India may no longer be unwilling to act to offset a rising China in Asia-Pacific, aligning its strategic vision for the region with that of the United States in what seems a radical departure from New Delhi’s history of independent foreign policy.
In 2012, the United States egged India to become the ‘lynchpin’ in its Asia-Pacific military strategy, but back then New Delhi refused to act as a credible balancing power in the region, possibly deterred by its history of non-alignment as well as growing trade with China.
But by the time US President Barack Obama wound up his three-day trip to India on Tuesday, the two sides had sealed their common suspicion of Beijing’s ambitions in a landmark joint strategic vision
aimed at responding “to diplomatic, economic and security challenges” in Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region.
The agreement, if it holds, could signal a far-reaching shift both in India’s ties with the United States as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “near-abroad” policy that appears to break from simply seeking full navigational rights to some of the world’s busiest sea-lanes.
“The joint vision on Asia-Pacific is the most significant development (of Obama’s visit to India) with huge political, diplomatic and strategic potential,” said C Uday Bhaskar, director of independent think-tank Society for Policy Studies.
“This is the most comprehensive and definitive statement of intent by India about how it sees its extended maritime domain. As for the Americans, this is significant because they had been trying to enlist India’s support in the region.”
Yet, for all its far-reaching consequences, the discussion on China stemmed, not from a pre-planned agenda, but an informal one-on-one meeting between Obama and Modi over tea when both discovered that their assessment of China’s rise was surprisingly aligned.
They then agreed to make their stand public, quickly agreeing on language on China’s disputed claim over large swathes of the South China Sea
Modi's decision to play a greater role in Asian affairs may have been influenced particularly by events of the past year. A Chinese attack submarine was recently spotted off Colombo, setting off alarm bells in New Delhi which considers the Indian Ocean to be within its sphere of influence.
Another incident in September would have riled Modi. Chinese troops faced off with Indian soldiers along a disputed stretch in Ladakh, overshadowing a summit meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and Modi.
“Clearly, India is not averse to accruing benefits from pressure on China,” said Alka Acharya, professor of East Asia studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“Such a strategy would be in keeping with India’s growing reach and its focus on augmenting its maritime capability.”
India’s own engagement with East Asia is also increasing. New Delhi has obtained oil blocks from Vietnam despite Chinese opposition, and is seen as a welcome presence in the South China Sea as a credible balancer of power.
Still, how New Delhi and Washington will take forward their vision for Asia-Pacific is far from clear.
“What is clear is that their concerns about China are aligned and they are not afraid to say it out aloud,” said Bhaskar.
“What is clear is that Modi has chosen to give content to what a strategic partnership with the US is about. So far it was opaque.”