The need to manage China’s ambitions and maintain a multi-polar Asia has been an unsaid, but significant, motivation in determining the India-US partnership over the past decade. But in a perceptible shift, the reluctance to publicly articulate it has been shed in New Delhi and Washington, with the two countries signing on to a “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’. This is the first time the two countries have put out a comprehensive document, at the highest level, projecting this joint outlook, a fact which has clearly not pleased Beijing. While agreeing on its significance, analysts differ on its import.
The vision speaks of the two countries being the ‘largest democracies’ in this region – no surprises for guessing which is the non democratic state in the room; of working together ‘from Africa to East Asia’ – two regions where China’s engagement is deep; and accelerating ‘infrastructure connectivity and economic development’ in a manner that links South, Southeast and Central Asia.
But there are more pointed references too. Picking on a theme that found mention in the September joint statement during PM Narendra Modi’s visit to US, the joint vision reiterated, “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.” They also called on parties to avoid ‘threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of Sea.”
Beijing has not taken too kindly to this reference and a foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said that the ‘relevant dispute(s) should be resolved by parties directly concerned through peaceful talks and consultations.’ She also added that the situation in the South China Sea is ‘generally stable’ and there is ‘no problem with navigational freedom and freedom of overflight’.
Delhi and Washington have also pledged to ‘promote the shared values that have made our countries great’ and underlined their joint commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The vision speaks of developing a roadmap to increase ties among Asian powers, strengthening regional dialogue, and making trilateral consultations more robust.
C Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, said this was the ‘most significant statement’ of the visit, which carried ‘deep import’. “Earlier statements had tentatively mentioned India’s approach to the region, often in elliptical ways. This is the most forthright signal by India of how it sees the region.”
He told HT there was a ‘correspondence of interests’ between India and US, and whenever there was positive momentum in the Indo-US ties, it did ‘animate Beijing’. When asked if this was a risky strategy, given Indian assymetry with China, he said, “We have very little wriggle room. There is no doubt we have to increase our own capacities. But a unipolar Asia with China as the dominant power is neither in Indian or American interest.”
Jayant Prasad, a former diplomat who has dealt with US, however believes that while the statement itself is significant because it is the first time US and India have put out a joint vision for Asia, ‘components of the statement’ are not very different from what India and US had said and done in the past or were doing currently. While noting the new elements, Prasad said that both Obama and Modi had mentioned shared democratic values in their joint Washington Post opinion piece; the reference to both South China Sea and trilateral consultations had also been only reiterated.
He cautioned, “This should not be read as any kind of alliance building against China for the simple reason that a seminal part of both India’s foreign policy and American policy is close engagement with Beijing.”