By Sylvia Mishra*
China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean and assertiveness in maritime territorial disputes in East and South China Sea has once again heightened discussion about an enhanced role for India in the Asia-Pacific. The region is witnessing a strategic flux as both the Asian giants, India and China, leave footprints in each other’s backyards - the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region respectively.
These developments come at a time when the United States is rebalancing towards Asia; Japan under Prime Minister Abe is modifying its post-war pacifist constitution; and most of Southeast Asia’s countries are increasingly looking towards India to become a credible counter-weight to balance China. Several Asia-Pacific countries have cast doubts on China’s so-called ‘peaceful rise’, and there is a growing dependence on the security umbrella provided by the United States. This delicate security fabric in the region is further exacerbated by the lack of existing security architecture.
India’s Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently claimed that India is transitioning from being a balancing power to a leading power. If that’s true, it is imperative that India undertakes more responsibilities in the region.
Yet despite steps by successive Indian governments to direct its foreign, economic and military strategies eastward, India has been unable to deeply integrate itself in the Asia-Pacific like the United States or China. So far India’s role in the region has been limited – reactive and at best episodic – even though it has the desire and the potential to become an important actor and help shape the future security architecture in the region.
If the shifting balance of power in the Asia-Pacific is shaping India’s political goals there, India too is shaping the region by developing its own comprehensive national power, active blue water navy diplomacy, and collaborating with regional powers like Japan and Australia. India figures prominently in US geostrategic security thinking, and the global security interests of both countries have found maximum convergence in the Asia-Pacific region. During President Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, the two countries signed a landmark Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean. India also features prominently in the US National Security Strategy 2015 document and the Department of Defense publication The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy.
India’s defence and security cooperation with the US is also growing. The United States is India’s largest defence supplier and both countries are engaging in expanded military exercises. During the visit of India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to the Pentagon, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, “The defense partnership between the United States and India will become an anchor of global security.” These are signs that the region can expect India and the US to work to secure a stable Asia-Pacific without being dominated by China.
India-US collaborative partnership in the Asia-Pacific region is aimed at accommodating China in a security order which is inclusive and rules-based. Both countries are also determined to retain the status quo in the region, and hedge against a China which is increasingly unilateral and assertive in its actions.
But in spite of overlapping strategic interests, Indian security planners have genuine concerns regarding US-China relations. Several commentators have highlighted the uncertainty of the future course of relations between Washington and Beijing, fearing a G-2 which could lead to power-sharing in the region.
To become a regional power, India has been gradually building its defence and security relationships with a number of Southeast Asian nations. Over the past decade, India has expanded its naval presence into the South China Sea and exercised with Southeast Asian navies, particularly Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
However, India and some of the ASEAN states believe that India should play a still greater diplomatic and security role in the region. This could include a larger naval presence with a force capable of operating in open seas and projecting power to areas of strategic interest. New Delhi particularly targets a strong presence in the strategically-located Malacca Straits which accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s trade and more than 80 per cent of China’s oil imports.
However, India’s long-held desire for a blue-water navy has met with stuttering progress in recent years; the Indian navy has seen a reduction in its allocated budget from 19 per cent in 2012 to 2013 to 16 per cent in 2015-2016. Additionally, it is reported to have a shortage of 1,322 officers and 11,257 sailors along with an acute shortage of ships and helicopters. These operational challenges have greatly stymied India’s desire for a blue water-navy.
For Indian policymakers in the security arena, the challenge in building India as a key Asia-Pacific actor will boil down to four elements: willingness to project and sustain its military presence beyond the Indian Ocean; India’s ability to put concerted focus on Asia-Pacific, moving away from its obsession with Pakistan; New Delhi’s capability to break the gridlock of a defensive mindset of hedging against China and finally, India’s resolve to deepen its economic cooperation with Southeast Asian countries.
India’s security role in the Pacific will be critical in sustaining and maximizing its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. As competition for strategic space continues to rise in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi must continue to build its partnership with the US, Southeast Asian states and the regional powers. This will be instrumental in positioning India as a credible security provider in the region.
This commentary originally appeared in Asia & the Pacific Policy Society.