The significance of the Indo-Pacific for India
- An imminent early harvest trade deal with Australia and the sale of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile systems to the Philippines lend a sharper edge to India’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific.
- A new emphasis on strategic trade liberalisation and the turn to military exports should begin to plug two major weaknesses in India’s regional strategy.
- The two agreements should also widen the focus of India’s Indo-Pacific debate from the current obsession with the nature of India’s partnership with the US and its implications for Delhi’s “strategic autonomy”.
India’s Indo-Pacific strategy
- India’s Indo-Pacific strategy walks on two legs — strengthening its national engagement with the region, and stronger partnerships with like-minded nations.
- The former elevates India’s salience in the Indo-Pacific and raises Delhi’s value for its partners.
- Coalitions and partnerships, in turn, help boost India’s national capabilities, enhance its reach and impact.
- This approach is quite different from the metaphysics of the past that focused on the presumed need to hold up a particular ideology rather than a hard-headed pursuit of national interests.
Sharing strategic vision with USA
- India’s novel approach fits well with the US strategy.
- Contrary to the widespread perception in Delhi that Washington is trying to “entrap” India into an alliance, the US is not handing out fresh security commitments.
- Alliances involve serious legal, political, and military obligations and are not taken lightly in Washington.
- Nor is the US collecting more “camp followers” in the Indo-Pacific.
- It is looking at partners and like-minded countries that have the strategic incentive, political agency, and material capability to contribute to regional security.
- The new Indo-Pacific Strategy document issued by the Biden administration last week admits that the US objectives of a “free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient” Indo-Pacific “cannot be accomplished” by the US acting alone.
- It insists that the “changing strategic circumstances and historic challenges require unprecedented cooperation with those who share in this vision.”
- This recognition is complemented by an appreciation of India’s capability — current and potential — in shaping strategic outcomes in the Indo-Pacific.
A strong India for global security and balance
- Administrations in the US during the last two decades have bet on the proposition that a strong India that can stabilise Asia and the Indo-Pacific serves American regional interests.
- The Biden administration strategy document reaffirms that thesis by highlighting the goal of supporting “India’s continued rise and regional leadership”.
- The strategy seeks to work with India through regional groupings to promote stability in South Asia
- It strives to promote collaboration in new domains, such as health, space, and cyberspace; deepen our economic and technology cooperation, and contribute to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
- The emphasis on India is special but by no means exclusive.
- Of greater import is the US objective of encouraging “allies and partners to strengthen their ties with one another”.
- In the past, the US security policy was tied to a series of bilateral alliances.
- Now it is ready for a more networked regional architecture.
- Contrary to the Indian image of the Quad as a rigid alliance, the US strategy is to “work in flexible groupings that pool our collective strength to face up to the defining issues of our time”.
- Put simply, an India that seeks to be a leading power in the region will be a better partner for the US than an India that is weak and defensive.
- India’s capacity to lead the region, in turn, depends on its national capabilities and plugging its major internal weaknesses — especially in the domains of trade and security.
Confronting Regional agreements with bilateral pacts
- Delhi’s decision to walk away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — an Asia-wide free trade agreement and its new emphasis on Atmanirbhar Bharat, or a “self-reliant India”, have generated widespread concerns about India returning to protectionist ways.
- Official Delhi in contrast argues that this is not a return to the past, but a new determination to strengthen domestic manufacturing capability hollowed out by an uncritical pursuit of globalisation.
- Even as it walked away from the China-led RCEP, Delhi is now looking to liberalise trade relations with strategic partners like Australia.
- India has also intensified trade talks with the UAE, Israel and the UK. India and the EU too have taken a political decision to resume talks on a long-stalled FTA.
- But sceptics would want to see the quality of the agreements that are likely to come out of these negotiations.
- They also point to the difficulties of finalising more consequential agreements with India’s leading economic partners — the EU and the US.
- Trade economists argue that bilateral pacts can’t be a substitute for larger regional agreements — India is not part of any today.
- Delhi is also not on the same page as its partners like the US, EU, Japan, and Australia on the emerging digital trade issues.
- Yet, the strategic trade pacts on the anvil today are a major step in the right direction.
Strengthening domestic base
- Although India has had active military diplomacy recently, it has been hobbled by the inability to export weapons to friendly nations in the region.
- This was rooted in India’s inadequate domestic defence industrial base.
- Delhi is now trying to ramp up defence production at home as well as promote arms exports.
- While these policies will take time to bear fruit, Delhi has discarded the prolonged political hesitation in selling the Brahmos missiles to China’s neighbours.
- Last month, India signed an agreement worth $375 million to supply the Philippines with three missile batteries of the shore-based anti-ship version of the Brahmos.
- While these batteries will not make any dent in the military balance between Manila and Beijing, it opens the door for a more active Indian engagement with hard security issues in Asia.
- There is great synergy between the US desire to “empower allies and partners as they take on regional leadership roles themselves” and India’s ambition to play a larger role in the Indo-Pacific.
- Simultaneous pursuit of stronger national capability and more active participation in coalitions are interconnected parts in realising that Indian ambition.