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Regional Security Outlook: An Indian Perspective


by Rahul Mishra

India’s regional security perspective has largely been shaped by its relations with China and the US. Relations between the two super powers, and their respective politicostrategic and economic posturing vis-à-vis India equally influence its strategic standpoint. Thus, while China’s recent assertive overtures in India’s neighbourhood have been alarming, the US, despite the unpredictability of the Trump administration, is considered a potential enabling force in providing India greater strategic depth in the region. India is striving to find a modus vivendi to deal with the twin challenges emanating from an assertive China, and an uncertain and increasingly inward-looking United States.

China: India’s frustrations with China are manifold, ranging from the boundary dispute, trade imbalance, Brahmaputra river issues, and CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) to China’s refusal to support India in the battle against state-sponsored terrorism.

India’s strategic unease with China is rooted in the fact that while China has resolved disputes with India’s other neighbours, it never showed a strong determination to peacefully resolve the India-China bilateral disputes. It may be noted that barring India and Bhutan, China has resolved its boundary disputes with all its neighbours. The protracted boundary dispute makes China’s increasing footprint in the Indian subcontinent appear more alarming to many Indians. While China’s cooperation with Pakistan has often been exposed as driven primarily by militarystrategic considerations, its diplomatic footwork in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, and Bangladesh is backed by “cheque-book diplomacy” and the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative).

China’s reluctance to give India its due space at international fora such as the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the United Nations Security Council has been an irritant. Security dilemma tensions between the two has convoluted their relationship, often blurring their perspectives on how to situate each other in the wider regional and international dynamics.

Nevertheless, post-Doklam standoff, India and China are showcasing considerable diplomatic skills in managing their bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met thrice in 2018 (an informal summit in Wuhan and on the margins of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS summits) and are likely to meet for a fourth time at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires in November. This pattern was matched by a flurry of other high-level visits between the two countries, an agreement to set up hotlines between their military establishments and the conclusion of the first security cooperation agreement.

India and China are scaling up their artful negotiations as both are conscious that letting their bilateral differences flare up to become adversarial relations would turn out to be mutually disadvantageous. This was clear from Modi’s 2018 Shangri- La speech when he said that “Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests.” Adding that “Competition is normal. But, contests must not turn into conflict; differences must not be allowed to become disputes”, Modi made clear his government’s policy on China, and which appears to have been put into practice as well.

Neighbourhood: In 2014, when Modi was sworn-in as India’s Prime Minister, he had invited all the heads of government from the neighbouring countries. Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy was seen as a ray of hope for improving India’s bilateral ties in the sub-continent and for the revival of SAARC. His policy met with some successes - such as the boundary dispute resolution and improved ties with Bangladesh, resolute action to protect Bhutan during the Doklam stand-off, and rejuvenation of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and BBIN, a sub-regional initiative including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal.

However, the success of Modi’s neighbourhood policy has been modest. On China’s BRI, India has not been able to garner support from countries of the sub-continent and is finding itself increasingly isolated. India and Bhutan are the only two countries that have not endorsed the BRI. China’s initiatives in the subcontinent are competitive if not conspicuously adversarial, often tempting India’s neighbours to take advantage of the situation. India’s relationship with Pakistan remains problematic with no breakthrough for peace between them since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Japan: The last country to endorse India’s Look East policy, Japan has swiftly emerged as one of India’s biggest partners in the Act East policy framework. India and Japan have been earnestly implementing the Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership which is evident in their 2018 decision to elevate the 2+2 institutional dialogue framework from foreign and defence secretary level to the ministerial level, a logistics agreement between the Indian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self- Defense Force, and two minilaterals (trilaterals) involving Australia and the US. Japan has also become a permanent member of the trilateral Malabar exercise involving India and the US. Further, Japan has offered to set up a manufacturing unit in India to supply its US-2 amphibious aircraft.

In addition to their respective individual responses—PQI (Partnership for Quality Investment) and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region)—Japan and India are working together in establishing the Asia Africa Growth Corridor, which aims to enhance connectivity between Asian and African countries and provide them an alternative to China’s BRI. Japan has also agreed to work with India in jointly investing in energy and infrastructure sectors of India’s neighbouring countries - Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Japan’s support for India in meeting its capacity shortfall in the region is an unprecedented move. Under Shinzo Abe, Japan aspires to play a greater role in Asia and counter China’s assertive postures and India is a good fit in that strategy.

The United States: By far, the most important military and economic power in the Indo-Pacific, the US plays a crucial role in shaping the security dynamics of both the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Between the years 2000 and 2016, irrespective of the political inclination of the ruling party in both India and the US, Indo-US relations went from strength to strength. During that period, the US provided much-needed support to India in entering the NSG and IAEA. Its support in making the Indo-US nuclear deal a reality, encouraging India to “Act” East, and the invitation to participate in the Pivot to Asia policy, all ensured the arrival of a new phase in the Indo-US ties.

Under the Trump presidency, however, Indo-US relations have been less firm. The US wants India to become a major defence and strategic partner but has itself been an unpredictable partner on the economic front. Trump’s decisions to skip the East Asia Summits in 2017 and 2018, discard globalism for patriotism, and to withdraw from multilateral fora, pose challenges for India and other countries of the region.

Divergent opinions on Russia and Iran are two other thorny issues in Indo-US relations that can potentially affect India’s security stance in the long-run. Iran has been India’s traditional partner whose geostrategic importance for India and ethnic linkages with a section of the Indian population cannot be overstated. Likewise, India’s dependence on Russia cannot be reduced unless India gains a long-term and cost-effective alternative for defence supplies, among other things. For now, two key pillars in India’s capacity to project its interests in the Indo-Pacific, namely, reliable energy supplies and defence acquisitions, depend [partially] on Iran and Russia, respectively.

Nevertheless, with an institutional mechanism on the defence and strategic fronts already in place, Delhi and Washington are inching closer with the latter fast emerging as India’s major defence partner. India has now concluded three of the four foundational agreements for a robust defence relationship with the US, agreements dealing with logistics, information security and communications compatibility and security.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue: The revival of the Quad is a major recent strategic development involving four democracies - Japan, India, Australia, and the US. The Quad has been a much-debated collective strategic option for the participant countries. Re-launched in Manila in 2017, the importance of the Quad lies in the fact that it aims to protect a free and open, rules-based international order.

So far, Quad meetings have involved only senior officials which has constrained their ability to achieve significant outcomes. Even after the second Quad meeting in June 2018, wide gaps exist between members’ expectations and the facts on the ground. The fact that after the 2017 Manila meeting, member countries had come up with their individual statements rather than a combined press release illustrated how much groundwork needs to be done to make the Quad a credible voice in regional affairs.

The Asian members of the Quad are actively exploring the possibility of strengthening cooperation amongst themselves through trilateral dialogues while also keeping a window of dialogue open with China. In addition to Modi’s regular talks with Xi, Shinzo Abe visited China in October for the first time in seven years. Australian leaders have been trying to follow suit albeit with limited success thus far.

To become a substantive voice in regional affairs, Quad members certainly need to deepen the level of their commitment and may also have to consider expanding its membership. Asia’s past tells us that no regional political or military construct can sustain itself without the active participation of key Southeast Asian states. If the Quad wishes to succeed, it should avoid the mistakes SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation - a Cold War era defence grouping led by the US), committed in lacking support from Asian countries. The best way to make the Quad more effective and acceptable is to make it more inclusive in the form of a “Quad Plus”.

New Delhi, September 2018. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and their Indian counterparts, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Source: Manish Swarup, AP Photo. New Delhi, September 2018. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and their Indian counterparts, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Source: Manish Swarup, AP Photo.

The Indo-Pacific Construct: From the Indian perspective, this construct, unlike the familiar Asia-Pacific, seems to rectify the decades-old lacunae in the regional strategic architecture, namely, the inclusion of India. India has openly and enthusiastically embraced the Indo-Pacific construct and is already using the term in its official policy pronouncements. Japan, India, Australia, and the US have all taken both symbolic and substantive steps to announce the arrival of the Indo-Pacific construct on the world stage. The US, for example, has renamed its “Pacific Command” the “Indo-Pacific Command”.

Ensuring “inclusivity” in framing a regional construct is a lesson India has learned very well from history, which explains why it has been pitching for an “open” and “inclusive” Indo- Pacific. For India, its Act East policy is the primary toolkit for regional engagement. That Act East is one of the most successful Indian policy initiatives was manifested again in the January 2018 India-ASEAN Summit where all 10 ASEAN Heads of Government also joined India’s Republic Day Parade as chief guests. Following the Indian example, the US has also begun to reiterate that ASEAN is central to the Indo-Pacific. Indonesia’s support for the Indo-Pacific construct, albeit with its own variant, is good news for the four initial proponents as it opens up new avenues for deliberation.

Arguably, India’s calibrated approach in cultivating Indo-Pacific as a “positive” construct to replace Asia- Pacific is increasingly acquiring a normative shape. In his Shangri-La speech, Modi made India’s position aptly clear by stating that India does not see the Indo-Pacific as a club of limited members that seeks to dominate, or a grouping that is directed against any country.

Between the two emerging constructs - Indo-Pacific and Quad - India appears to be more strongly attracted to the Indo-Pacific, a preference which was signalled in Modi’s Shangri-La speech. A major factor that will shape the feasibility of the Indo-Pacific idea is how China perceives it and whether it will find any variant of the idea attractive.

Conclusion: India’s regional security outlook hinges on the linkages between regional strategic patterns, emanating from interplay of major powers in the neighbouring regions - ASEAN, sub-continent, and the Indian Ocean - and India’s national security. While China plays a critical role in shaping India’s security perceptions, relations with Japan, the US, and countries of the region are gaining prominence in influencing India’s overall security perspective. In that context, India’s commitment to the Quad would also depend on how far these four democracies could move forward together on the security front.

India’s preference for the Indo-Pacific construct and minilateral dialogues over the Quad is likely to continue unless the Quad gains more stealth or the regional security situation turns bleak. India’s support for a free, open, inclusive, and peaceful Indo-Pacific, which gives due recognition to ASEAN and its affiliate mechanisms, is likely to acquire a cardinal position around which its policy pronouncements will be weaved.

Rahul Mishra
Senior Lecturer, Asia-Europe Institute,
University of Malaya

Last Updated: 26/02/2019