Changing Nature Of India-China Relations: Powershift in the Indo-Pacific

 By Akshita Ramola
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Along with a longstanding contested border issue with China, Beijing’s strategic and economic dominance in the Indo-Pacific region sets unprecedented challenges for India. The Indian Ocean is in India’s backyard and is witnessing a shift in the geopolitical architecture of Asia. The Russia-Ukraine War has further highlighted the security risks and challenges which may arise globally as the Indo-Pacific emerges as an arena of great power contestation due to China’s growing influence in the region. Owning to its geostrategic weight, Indo-Pacific is currently witnessing a power-tussle between establishing a free, open and rule-based’ order against a ‘closed and exclusiveorder. Drawing comparisons between the rise of India and China with the rise of united Germany in the 19th century and the US in the 20th century, scholars argue that Beijing and New Delhi “will transform the geopolitical landscape, with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the previous two centuries”.[1]

The ‘Indo’ in the Indo-Pacific thus envisages a crucial and massive role for New Delhi in establishing a more cohesive, prosperous and peaceful Indian Ocean and Pacific theatre. India’s vision is to defend its strategic security against the rise of dominant China by balancing its strategic ambitions.

The strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific lies in its sea routes which major powers, including China, are dependent on for their trade and energy supplies. Thus, safeguarding two crucial maritime chokepoints, Bal al Mandeb and the Malacca Strait located on either side of the Indo-Pacific is one of the focal points which has caused strategic turbulence in the region. The Indo-Pacific region or the ‘Asia-Pacific’- as Beijing used to term it– is a region of deep interlinkages of strategic and economic capabilities, predominantly in the South Asian and South Pacific countries.  Through its economic, diplomatic, and military influence, Beijing has been able to expand and establish its maritime interest and naval power. Yet Chinese officials have repeatedly emphasized that China is not seeking to establish a sphere of influence in the region, and instead is seeking to foster stability and economic growth in the Indo-Pacific.

With reports of PLA conducted 555 sorties into Taiwan’s air defence zone in the first half of the year,[2] China’s muscle flexing and constant militarization in contested islands in the South China Sea and claims over Taiwan has raised concerns over the possibility of a clash between China and the United States which is a strong supporter of the democratically elected government in Taiwan.  While the fate of Taiwan will dictate America’s credibility in the region, Beijing has also been vigorously expanding its footprints in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan making New Delhi reflect and re-evaluate its role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region to ensure regional stability.

India’s Security Strategy in Indo-Pacific
India has been working as a key player in Indo-Pacific to integrate the Indian Ocean region with the South-East Asian nations. The impetus for India’s Indo-Pacific strategy was set in 2007 by Japan’s then-Prime Minister Mr ShinzoAbe in his famous “Confluence of the Two Seas”[3] speech in the Indian Parliament. His Indo-Pacific vision called for India to revitalise its relations with the East. New Delhi actively accelerated and reformed its Look East Policy (LEP) into Act East Policy (AEP) to emerge as reliable regional power. AEP is more action-oriented as it is responsible for India’s economic and military initiatives and projects in the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi defines the Indo-Pacific as “from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas”[4] conveyed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue.

According to Dr Jagannath P. Panda, AEP has four main objectives: [5]
(1) ensuring a secure Indian Ocean and overall Indo-Pacific (2) campaigning for more robust integration with South Asian nation.(3) encouraging and engaging in strategic partnerships with “like-minded” countries(4) effectively managing India-China relations

In 2004, the Indian Maritime Doctrine alluded to “the shift in global maritime focus from the Atlantic-Pacific combine to the Pacific-Indian”. Therefore, beyond the Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific has for some time now been identified as falling within the ambit of India’s security interests.[6] India has created an Indo-Pacific division within the MEA, integrating work related to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), ASEAN and the Quad.

India has started looking into other sustainable non -Chinese alliance frameworks, including the Blue Dot Network (BDN), a multilateral Indo-Pacific initiative comprising the United States (US), Japan, and Australia. Aimed at improving standards of infrastructure investment and hailed as a counter initiative to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the BDN could mark the beginning of a new “economic alliance” for India in the Indo-Pacific. The BDN, is antithetical to the BRI’s “debt-trap diplomacy”. It naturally endorses the free and open Indo-Pacific vision of the Quad, which recently expanded to form the Quad Plus, comprising New Zealand, South Korea, Brazil, Israel and Vietnam.[7]

A closer look at the Chinese foreign policy aspiration and its engagement with regional states reflect that the country seems to have the following possible vital interests in the region (Wang & Zhu, 2016);[8]

  1.  To prevent or refrain the adversarial navies from dominating key sea-lines of communication.
  2.  To contest the Indian claim of considering the Indian Ocean as an Indian Lake and establish its own hegemony.
  3. To operate a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent to augment country’s nuclear triad.
  4. To prevent US from establishing closer defence and economic ties with the states that may play against the Chinese interests.
  5.  To expand the allied states’ network and promote the Chinese regional integration vision.

As the Biden administration laid down its Indo-Pacific Strategy[9], India is fostering close strategic ties with the United States to become a trustworthy partner in the region. With a robust military, India must leverage its position in the Indian Ocean to facilitate stronger defence ties with the US and its allies in the Pacific theatre. IPS-22 places India as a reliable and active player to maintain its primacy in the region.  India and the US have also signed the last of the four foundational defence agreements[10] required by Washington for deep defence integration with New Delhi. The Pentagon said[11], “bounded by ‘shared values and a common vision for a free and fair Indo-Pacific, the US and India will continue to chart an ambitious course in their bilateral defence partnership to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

India’s Military Diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific
In security discourse, military diplomacy has gained importance and requires establishing cooperative military-to-military relations between states. A state claiming to be a net security provider must have the ability to offer armed assistance to other states in pursuing common objectives. (Sufian Ullah and Zeeshan Hayat) However, it is worth noting that military diplomacy is not isolated from a country’s foreign or strategic policy but is rather supplementary to it.

As China follows its path of becoming a global hegemon to counter United States’ position as leader of the international order, the Indo-Pacific region is where Beijing wants to establish its complete dominance in the economic, political and military domain to emergence as a sole leader to curb US presence.  Building a network of ports in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) –container ship facility in Bangladesh, Gwadar Port in Pakistan, Deep-water port in Myanmar, building of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka—and pursuing the idea of regional integration, China has launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is an integral part. This possesses serious security risks for India who has to strategically work on its ‘ASEAN-centric’ approach in the Indian Ocean to balance China’s ambitions in the region. Binding its Act East and Military policies together and working towards enabling intense military diplomacy, New Delhi must assist and cooperate with these countries to expand its security ties.

The signing of the  BrahMos Deal, a lone cruise missile, with the Philippines – a first of its kind- shows the convergence between India’s Act East and Defence Export Policy.[12] Even though the supplied missile is a naval version, it is noteworthy that the deal was signed when Manila is facing disputes with China over claims in the South China Sea.  India is also in talks about deepening its bilateral defence cooperation with Vietnam amid territorial challenges with China. On a recent visit, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh agreed to fast-track the extension of a $500-million line of credit to Hanoi — to buy key defence equipment from India, which could include the BrahMos supersonic missile that Vietnam has been eyeing for some time.[13]

As India’s Defence exports record the highest numbers,[14] South-East Asia emerges as a lucrative market for India. On Defence Production Defence Minister recently stated that India is among the top 25 nations engaged in defence exports worth Rs 13,000 crore and has fixed a target to increase to Rs 35,000 to Rs 40,000 crore by 2025-26.[15] India’s strategic ambitions and capabilities in assisting countries in South-East Asia will broaden its horizon in the region. However, this will depend on the political will and commitment to focus on research and development of building military capabilities, working on India’s domestic defence manufacturing, and enhancing its research capabilities to emerge as a reliable and trustworthy security provider in the region to these countries.

Strategic collective: QUAD and its future
Lin Minwang, a researcher at Fudan University, believes that the Indo-Pacific strategy is still a concept that needs to be constructed and the quadrilateral security dialogue – the QUAD formed by the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – is only the beginning of the construction of the Indo-Pacific security region. [16]

QUAD has emerged as a collective with a strategic focus on China and countering its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. However, it has primarily emphasised on non-traditional security issues like climate change, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This has served vastly in India’s interest which sees its role as a balancer and a security provider rather than partaking in the power tussle between Washington and Beijing. The collective has been criticised for challenging the ‘ASEAN-centrality’ in the Indo-Pacific security architecture since both groups seem to have different perspectives on the ways of cooperation. ASEAN pursues inclusivity, while the Quad is premised more on exclusive collaboration[17]. Although the Quad may eventually extend its partnerships, these are likely to involve only US allies and close partners. China has also been alarmed and critical of the growing Western presence in the region and has called QUAD the “Asian NATO”. The inception of the trilateral security agreement signed between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS), is perceived as a more coherent security and military group than the QUAD.

But for India, the Indo-Pacific region must go beyond military collectives and meddling in strategic power politics. New Delhi should focus more on the non-traditional approaches to security by collaborating with ASEAN countries and ensuring peace and stability in the region that can be fostered through its strong and coherent strategic policies and military diplomacy as mentioned.

Future of the Indo-Pacific: Towards a Multipolar World to sustain China
Indo-Pacific is both an inclusive and exclusive region due to its fluid boundaries. For peace and tranquillity in the region, a multipolar world in Asia should be promoted by middle power countries as well as major powers including China and India with inclusive multilateral institutions to build transparency and stability in the region. The Middle Power collective specific to the ‘ASEAN centrality’ must be the defining factor in India’s regional policy initiatives. Australia, South Korea, and Japan are also emerging in a balancing act in the current setting in the Indo-Pacific and are looking for defence capabilities and allegiance with allies in the region. The Indo-Pacific construct is also gaining momentum with countries in the West— Germany, France and United Kingdom. India should actively work towards ensuring a sustainable rule-based order that will help countries check and address the growing Chinese assertiveness in the region.

The sea will determine the future course of India-China relations but for now, India’s China Policy in the Indo-Pacific should call for greater unity among regional states and institutions to become a reliable economic and military power in the region.

Endnotes

[1] International and Security Studies • Volume 8: India in the Indo-Pacific: Understanding India’s Security Orientation in Southeast and East Asia by Aditi Malhotra (2022) (eISBN): 978-3-8474-1844-3 (PDF)

[2]South China Morning Post: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3184737/china-steps-use-combat-aircraft-taiwan-sorties-military-tries

[3] Confluence of the Two Seas speech by Mr. ShinzoAbe: https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html

[4] Prime Ministers Speech at Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018: https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/29943/Prime+Ministers+Keynote+Address+at+Shangri+La+Dialogue+June+01+2018

[5]Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi:  India’s Connectivity Contours and Indo-Pacific Initiatives by Dr Jagannath P. Panda

[6] https://idsa.in/askanexpert/IndiasapproachtowardstheIndoPacificregion

[7] India, the Blue Dot Network, and the “Quad Plus” Calculus:  Dr. Jagannath P. Panda

[8] Wang, R & Zhu, C. (Eds.). (2016). Annual report on the development of the Indian Ocean region: 21st century maritime silk road. Singapore, Springer, 92.

[9] https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf

[10] https://journalsofindia.com/four-fundamental-pacts-india-usa-22-dialogue/

[11] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-us-defence-ties-to-stay-on-ambitious-course-bound-by-common-vision-for-indo-pacific-pentagon/articleshow/90723682.cms?from=mdr

[12] What BrahMos Deal with Philippines mean for Indo Pacific by Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak https://idsa.in/idsacomments/brahmos-deal-with-philippines-means-for-indo-pacific-ncoak-230222

[13] https://theprint.in/diplomacy/india-vietnam-seal-rare-10-yr-vision-statement-among-key-defence-pacts-as-china-threat-looms/988733/

[14] https://www.financialexpress.com/defence/highest-ever-defence-exports-touches-rs-13000-crore-in-2021-22/2588037/

[15] https://www.outlookindia.com/national/rajnath-singh-announces-setting-up-of-tri-services-joint-theatre-commands-news-211619

[16] https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/what-china-thinks-of-the-indo-pacific-strategy/

[17] https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2022/06/25/the-quad-and-asean-where-to-next/