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The significance of the Indo-Pacific for India

C. Raja Mohan writes: Strengthening engagement with the region, stronger partnerships can enhance India’s reach and impact.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: February 16, 2022 7:36:22 am
The strategic trade pacts on the anvil today are a major step in the right direction.

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 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.

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.

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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; collaborate 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 US acknowledges that “India is a like-minded partner and leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, active in and connected to Southeast Asia, a driving force of the Quad and other regional fora, and an engine for regional growth and development.”

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.

Delhi’s decision to walk away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — an Asia-wide free trade agreement — at the end of 2019 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.

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. India’s new quest for military exports is also in tune with the US Indo-Pacific strategy’s emphasis on working with partners in “finding new opportunities to link our defence industrial bases, integrating our defence supply chains, and co-producing key technologies that will shore up our collective military advantages.”

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.

This column first appeared in the print edition on February 15, 2022 under the title ‘The new Look East policy’. The writer is Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.

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