As Prime Minister Narendra Modi enters his second innings with a thumping mandate yet again, it is imperative to reflect on what it would mean for one of India’s most prominent foreign policy focus, which is the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific has been a prominent area of emphasis for India in terms of its own material development, as well as building ties with like-minded partners in the region. Unlike last time, the Shangri La Dialogue (SLD) 2019 did not see a high level Indian presence since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his new cabinet was just assuming office around the time. The Shangri La Dialogue was the premier platform for major stakeholders to advocate their approaches to the Asia Pacific and now it has emerged as the primary platform to do so for the Indo-Pacific region. This year, the rising trade tensions between the US and China overshadowed all other agenda items. Are we witnessing the rise of a more strained US-China relationship that will force other countries to take sides? What would that imply for India’s balancing act, and its multi-alignment approach to foreign policy?
Despite the unmistakable rise of new power centres and hence the debates on an emerging multipolar world order, concerns regarding the probability of a US-China bipolar dynamics have been concurrent. Rising powers like India have been long concerned about the implications on its foreign policy manoeuvring of either a US-China power condominium or US-China confrontation. The conundrum is quite apparent. While New Delhi is wary of any embrace between Washington and Beijing, it also does not want to get caught in a Washington-Beijing crossfire. The tenuous atmosphere in US-China relations, more particularly reflected in the tit-for-tat trade war, besides the cold confrontation over issues of freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific, is giving anxiety to other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific. The Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, during his keynote address at the SLD 2019 contended that, “tensions between the US and China are growing and, like everyone else, we in Singapore are anxious.” “China’s growth has shifted the strategic balance and the economic centre of gravity of the world – and the shift continues. Both China and the rest of the world have to adapt to this new reality,” he said.
The latest Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region released by the US Department of Defense calls China “a revisionist power”. “The Chinese Communist Party, seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations,” the report argued. US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M Shanahan echoed the same views speaking at SLD 2019. “Perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region comes from actors who seek to undermine, rather than uphold, the rules-based international order,” he said without directly naming any particular country. General Wei Fenghe, China’s State Councilor and Minister of National Defence, said, “As for the recent trade friction started by the US, if the US wants to talk, we will keep the door open. If they want a fight, we will fight till the end. As the general public of China says these days, ‘A talk? Welcome. A fight? We are ready. Bully us? No way.””
New Delhi showed its foreign policy intent, by creating a new Indo-Pacific Desk in its Ministry of External Affairs and its partnership with the United States remains the most crucial driver of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, the complexities of the emerging geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region has been apparent in India’s intention to practice strategic autonomy through multi-alignment. In order to create a conducive external environment for sustainable internal growth, India is required to maintain ties with a host of countries in all domains. This approach was made quite apparent when Prime Minister Modi delivered the keynote address at the SLD last year. “Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific. India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country.”
India and the US have certainly found strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific and the areas of cooperation are palpable ranging from military-to-military interoperability, increasing defence trade to counter-terrorism. The bilateral partnership has been solidified with trilateral and multilateral understanding, as in the India-US-Japan trilateral initiative and the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad) including Australia. However, the India-US strategic partnership has recently emitted signs of limitations, when the Trump administration terminated India’s designation as a beneficiary nation under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). Does this mean a waning of the strategic quotient of India-US partnership in the face of Trump’s call for economic reciprocity? Moreover, America’s sanctions policy has often made it difficult for India to manoeuvre its ties with a defence supplier like Russia and an energy supplier like Iran, both at the receiving end of US sanctions. Besides, the complex nature of India-China relationship means that New Delhi would want to control the direction of its ties with Beijing, and not be influenced by Washington. Moreover, the length and breadth of America’s as well as the relations of other Quad countries with China is substantial over which India has no control. Lately, how the French perceive the emerging geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific and its role in the region has led to new assessments of its partnerships with other stakeholders, including India. As such, India’s choice of partners in the region would present both opportunities and challenges, and how India pursues its policy of multi-alignment amid rising US-China tensions will define the early days of Modi 2.0 in the Indo-Pacific.