India, US interests don’t align on Indo-Pacific

By Zhang Hualong Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/30 19:18:40

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Ever since US President Donald Trump presented the world with the Indo-Pacific strategy during the East Asia Summit in November 2017, and India joined the US, Japan and Australia to revive the Quad, there has been speculation that New Delhi and Washington might sign another basic US military pact - the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). This has fuelled talk of India falling under the US spell to contain China.

To a great extent, India shares the anxiety over the rise of China with the US, especially with the increasing presence of Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) in the form of building ports in major regional chokepoints, such as the Djibouti Port adjacent to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, Gwadar Port near the Hormuz Strait and the Hambantota port close to the Malacca Strait and so on under the Belt and Road initiative.

Currently, the huge gap between US commitments to the Indo-Pacific and its naval capacity in the region makes relying on local allies like Japan and Australia, and countries like India and ASEAN members such as Vietnam and Indonesia to be the only ideal way to strike a comparative advantage over China, one of the main strategic competitors of the US according to the US National Security Strategy released in December.

India has been wary of Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean which it deems its backyard. New Delhi is suspicious of China's so-called "string of pearls" strategy. During the Doklam crisis last year, Indian strategists suggested that the Indian Navy make its presence felt in the South China Sea so as to serve as a strategic leverage against China, which means that the Indian concern over border disputes with China has extended to the maritime domain. Going by this, the Indian Navy is sparing no effort to boost its capacity and its military presence in the major IOR chokepoints.

However, a huge gap between the Indian Navy's capacity and its ambitions demands that India build a formidable naval force with the help of developed countries. Concern over the rise of China drives India and the US closer and Washington is trying to approve New Delhi's major defense partner status during the upcoming 2+2 ministerial meet to upgrade India from STA2 to STA1.

But this does not necessarily mean that India is always on the same page with the US in terms of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad.

First, the Indian quest for strategic autonomy means it won't be bound by US military pacts to join a war waged by the US against a friendly country while requesting for US technology, which is obvious from the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement inked between the two in 2016. In this pact, India clearly states that it will not allow the stationing of US troops on Indian soil and won't extend support in the event of US military action against friendly countries.

Second, India is ambitious to play a leadership role rather than being subservient to the US in containing China in the IOR and beyond. There are enormous complaints against the US defining the scope of Indo-Pacific region in the 2017 National Security Strategy.

India strategists uphold that the scope of Indo-Pacific region should extend from the waters between the east coast of the African continent and the western and south Pacific. To some extent, this means a lack of trust by India in the US strategic purpose and India won't simply play a secondary role in the IOR.

Third, the contest for influence in the IOR between China and India is not a zero-sum game, and the two have common interests. During the Wuhan meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared the consensus that as the two largest developing countries with a combined population of 2.6 billion and two large emerging economies, India and China are stabilizing factors for the world. Modi also said that India and China should put in joint efforts in making greater contribution to peace, stability and prosperity of Asia and the world in the 21st century. This means that while managing differences, India and China are building up strategic trust in upholding the interests of developing countries and coordinating policies in BRICS and WTO against protectionism. Sino-Indian relations are never a zero-sum game.

Fourth, India wants a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. To the disappointment of many, in his speech at Shangri-La Dialogue in June, Modi stressed that India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members, nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means does it consider it directed against any country.

Therefore, it could be concluded that India is seeking all the resources at hand to turn itself into a dominant maritime power in the IOR and will not be bound by any pact with any country. The development of military relations between India and the US do not translate into any scenario that puts India on the US gunboat to contain China any time soon, but rather a new version of non-alignment policy of proactive engagement with all power to develop its economy and military strength.

The author is chief correspondent and chief of the New Dehli Bureau, Wen Hui Daily of Shanghai.

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