclusive’ besides seeking a distinctive position apropos other members of the Quad, has created some confusion too. India does not make the meaning of the word ‘inclusive’ clear. India’s policy discourse does not define the extent of inclusiveness. Is India’s Indo-Pacific policy inclusive of all actors, including China? If yes, then the Quad loses its collective security premise and ceases to hold its security partnership relevance. If China is indeed a part of India’s Indo-Pacific considerations, will the former allow India the same leeway vis-à-vis its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?
These questions leave India’s Indo-Pacific policy in an uncertain terrain which certainly does not augur well for India’s Indo-Pacific policy. As such, the best way forward for India’s Indo-Pacific policy would be to assertively strike a balance between its Quad membership/responsibilities and its partnership/accommodation with/of China. If India indeed agrees in principle to accommodate China in its Indo-Pacific discourse – it should leverage to create its own space in the Pacific discourse by proving ready to cross the Strait of Malacca more often and on regional demands. Lastly, India should weave an Indo-Pacific discourse that crates a robust Pacific leverage and expands its Indo-Pacific vision further east.
*** The author is Assistant Professor of International Relations, Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata ***