Spotlight

India can counter-balance China, be regional player in Indo-Pacific

It has become India’s role to provide what could be called a “balancing” role in maritime affairs in the Indian Ocean Region, writes Sampath Pillai for South Asia Monitor
Apr 8, 2019
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The Indian Navy’s (IN) articulated strategic doctrine documents of 2004, 2007 and 2015 provide some indicators of the role and scope envisaged in India’s maritime outreach. Four of the five pillars of that strategy deal with deterrence, warfighting, coastal and offshore security, and capability development. The fifth pillar deals with the need to shape and maintain a favourable maritime environment.
 
India, the largest democracy in the world, juts into the Indian Ocean and dominates that maritime area. Initially it was a legacy responsibility, inherited from the erstwhile colonial administration. Over the past seven decades plus, a combination of geopolitical changes (decolonization of the region, Cold War compulsions and the ensuing proxy wars in SE Asia, the Gulf  and in Africa), economic developments in ASEAN and China and South Asia, and finally the multi-polar nature of world power structures since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent on-off nature of larger-power maritime interest in the region, have all led to a situation where it has become India’s role to provide what could be called a “balancing” role in maritime affairs in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
 
This role has been increasingly visible in numerous instances of joint naval war-fighting exercises with navies of the littoral; efficient and immediate humanitarian and disaster aid and relief operations all around the area (Somalia, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Mozambique etc.);  peacetime flag-showing port visits and  participation in, and conduct of, seminars and meetings in conjunction with littoral navies. Operational deployment of IN resources in government-to-government aid has also been resorted to in Somalia, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, for piracy-control and, occasionally, aid-to-civil-power.
 
Not so visible, are diverse training and development programmes, assistance in infrastructure projects and lines of credit for purchase of equipment provided to neighbouring navies. A number of bilateral maritime and defence agreements have also resulted. Some of these appear designed to try and balance China’s burgeoning presence in the IOR.
 
The doctrinal process governing the strategic directions of the country’s policy-making in respect of maritime affairs is in the process of getting more coherent and inclusive of all the requisite inputs, but is still some way from having reached a measure of decisiveness.
 
The Indian Navy’s strategic doctrines with regard “to shaping and maintaining  a positive maritime environment” therefore need to be read in conjunction with policy statements made from time to time by the political leadership in diverse fora. This needs to be stated specially in the context of the larger space recently being provided to the concept of “Indo-Pacific”.  
 
While the term (“Indo-Pacific”) has been vaguely in vogue for a while now, it is only recently that motivated utterances from US neo-con armchair strategists and other academic commentators have highlighted it as a concept (in some way differentiated from the concept of “Asia-Pacific”).
 
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized the concept at the Shangri La Dialogue 2018, with repeated references to the Indo-Pacific. This has led even to speculation about India’s “drive,” “push” or “foray” into the Indo-Pacific.
 
These need to be examined with some nuance. The volume of maritime trade transiting the region notwithstanding, and discounting the varied commercial activities of the Indian diaspora in that region, India’s commercial interests east of the Malacca Straits are increasing, but not yet in any significant measure. The main entrepreneurial forays in the region by Indian business consists of one off-shore oil block in Vietnam’s EEZ, and random overseas mining and other ventures.
 
Given the present state of the IN’s readiness and deployment, it’s planned and anticipated building programmes, and taking into consideration the current and likely future budgetary allotments for capability-building and base-infrastructure, it is unlikely that the near or mid-term future will see any major meaningful deployment of the IN east of Singapore, into the “Indo-Pacific”.
 
That being considered, India’s two major allies in ASEAN are Singapore and Vietnam. Singapore literally commands the gateway to the “Indo-Pacific”. Vietnam is a major littoral of that region. Our engagement with these two friendly countries needs to be enhanced with a long-term perspective of developing  options  with a very long view. On the other hand, while China remains our greatest  competitor for influence, given China’s evident preoccupation with many other strategic problem areas, we do have a long window of opportunity to both develop capability and accelerate our search for more friends and allies in that region.
 
Apprehensions are expressed of an increasingly disturbed world order with a Donald Trump-led US, a Xi Jinping-dominated China, and even with Europe and other areas of the world in some populist right-wing led disarray. However these absolutist tendencies are eventually bound to dissipate. The push-back by centrist forces the world over is already evident, and the swing of the political pendulum would eventually result in greater equilibrium sooner rather than later.
 
Despite realpolitik calculations and attempts at a modern-day “balance-of-power” at ephemeral formulations such as BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), various versions of  a “Quad” and so on, there is merit in re-emphasizing parts of India’s continued non-aligned stance.
 
By emphasizing India’s desire for a “rules-based international order”, for both bi-lateral as well as multi-lateral co-operation, our trend-setting acceptance of the resolution of our maritime border dispute with Bangladesh under the auspices of the ITLOS (in contrast to China’s ambivalence to the court’s decision on the maritime border dispute with the Philippines), and by abjuring any muscular financial or diplomatic measures, India can present itself as an eventual counter-balance for China and project itself as a responsible, if tentative, regional player in the Indo-Pacific region.
 
However, to expect specific results in the near and foreseeable future in their applicability to the maritime dimensions of India’s strategic imperatives appears premature.
 
(The author is a retired naval officer. He can be reached at sampath.pillai@gmail.com)

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