India and the Indo-Pacific balance at Shangri-La
Each year, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore convenes defence ministers and military commanders from across Asia, Europe, and North America, along with representatives of defence companies and assorted academic experts and journalists. Over the past two decades, it has evolved into Asia’s premier security conference, where matters such as tensions on the Korean peninsula, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation are deliberated. Keynote speakers in recent years have included the prime ministers of Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and Australia. This year’s keynote address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, therefore, proved an important opportunity to highlight India’s perspectives on regional security dynamics.
Not surprisingly, Modi’s address was filled with a laundry list of India’s regional partnerships and activities. He mentioned India’s ties with Japan (“the cornerstone of our Act East Policy”), “momentum” with South Korea, “fresh energy” in partnerships with Australia and New Zealand, and engagement with Pacific Island nations. He also highlighted New Delhi’s “special and privileged” partnership with Russia and a multi-layered relationship with China. He discussed various ways in which India was engaged with the region, including military exercises, trade agreements, and assistance. And he scored points with his hosts by drawing special attention to Singapore, a country that Modi characterised as India’s “springboard to Asean” and “a gateway for India to the East.”
But Modi’s main message was his articulation of India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region. The idea of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic space is an outgrowth of China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region. It signifies the interconnectedness of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the importance of the oceans to security and commerce, and India’s role in the broader region. But it has come to be seen by sceptics as a byword for a strategy to balance China by other countries, including India. Critics in China argue alternatively that the Indo-Pacific concept adds to tensions and lacks substance, while in Southeast Asia concerns have grown that it could contribute to divisions within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Modi clarified that for India the Indo-Pacific was neither a strategy nor an exclusive club. He described it as a “natural region” ranging “from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas” and argued that it should be “free, open, and inclusive”; grounded in “rules and norms…based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few”; and characterised by respect for international law, including on the issue of freedom of navigation and overflight. It was not lost on many observers that his language closely mirrored that used by the United States and Japan, both of whom have begun to articulate their own “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategies. Modi’s veiled message was directed at China, and reflected a more widespread concern about how Beijing is wielding its economic and military muscle.
But just as important, Modi gave a reassuring message to the Southeast Asian delegates. He characterised the Indo-Pacific as consistent with Asean unity and centrality, a sentiment that US and Japanese leaders have inadequately communicated. Modi pointed out that Asean had in fact “laid the foundation of the Indo-Pacific Region” and key Asean initiatives embrace its geography by including India. Therefore, rather than being divisive or dismissive, India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific further reassures and reinforces an Asean whose unity continues to be undermined by Chinese influence.
If Modi’s speech did not explicitly highlight the roots of the primary challenges to regional security, US secretary of defense James Mattis was less circumspect in his address at Shangri-La. “China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness of our strategy,” Mattis said, pointing to China’s deployment of missiles, electronic jammers, and bomber aircraft in disputed islands as an act of “intimidation and coercion”. His description of the US free and open Indo-Pacific strategy included an emphasis on the maritime domain, naval capacity building, interoperability, and investment in infrastructure and connectivity. This too aligns with Indian concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which New Delhi perceives to be resulting in unsustainable debt and political leverage over vulnerable economies.
While Chinese officials continue to downplay the Indo-Pacific as a concept, a number of developments have concretised. The number of strategic dialogues, intelligence sharing mechanisms, military exercises, and defence compacts involving large and medium powers in the Indo-Pacific — including India — have rapidly multiplied. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in Modi’s prior stop in Indonesia, where a range of recent and imminent India-Indonesia defence mechanisms were highlighted. In a region where tensions are growing, Modi has laid a clear marker of India’s orientation. The Indo-Pacific is a multipolar region that is increasingly contesting the notion of one state’s potential hegemony.
Dhruva Jaishankar is fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings India, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal