Debate: India's 'Inclusive' Indo-Pacific Policy Seeks to Balance US, China

India has placed the region firmly at the heart of its engagement with the world and now has a ‘free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific' policy, different from that of the US’s free and open Indo-Pacific.

Michael D. Swaine’s recent critique of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy has generated a wide debate across the region. The Wire has invited strategic affairs analysts to address some of the issues raised in the article.

Michael D. Swaine has written a policy-relevant essay on the Donald Trump administration’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP). He makes three substantive points in relation to India, two of which I agree with and one I disagree with.

First, I would agree, as Swaine writes, “India (and Japan) are poorly suited to serve as the anchors of an Indo-Pacific strategic domain antagonistic to Beijing (italics added by author), and other Asian states would likely resist taking sides in a polarising Manichean contest between China and the United States.”

Indeed, India has placed the Indo-Pacific region firmly at the heart of its engagement with the world and now has a ‘free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific’ (FOIIP) policy, different from that of the US’s FOIP. This was officially articulated for the first time at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’s annual Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore on June 1, 2018, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the keynote address.

Modi defined this region as stretching from the ‘shores of Africa to that of the Americas’, thereby incorporating the Gulf region and Indian Ocean island states left out of popular definitions so far. Yet, the core of the Indo-Pacific region would be the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), even as the Indian Ocean held the ‘key to India’s future’.

The fundamentals of Modi’s vision are based on being a ‘free, open, inclusive region’ – note the equal emphasis on ‘inclusive’ – in pursuit of progress and prosperity, therefore, not to be ‘directed against any country’, nor is it to be seen as a ‘grouping that seeks to dominate’. This region ‘includes all nations in this geography, as also others beyond who have a stake in it’.

Modi strongly highlighted the importance of partnerships on the basis of shared values and interests. He used the term ‘rules-based international order’ for the region, which he stressed ‘must equally apply to all individually, as well as to the global commons’. These rules and norms are to be based on ‘the consent of all, not on the power of the few’. He also emphasised freedom of navigation and overflights, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.

In essence, Modi using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ 11 times in his speech formally ends any reservation the Indian government may have had in using it in the past – either to dampen US enthusiasm or placate China. Unlike the US’s FOIP, India’s FOIIP policy seeks a leadership role in the region in partnership with ASEAN, while ‘balancing’ its relations with the US and China. In terms of the former, India’s engagement in the region is to be based on respect, dialogue, cooperation, peace and prosperity.

Although Modi stressed that India and the US share a vision of an ‘open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region’, he deliberately did not use the word ‘Quad’ – the grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia – in his speech. A mention of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi was also deliberate.

Modi publicly sought continued engagement with China, emphasising that ‘strong and stable bilateral relations’ are important for Asian and global security. There was no mention of concern over Chinese assertiveness towards India or in the South China Sea. But, his focus on principles of a ‘rules-based international order’ as well as shared values and interests were a thinly-veiled criticism of China. He also criticised infrastructure projects that were not ‘based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability’, noting that such projects must ’empower nations, not place them under impossible debt burden’. Both the US and China welcomed Modi’s speech.

Second, I would disagree with Swaine’s view that ‘New Delhi is not ready to serve as a major maritime power capable of counterbalancing China’.

Kate Sullivan of Oxford University and I have just published an article in the journal Survival (June-July 2018), where we argue India is ‘pushing back’ on China’s expansion of influence in the Indian Ocean in a number of ways, but each comes with its own challenges.

First, India aims to selectively challenge China’s infrastructure projects with Indian alternatives, including economic support, port and energy development. These include Indian investments for port projects in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran and access to an Omani port; the Iranian project is unlikely to be implemented due to US-Iran tensions.

Second, India has made a point of appearing as one of the first contributors to humanitarian and disaster-relief operations in its neighbourhood. A key unspoken message of these missions is of India’s proximity and preparedness to step in vis-à-vis China.

Third, New Delhi has sought to expand bilateral maritime-security and defence cooperation with island and littoral states, including the provision of defence-related lines of credit, and overseen the launch of a coastal-surveillance radar project in the Seychelles; it plans construction and upgrading of an airstrip and jetty on the Mauritian island of Agaléga and Assumption Island in the Seychelles for surveillance purposes.

However, India has a complicated relationship with the Maldives’ authoritarian president, Abdulla Yameen, exacerbated by his outreach towards China. In the case of Sri Lanka, Indian anxieties centre on the political and security impact of Colombo’s indebtedness to China and the December 2017 debt-for-equity swap that has resulted in a Chinese company’s control of the Hambantota port. Meanwhile, there is concern in the Seychelles over the Indian construction of a Seychelles coastguard facility on Assumption Island.

Nonetheless, it is imperative that the Indian Navy effectively builds up its capabilities in the Indian Ocean. This is the arena where it has tremendous relative advantages of geography, reach and capacity over the Chinese navy. It will therefore be important to leverage India’s strengths in the Indian Ocean to offset China’s advantages in the South China Sea.

Third, I would agree with Michael’s view that ‘although India enjoys being part of a larger strategic vision, it is not disposed to substantively link its own strategic arena with the much larger Asia-Pacific or to engage in active military operations across such an expanse’.

Apart from significant volumes of maritime trade, the only asset India holds east of the Straits of Malacca-Singapore is in Vietnam, with Indian oil firm ONGC Videsh conducting oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities on land, on its continental shelf and within its EEZ.

At the same time, the Modi government has stepped up its engagement with ASEAN. A joint statement at the January 2018 ASEAN–India Summit in Delhi sought to strengthen maritime cooperation. India has provided Vietnam with patrol boats, a $500 million line of credit for defence spending, access to satellite data for monitoring its own waters and submarine and combat-aircraft training.

However, it is highly unlikely that the Indian government would order the navy to operationally deploy in the South China Sea to protect India’s commercial interests. The Indian navy also has little incentive for a strong operational role that extends to the South China Sea or the broader Pacific Ocean. India will almost certainly continue to reject formal invitations to join the US in joint patrols in the South China Sea.

Moreover, India’s strategy can only operate as far as the constraints set by India’s naval-expansion programme. Its ambitious warship-building programme continues to suffer from innumerable delays and cost increases and only a quarter of its warships currently being built are principal combatants. This year’s defence budget represents a real increase of less than 5%, with much of it to be spent to cover payments for ongoing acquisitions and the navy is overstretched, compromising its operational effectiveness. In short, beyond the Indian Ocean, the ‘Pacific’ part of Indian naval engagement in the Indo-Pacific will look stronger on paper than it does in practice.

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is the Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, and is the author of two books on India’s maritime security.