On December 31, U.S President Donald Trump signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which promises to bring back fresh focus to American priorities in the Indo-Pacific. The main objective of the ARIA is to develop, “a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled policy for the Indo-Pacific region with a view to secure the vital national security interests of the United States and its allies; to promote American prosperity and economic interests by advancing economic growth and development of a rule-based Indo-Pacific economic community; advance American influence by reflecting the values of the American people and universal human rights; and support the rule of law and international norms”. Importantly, ARIA provides specific guidelines and directions to the US Administration with allocations of funds for pursuing its interests in the region and thus needs to be deliberated upon.
Genesis of ARIA: Decoding the Act
The most prominent highlight of ARIA is its “China centricity” as it manifests a change in US perception of China from being a competitor to now an adversary.
US seems to be feeling the “China Heat” and this perception gets reinforced with the Act elucidating that, “core tenets of the United States-backed international system are being challenged”, due to “China’s illegal construction and militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea and coercive economic practices”. The uneasiness of US further gets substantiated by the fact that, in-spite of a highly polarised political environment in the US, this Act was passed by consensus in the Senate, and also by a very large majority in the House of Representatives. This Act in a way, also attributes to the formal acceptance by US that, China is not only a threat to its security interests but is also an economic and ideological rival.
If viewed from US perspective, China has prompted ARIA by challenging the unipolarity and hegemony of the US, which it enjoyed since the Soviet disintegration. China appears to be on the path of confrontation with US and seems to have hit the US where it “hurts the most”; firstly, by asserting in South and East China Seas and by expanding its envelope to encompass Asia and the Indo-Pacific region; secondly, in its emerging tariff war with US, by equally retaliating to the US imposition of over $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods; and thirdly, the last year’s 19th Communist Party Congress meeting declaration, which envisaged China occupying the “centre stage”.
Concomitantly, China’s growing bonhomie with Russia on global issues like Syria, Iran, North Korea and consolidation of its influence in the Belt and Road Initiative areas is indicative of its upping the ante vis-à-vis the US.
Pragmatically speaking, these events have unmistakably jolted and challenged the US and its “National Ego”. Thus, the underlying intent of US, through ARIA, is to ensure that the United States does not secede strategic space to China. This Act is also indicative of a new phase in US pivot towards Asia, in countering the challenges emanating from China.
China too has visualised the “impending friction” this Act is likely to adduce. This can be gauged by the statement given by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang, on this Act. He said “The act seriously violates the one-China policy and the principle of the three joint communiques, and it interferes in China’s internal affairs. China expresses strong opposition to the U.S and has made solemn representations to the country”. He further added, “We urge the U.S not to implement relevant parts of the act and properly handle the Taiwan issue, so as to avoid hurting bilateral ties and the peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”. Chinese President Xi Jinping also stressed on the Taiwan issue at a gathering in Beijing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of issuing Messages to Compatriots in Taiwan, calling it as China’s internal affairs.
ARIA being China centric, inadvertently impacts the Indo-Pacific countries having land & maritime boundaries with China. These countries have been put in a precarious situation as many of them, have Beijing as their largest neighbour and also the largest trading and development partner, besides having closer ties with the US.
As this Act embraces the concept of Indo-Pacific in place of the erstwhile Asia-Pacific concept, it straightforwardly signifies that India stands as an integral part of the geostrategic space that the US perceives as the main theatre of contestation with China. Axiomatically, it brings forth the potential clash of national interests between the two “Asian Giants”, India & China. ARIA can also be viewed by some as a “Win- Win” ploy by the US in pitching the two rising powers against each other.
Nevertheless, the World now awaits to see, as to how ARIA would make a difference in the Indo-Pacific region and whether this Act would reassure US allies in the region? The race for hegemony between US & China in the geopolitics of Indo-pacific would also be closely monitored. Interestingly, since this Act has explicitly showcased US intent of furthering its relations with India, how China would now respond and usher its relations with India would be crucial and critical with serious ramifications for the region.
What it Means for India: An Opportunity or A Challenge?
At the outset, ARIA reaffirms strategic partnership of US with India, providing ample opportunities for India with fundamental diplomatic challenges.
The underpinning of this Act is the robust relationship of US with India and the “vital role of strategic partnership between the two countries in promoting peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region”. This Act also calls for further strengthening and broadening of diplomatic, economic, and security ties between Washington and New Delhi. It also reaffirms the United States commitment to the ‘New Framework’ of the defence relationship between the two countries. Despite India’s hesitancy, this Act regards the Quad as ‘vital to address the pressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region”. This facet is surely likely to pose a challenge to India’s intent of not being seen as a participant in an overt containment of China.
India therefore is on a tricky wicket. But, since this Act reiterates India as a mainstay of the U.S strategy in the region, India can conversely grab it as an opportunity to leverage US to its advantage by addressing its concerns. The prospect of American withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as about the inroads that China is making in India’s neighbourhood and the challenge it poses to India, both militarily and politically can be on the priority list. Furthermore, New Delhi can exploit this major facilitation by the US Congress of nominating it as a Major Defence Partner, in enhancing its defence R & D and technology base using mechanisms such as the STA Tier 1 status and Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) and also promote greater coordination on security policies and increased military-to-military engagements.
On the contrary, this Act is anticipated to bring a grave challenge for India by being in the direct path of confrontation with China which India in recent times has tried to avoid by adopting a more accommodative policy towards China. Equally, India will now have to creatively engage Russia by keeping the strategic communications open while remaining subdued on the Act till it fully unfolds. Moreover, India needs to be acutely aware of the sensitivities of closer defence partnership with the United States vis-à-vis its defence and security sphere with Moscow.
India should also be wary of the reality that US might have lack of commitment due to its underlying confidence in India for neither having the economic might nor the military strength to countervail China in the region. India’s limited capacity to provide an alternative will be an issue with the US. India should also inevitably remain sceptical of Trump’s unpredictability. Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, directly impacting India’s security calculus, and mockingly dismissing the Indian contribution to Afghanistan as nothing more than a library further seeds the trust deficit between the two nations. This whimsical approach of US towards India is unlikely to contribute to its intention of gaining India’s unflinching support for containing Chinese influence. With the advent of this Act and India’s sensitivity to developments in Afghanistan, New Delhi will also be very interested in whether the U.S. Congress can moderate Trump’s instinct to withdraw.
India also needs to remember that under Obama Administration, the “pivot” and then the “re-balance strategy” was formulated to push similar objectives which never started. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue formed on November 11, 2017 with the US, Japan, Australia and India is also yet to take an institutional shape.
Another perplexing issue under this new Act is pledging of a mere $1.5 billion per year for the next five years which appears too miniscule and skewed when compared to the vast sums that China is deploying for its BRI in Asia. China has invested close to $ 25 Billion alone in CPEC in the last five years, not to speak of other important infrastructure projects spread from Kenya to Maldives and Myanmar. Therefore, this meagre amount planned under ARIA does not commensurate with the scale of ambition it manifests, thereby questioning its intent and likely impact in future.
Consequently, it can be prognosticated that India while maintaining a strong partnership with the United States, is unlikely to be a direct partner in counterpoising China in the region. This also echoed in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore on 1 April 2018 which was acknowledged as balanced by Beijing. Moreover, India cannot afford to bungle in overlooking and spoiling its long nurtured relationship with other countries especially Russia, at the cost of unpredictable US with whom its current relations seem symbiotic and at a nascent stage which is yet to pass the test of time.
Concluding, as of now India has positively reacted on this Act which is evident from Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s tweet. She wrote “Designation of India as a major defence partner…is unique to India, this elevates defence trade, technology cooperation between the United States and India to a level commensurate with closest allies and partners of the United States.”
Though it is in the interest of India that China is kept checked by the US, however any kind of confrontation prompting in taking sides would be precarious for India, which it surely would like to avoid at any cost. Howbeit, it remains to be seen how ingeniously India balances its strategic and regional partnership with US and China respectively in wake of this new Act.
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