Even while India and China attempted to reset their relations post-Doklam standoff from Wuhan meeting in April 2018 through a meeting on the sidelines of SCO to BRICS summit meeting in July 2018 and Indian Prime Minister Modi distanced New Delhi from any group or policy primarily that aimed at containing China in the Indian Ocean at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore on June 1, 2018, New Delhi is poised to beef up its defence preparedness in view of growing Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean and along the Himalayan borders.
China has not only acquired a naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, there are reports of Chinese warships and nuclear submarines making port calls in Colombo. In the Maldives, Chinese influence has grown but it has allegedly come about Beijing muscling its way into diminishing Indian influence in the archipelago state.
While China and Pakistan are developing the Gwadar port as part of China-Pakistan economic corridor – purely a commercial venture – but there were reports which suggested that China planned to deploy nuclear submarines at the port.
Nepal while declined to participate in the New Delhi-proposed first ever joint military exercise within the framework of BIMSTEC, it expressed its readiness to participate in a 12-day long Sagarmatha Friendship-2 joint military exercise and in Sri Lanka, the Sirisena government which was perceived pro-India has leased out Hambantota port to Beijing for 99 years under Chinese debt pressure indicating rising Chinese prominence as well as enhanced Indian threat perceptions in the Indian Ocean and South Asian region.
India, while has not explicitly endorsed any anti-Chinese strategy, the defence pact signed between India and the US known as Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) on September 6, 2018 during the 2+2 dialogue was not only designed to facilitate Indian military platforms’ access to encrypted, cutting edge and high-end secured communication equipments from the US and end its reliance on less secured commercially available communication systems on high-end American platforms but more important bilateral strategic achievement seems to be the shared American and Indian perspective in keeping Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean and Himalayan region under close surveillance.
While this agreement would allow interoperability and technological information sharing between the US and Indian armed and naval forces and the US would be able to notice and guide Indian military operations in the Indo-Pacific and South Asian region not only to contain the rising China’s strategic ambitions pursued under ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ but to enhance its own influence.
India to allay Chinese suspicions might have persuaded the US to maintain ASEAN centrality to the Indo-Pacific region in the joint statement. For instance the joint statement noted: “Both sides committed to work together and in concert with other partners toward advancing a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, based on recognition of ASEAN centrality and on respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, good governance, free and fair trade, and freedom of navigation and over-flight” (For details see, Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Defence, “Joint Statement on the Inaugural India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue”, 06, September 2018, available at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=183300).
India concluded the agreement primarily to contain the growing Chinese threat in the Indian Ocean and Himalayan region in the shape of ‘String of pearl’ strategy which became more pronounced following Chinese submarines began to traverse the Indian Ocean and 73-day long Doklam standoff took place in the strategic tri-junction of Bhutan, India and China along the Himalayan region.
While post-Doklam standoff, reports of Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have reduced but still continue sporadically. New Delhi considered the agreement important despite the legitimate concerns that it might compromise India’s strategic autonomy by facilitating American intrusion into the Indian defence communication systems. Earlier, India was less interested in strengthening the quadrilateral format of US-Japan-India-Australia primarily as a means to contain Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region and it took a broader view of its Indo-Pacific policy by expressing its desire to work with Russia and the ASEAN member-states to maintain free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.
In the 2+2 dialogue, India expressed its willingness in joining the US-led infrastructure development projects to counter Chinese sponsored BRI. For instance, the joint statement noted: “Noting the importance of infrastructure and connectivity for the Indo-Pacific region, both sides emphasized the need to work collectively with other partner countries to support transparent, responsible and sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development”.
The Trump Administration has indicated its resoluteness in invigorating its role in the Indo-Pacific region primarily to contain Chinese global strategic ambitions. While the countries of the region viewed American security umbrella with suspicions as its resources and commitments to the region kept fluctuating post-9/11, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo allayed these doubts by announcing $113 million investment in new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives followed by his pledge to provide $300 million in new security funding for the region. India, while seems to be interested to fall back on American initiatives as the joint statements indicate but it still wishes to pursue a nuanced stance by keeping away from anti-Chinese statements.
Indian concerns towards rising Chinese threat perception is clearly discernible from Russian news agency Sputnik’s report that pointed to India’s willingness to purchase a remotely piloted aircraft system that could operate at an altitude of more than 5,500 meters above sea level primarily aimed at detecting military activities along the mountainous border with China (“India Looks to Procure Spy Drones to Operate at High Altitudes”, Sputnik, 3 September 2018). India’s move towards enhanced military preparedness seems to be in the direction of meeting the rising Chinese threat perception in the Indian Ocean and Himalayan region.