How much India should invest in the Indo-Pacific
India will need to decide whether it will be a founding architect as the US hopes, or a more passive bystander in what could be one of the key framings of international order for decades to come.
Recently, the office of the United States (US) Secretary of State issued a policy brief that was termed simply, “The Elements of the China Challenge”. The first page starkly spelled out the US goal — “in the face of the China challenge, the United States must secure freedom”. The urgent need to counter China, that President Donald Trump made central to his foreign policy positions, was outlined by his administration in different issue areas. But it was particularly outlined with respect to the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” or FOIP — a region widely considered to be the locus of great power competition in the 21st century.
The concept of the “Indo-Pacific” has now been adopted as a fundamental part of US national security strategy. Subsequently, cooperation between America and its partners in the Indo-Pacific, and the development of the Quad (the US, Japan, Australia, and India) has been likened to everything, from a system as organised as a structured alliance (a possible Asian NATO) to a diplomatic treaty (“nascent pact”) to a vague international outlook (“shared vision”).
In all of these imaginings, the US sees India’s participation as important for the success of an Indo-Pacific architecture. But what are the advantages and disadvantages for India in being a full participant in a re-imagined security, diplomatic, and economic architecture?
In some ways, the advantages are obvious. The stability of the Indo-Pacific region is not just key to the security of the US but to the security of all countries that reside within the region. But, at the same time, there is a persistent threat of instability given the competing ambitions of two rising powers, China and India, and the hostile relationships of Asian nuclear powers. This makes the region a vital area of strategic interest for India.
The countries that are considered to be the crucial pillars of the regional order — the Quad — are also all democracies. The incoming Joe Biden administration has made it clear that it sees an emerging partnership of democracies as crucial for establishing an alternative value system to that of China. And although Australia, Japan, and even India have downplayed the idea of any Indo-Pacific system as being exclusive, in other words, anti-China, the fact remains that containing China is an important glue holding together participating countries. Given the border clashes over the past few years, India needs the idea of an international rules-based order to ensure a FOIP, stymieing China’s activities, particularly in the maritime domain.
But FOIP also brings thorny issues that India must navigate. The concept of the Indo-Pacific itself remains elusive. The Quad countries themselves are divided on it. Other than the Quad, ASEAN nations, who are crucial to the Indo-Pacific but have a back not front seat, are wary of the concept. Each country or bloc, thus, offers not only contradictory but sometimes even competing ideas about how they imagine the region.
The US often talks of an Indo-Pacific strategy; Japan refers to FOIP; India talks about an Indo-Pacific framework; Australia simply uses the generic Indo-Pacific as a region descriptor; and ASEAN talks of an Indo-Pacific outlook. These differences are not simply about the nomenclature but go deeper. Geographically, Japan thinks of the Indo-Pacific as composed of two continents (Asia and Africa) and two oceans (Pacific and Indian). India talks about it as extending from the East Coast of Africa across the Indian Ocean, including parts of West Asia, to the Western and Southern Pacific. The US does not think of either Africa or West Asia as part of the Indo-Pacific.
These differences are not simply about the nomenclature but go deeper. While the US is explicit about the Indo-Pacific containing China and particularly the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Japan and India have thus far eschewed declaring that it is centred on any open confrontation with China. Australia largely avoids direct discussions of how to deal with Chinese encroachment. And ASEAN, for its part, is more focused on obtaining better infrastructure, and is less concerned about China and the broader implications of BRI in the region while being constantly worried about creating an overt anti-China stance.
These differences mean that there is currently no clear normative foundation on which a pan-regional architecture can be built. If FOIP is to be more than a security alliance, containing China cannot be the only raison d’etre. India’s position has itself has evolved on the Indo-Pacific. On one hand, in 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi explicitly noted, in a clear nod to China, that, “India does not see the Indo-Pacific as a strategy or as a club of limited members”. On the other, this year, India finally invited Australia to join the Malabar naval exercises, boosting Quad security cooperation, and exacerbating Chinese worries.
At some point, India will have to jump off the fence and land on a side — and there are indications that this may be happening but hard choices lie ahead. This is particularly so because the idea of the Indo-Pacific is still evolving, and because President-elect Biden has already made it a clear priority. India will need to decide whether it will be a founding architect as the US hopes, or a more passive bystander in what could be one of the key framings of international order for decades to come.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is associate professor of international relations, Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, and a research associate at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford
The views expressed are personal