August 1, 2017

India and the Indo-Pacific Balance of Power

Ultimately, India’s most important role in the Asia-Pacific is to be a more successful form of itself: demonstrating that strong economic growth can be achieved within a diverse, plural, liberal democracy.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.

This essay appears in Indo-Pacific Maritime Security: Challenges and Cooperation, a book edited by David Brewster and published by the National Security College, Australian National University, Canberra in July 2016. (Download here)

Geopolitical context

Over the next few decades as China closes in on the United States as a world power, India — the world’s ninth-largest economy — finds itself emerging as a swing power. It’s economic, military and diplomatic power affords it the ability to influence — although not yet decisively — the contest between the world’s two biggest powers. Even as they improved relations with China and the the United States, Indian governments since the end of the Cold War have scrupulously resisted allowing their engagement with one be seen as being directed against the other[1].

As Kissinger observed, being a effective swing power requires first, for India to enjoy better relations with the United States and China than they have with each other; second, to have the capacity to both benefit and impose costs on the bigger powers; and finally, political and diplomatic dexterity to take positions issue-by-issue[2]. While the Indian government has not officially enunciated such a doctrine, it’s actions have generally been in this direction. New Delhi has pursued a strategic partnership with the United States since the early 2000s, and despite a longstanding border dispute, participated in Chinese-led initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

For their part, the United States and China have reacted to India’s position in the changing global balance of power in different ways. Washington has systematically courted New Delhi particularly in matters concerning the Indo-Pacific region, even while attempting to manage differences over the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The signing of the India-US nuclear agreement in 2005 and the subsequent mainstreaming of India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group was a landmark in this regard. Since then, there is an ever closer mutually bipartisan consensus on widening and deepening the India-US relationship.

Beijing’s positions, on the other hand, have moved from assertiveness in the early mid-2000s to assertive and antagonistic over the subsequent decade. Whether taking hardline positions on the unresolved border dispute, or shielding Pakistan-based international terrorists from UN sanctions, China’s actions have squarely worked against a positive transformation in bilateral relations. Consequently, New Delhi finds itself pushed by Beijing into a deeper security relationship with the United States.

If China continues on this path, and if the United States manages to narrow differences with India to the west of the subcontinent, New Delhi will move away from attempting to be a swing power, and find itself drawing closer to the United States. A debate on this has already started among members of India’s strategic community.

India’s interests in the Indo-Pacific

India is primarily interested in a geoeconomic engagement of countries of the Indo-Pacific region to sustain India’s economic growth and development. This is as true in 2016 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi as it was under prime ministers dating back to P V Narasimha Rao who launched the Look East Policy” in 1992. Indian policy attempts to connect the Indian economy to its traditional maritime neighbourhood and trading partners, broadly across both sides of the Straits of Malacca.

Implicit in this policy is the desire for free movement of people, goods, services and investments across the reason. Security of Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCS), freedom of navigation, availability of port infrastructure and non-discriminatory access to markets are some of the basket of issues that ensue from this definition of interests. In addition, New Delhi sees preserving and promoting the Indian imprint in East Asia, through shared culture, arts and religion as part of its broader interests.

To safeguard its interests, New Delhi has moved from being a passive ringside observer of East Asian multilateralism in the 1990s to an active, if conservative, contributor the the balance of power. It sees the East Asia Summit and the ADMM Plus fora as the principal high tables of Indo-Pacific diplomacy.

Risk perception

Given the largely economic-focused perception of interests, risks to the norms that have underpinned the success of the region over the last half-century are of concern to India. An open, non-discriminatory trading system, lowering barriers to investment, free movement of people and knowledge and the importance of rule-of-law are key norms that are important to India. While the shifting of the global balance towards the East — manifested, for example, in new multilateral international financial institutions — can be in India’s interests, New Delhi remains concerned that China’s regional dominance does not unfavourably change the norms.

An exhaustive discussion of geoeconomic risks is beyond the scope of this paper: it will instead consider a few aspects germane to a conference on Indo-Pacific maritime security.

Belts and Roads

China’s promotion of One Belt One Road” (OBOR) under the leadership of President Xi Jinping should not become an euphemism for a Chinese Belt and Chinese Road. It is in India’s interests for the regional economies to improve their internal and external physical connectivity, and low-cost Chinese financing and technical assistance can accelerate this process. However, such infrastructure must not end up creating discriminatory rules of access, create political economies that undermine the aspirations of the people of those countries, or indeed create permanent damage to the regional ecosystem.

Indeed, India would prefer a pluralistic Many Belts, Many Roads” in the Indo-Pacific reflecting patterns of trade and human movement that prevailed through much of history. Countries of the region could build infrastructure in response to common incentives, with diversity in routing, technology, labour, business models and sources of investment.

Senior Indian officials have expressed concern over the purpose of Chinese investment in infrastructure in regions where there is no discernible commercial purpose. Having not received satisfactory answers from their Chinese interlocutors, New Delhi is apprehensive on the risk of military facilities being surreptitiously built in its proximate and broader maritime neighbourhood. When Indian commentators say China is constructing a string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean, the unexpressed worry is that of being contained and losing preponderance in its immediate maritime neighbourhood,

Related to this, New Delhi sees the risk that the Indo-Pacific maritime space that is crucial to its economic interests might get locked into no-go areas, hindering freedom of navigation and imposing higher costs on trade.

Balancing games

In the light of an escalation of tensions over expansive maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, there is a risk of both accidental and intentional escalation of violence in the region. While India is shielded from such conflicts by distance, it will not be immune from indirect economic and security consequences.

The greatest risks of an outbreak of violence arises from the moral hazard of allies and proxies of the United States and China miscalculating and escalating a conflict. While neither the US nor China might want such an escalation, the behaviour of the allies and proxies could be out of their control. Ergo, the risk of an unwanted war between China and countries with which it has disputes cannot be ruled out. Further, the risk that such a conflict will draw in the United States, albeit far more remote, cannot be ruled out either.

To the extent that China and the United States can manage tensions arising from the former’s territorial claims and the latter’s forceful assertion of freedom of navigation, risks of a direct confrontation between the two can be contained. However, given the prevalence of strident nationalism among the Chinese population and aggressive rhetoric in the US political system, the risk of even limited maritime war remains.

More likely, though is the erosion of ASEAN solidarity as countries that do not have a dispute with China refuse to side with counterparts that do. Such an erosion can unsettle the Indo-Pacific balance of power, requiring New Delhi to fill in security vacuums that might emerge.

Finally, the proliferation of violent non-state actors and networks at sea, especially in conjunction with an unstable balance of power, present the region with the risk of violent peace”. This again will require India, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and other regional powers to raise their investments in securing the maritime space.

India’s emerging role

New Delhi will continue to demonstrate its credibility as a contributor to the Indo-Pacific balance, through joint military exercises, patrolling, port calls, anti-piracy missions and humanitarian missions. It remains to be seen if such measures will be perceived as credible enough by the countries of the region, especially if the conflict with China escalates.

In the near term, it is likely that the Indian Navy will increase the frequency of its engagements East of the Straits of Malacca. New Delhi’s longstanding reluctance from participating in multilateral military exercises might not endure if Beijing continues on its current, antagonistic trajectory.

The Modi government has set the stage for a transformed relationship with Japan, a move that has been reciprocated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It remains to be seen whether the two countries can leverage their broad economic partnership to extend into the military domain — especially in defence equipment. The extent Japan overcomes its pacifist policy moorings, and the extent to which New Delhi eases its complex defence procurement processes will determine the scope and pace of the relationship. Japanese exporters will also have to deal with the political economy and strategic underpinnings of India’s traditional suppliers. This, however, is not unsurmountable and Japanese industry has abundant experience dealing with the Indian market. There is abundant scope for the two countries to cooperate in upgrading the India’s maritime capacity.

Diplomatically, New Delhi remains committed to the multilateralism of the East Asia Summit and the ADMM Plus framework. However, many in India are sceptical of ASEANs ability to manage its constituents’ disputes with China without hurting the grouping’s solidarity. It is unlikely that ASEAN will be able to hold China to rules even if they are mutually agreed. ASEAN states that have a formal or informal alliance with the United States will invite Washington to intervene, which the grouping will be unable to prevent. In such a scenario, there will be considerable pressure on ASEANs policy cohesiveness and political solidarity. New Delhi’s likely response will be to rely on strengthening bilateral relationships with key ASEAN states than on the grouping itself.

Ultimately, India’s most important role in the Asia-Pacific is to be a more successful form of itself: demonstrating that strong economic growth can be achieved within a diverse, plural, liberal democracy. [1] Indian media: Stronger ties with Japan not against China’”, BBC News, 27 January 2014. Accessed 27 April 2016

[2] Henry Kissinger, The White House Years”, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1979, pp712

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