All eyes and ears will be tuned to India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific when Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives the keynote speech at the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue next month in Singapore. The dialogue first convened in 2002 and soon became the flagship annual meeting for issues relating to security of the Asia-Pacific, later coinciding with the Obama-era Asia rebalancing strategy. However, the increasing salience of the Indo-Pacific as an emerging geopolitical construct, and the Trump administration’s embrace of the same, means that the Shangri-La Dialogue will also mirror this shift of focus from the Asia-Pacific to the larger Indo-Pacific.
In terms of regional priorities for the United States, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS) have been categorical in their emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region. From looking at India as a linchpin of the United States’ rebalancing strategy toward Asia-Pacific to the India-U.S. Joint Strategic Vision in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region during former President Barack Obama’s administration on to Washington’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific under President Donald Trump, the two countries have come a long way in terms of aligning their strategic visions. This strategic congruence has been seen in the pursuit of interoperability between the Indian and U.S. armed forces, including military-to-military exercises as well military equipment transfers that aim to augment India’s warfighting and deterrent capabilities.
Such developments in India-U.S. strategic cooperation have given rise to a certain unease in Beijing. This creates a difficult equation of competition and cooperation in the India-U.S.-China triangular dynamics. How New Delhi will manage the strategic fallout of its closer embrace of the United States in its relations with a neighboring China perhaps remains one of the most critical elements of India’s foreign policy.
India’s location itself demands that it defines its own narrative in aligning with the United States to manage China’s rise. China remains a proximate power and the U.S. a distant one. Although history has demonstrated that a distant power needs to be engaged to balance against a proximate power, relations with the latter should not be defined and determined by the former.
The intersecting geopolitical and geoeconomic spheres of India and China present opportunities for economic engagement but also create instances of “contestation” as seen in the Doklam standoff or the disagreements persisting over the nature of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) among several other issues in the past few years. While the threats perceived from a rising China, with an unhindered influence in the Indo-Pacific and more particularly in India’s neighborhood, are palpable, the economic opportunities from a rising China are also a reality. This is true not only for India, but many other countries in East and Southeast Asia, that see China’s aggression as a threat despite their economic interdependence. This is true even of the most pre-eminent country in the current global order, the United States. In fact, the emergence of a new great power relationship between the U.S. and China and the probability of a power condominium between the two has often been looked at with concern from New Delhi. Additionally, the long shared but unsettled territorial boundary between India and China persist as a major bone of contention that both countries are yet to find a common solution to.
How to manage the threats and opportunities emanating from an economically as well as militarily rising China remains perhaps the most impending foreign challenge for both India and the United States. This dilemma may be more pronounced for India, because in the triangular dynamics unfolding among India, the United States, and China, India unfortunately has a power asymmetry in relation to both China and the United States. This presents a particular conundrum for India, as to how it could align with U.S. threat perceptions of an unchecked China let loose, while not losing out on Chinese investments and other economic convergences. On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s political investment in the BRI’s success might lead Beijing to create some traction for cooperative behavior with countries like India, as seen recently in Wuhan “informal summit” and earlier at the BRICS summit in Xiamen.
Managing the rise of China and deterring its unilateral aggression in the region remains a strategic glue that binds the two countries and other like-minded partners like Japan and Australia of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, an informal security dialogue between the four liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. However, China’s dynamics with each of the Quad countries, including India, remains a complex reality. China’s economic ties with each of these countries is more significant compared to the economic ties among all these countries that otherwise share a security convergence.
Moreover, the United States’ strategic priorities, and not India’s concerns, will determine how the United States will choose friends and partners. In this context, New Delhi has to balance out an “America First” foreign policy with an “India First” foreign policy. New Delhi needs to be pragmatic about where it can expect U.S. support, and where it has to go it alone. India’s ability to rise to America’s expectations as a counter against China has often been questioned. However, this is a narrative that Delhi should be mindful of. India and the United States should be aligning their interests to build and maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive of common threats perceptions pertaining to China’s activities in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. However, the India-U.S. relationship should not be sold as a partnership based on aligning threats and countering China. Doing so will end up reducing New Delhi’s ability to bargain its national interest with both Washington as well as Beijing.
The practice of India’s strategic autonomy has always been about creating traction for the pursuit of India’s national interest and India’s ability to do so will be tested in how it manages its great power relationship with the United States and China.
Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal
Pooja Bhatt is a PhD at the Center for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament-Disarmament and Diplomacy, School of International Studies, JNU