China spectre pulls India, US closer especially at sea

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 27, 2015 16:23 IST

With a title almost as long as its 10 paragraphs of text, the “Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” may be remembered as the most radical end-product of the Indo-US Republic Day summit.

The vision document will be seen by many as India and the US coming out of the closet about their strategic concerns regarding a more assertive China.

And a behind-the-doors US agreement with India to provide technological assistance to the indigenous aircraft carrier may be putting flesh on the bones of this strategic coalition.

Beijing is never mentioned explicitly in the document.

However, the line, “We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea” is a direct attack on China’s expansive maritime claims.

So is the demand that such claims be handled under the United Nations Law of the Sea — Beijing’s claims are seen as in blatant violation of the Convention.

The fourth paragraph of the formal joint statement openly merges India’s “Act East” policy with the US’s “Rebalance to Asia”.

China, which has interpreted the latter as a containment of its own influence, can now be expected to see “Act East” with a similar jaundiced eye.

In contrast, India rejected Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Route proposal.

The vision document also calls for the US and India to work to build connectivity, both transport and energy, linking “South, Southeast and Central Asia.”

This mirrors similar plans worked out between India and Japan to construct infrastructure between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The strategic concept behind all this: build east-west connectivity to counter the enormous north-south running infrastructure that China is building.

Beijing is seeking to make itself the transport hub of Asia. India is effectively working to develop an alternative network.

A key element of the rebalance policy of the US is the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that would keep out China.

New Delhi has been wary of the TPP.

But the vision statement notably signals an Indian interest in joining the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum – a prerequisite for TPP membership.

The US decision to provide assistance to India’s carrier project is an important step in giving the Indian Navy the heft to have the maritime capability to hold its own in the Indian Ocean.

The September Modi-Obama summit saw the two agree on the US helping India with its next generation of naval vessels: this may be the first manifestation of this.

The question for the Modi government will be how it manages the Chinese reaction to India’s strategic coziness to the US, Japan and Australia.

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