US Indo-Pacific strategy and India
President Trump laid out a vision for the Indo-Pacific during the APEC Summit in Hanoi in 2017. Accordingly, and in line with the US National Security Strategy and the National Defence Strategy documents, his Administration is translating what has been termed as a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept into reality. It is based on three pillars viz security, economics and governance. The security pillar has been clearly articulated in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) which specifies how the National Security and National Defence Strategies would apply to Asia. The “free and open” aspects of the FOIP have been defined in four specific principles, respect for sovereignty and independence; peaceful resolution of disputes; free, fair and reciprocal trade, and adherence to international rules and norms. The IPSR further lays down three alliterative lines of effort viz preparedness, partnerships and promoting a networked region, that lay down the framework of how this strategy will be eventually operationalised.
Preparedness is defined as achieving peace through strength and employing effective deterrence through a joint force that is well prepared to win any conflict from its onset. US partners and allies will ensure the forward posturing of combat credible forces in the region. The joint force will prioritise investments that ensure lethality against high end adversaries. In practice, the US has already embarked upon massive power projection in the South China Sea and the Indian & Pacific Ocean Regions (I&POR). It is carrying out Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits with some allies/partners including India, too.
Partnership is defined as a unique network of allies and partners which acts as a force multiplier to achieve peace, deterrence and interoperable war fighting capacity. The Quad, is one example where Japan, Australia and India have come together with the US to form a formidable grouping. Some South East Asian states may, at a later stage, join a US-led Coalition, if required. Canada, UK and France are apparently already on board.
Promotion of a networked region is being achieved through strengthening of alliances and partnerships into a networked security architecture to uphold the international rules-based order. The US also supports intra-Asian security relationships capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability and ensuring free access to common domains. Exercise Malabar has been conducted in the Bay of Bengal by the Quad and tri-services exercises between the US and India are also scheduled.
The US has eventually managed to marshal India for its Indo-Pacific strategy. However, India’s full commitment to the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy remains questionable.
Most importantly, the two strategic partners disagree on what region the term Indo-Pacific defines. For the US, the Indo-Pacific extends from the west coast of the US to the west coast of India. However, India feels that the “Indo” must cover the whole of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), including the East Coast of Africa – Australia as well. This clearly denotes divergent perceptions, priorities, resultant strategies, objectives and adversaries. This Indian contention will invariably bring the USCENTCOM and USAFRICOM into play and create unfathomable complexities.
The Indians have vital interests in the Greater Middle East Region (GMER) and the western IOR through which their major Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs), their oil imports and their trade pass. It has serious issues with Pakistan like Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, water, etc. It now finds China and its BRI-CPEC moving along its western borders into Pakistan in a very big way. The probable militarisation of the Makran Coast is a fearsome probability too. The deadly brawl in Ladakh and Chinese assertion of their rights there has been humiliating for the Indian military. The strategic environment on India’s west and north will thus always exercise a massive pull on it and not allow it to be fully committed to the Indo-Pacific. Fighting and winning conflicts on two or more divergent fronts is clearly beyond the Indian military’s ambit, capacity and capability. This factor alone could become a deal breaker at some critical time with the US.
It is also noteworthy that India is a strategic partner of the US, a denomination much lower than that of an ally. India would prefer to act in parallel rather than in joint operations with the US thus achieving the benefits of cooperation while preserving strategic autonomy. That would create serious issues of roles, taskings, operational strategies, interoperability, command and control, mutual support, synergies, synchronisations etc. Furthermore, the Indians will be wary of the US penchant for applying its offshore balancing strategy. (Enlisting India by this scribe, The Nation, 31 May 2020). The US has a sordid reputation for transactional deals and India will be apprehensive of whether it only needs it to embroil China in a war – on its behalf? Where do Indian interests however, lie? Hypothetically speaking, even if the Indians manage to somehow contain and circumscribe China’s rise where will they themselves stand at the end of it all – militarily, economically, politically, diplomatically and cohesively as a nation? How will their national ambitions of becoming a dominant regional power fare thereafter? Can they conceivably replace China as the major Asian power? The Indians need to strike a true balance between their real capacities and capabilities and their hegemonic aspirations.
The US Indo-Pacific strategy and the FOIP concept are purely China-centric. US’ indirect approach through trade wars, global supply chain disruptions, technology transfer blockages, diplomatic and military coercion, sanctions etc has not delivered. The only plausible way to circumscribe China’s rise now is by taking it to war. There is no other way that can stunt its galloping economic and military stature and reach. At the moment the US may have the military clout to go to war by coercing and mustering a number of willing/reluctant/unwilling partners and allies, yet it does not have the economic wherewithal to expend unlimited resources in men, materials and treasure. The world cannot afford disastrous conflicts now or ever, either.
The US needs to rethink its Indo-Pacific strategy as it is fast running out of time, space and options.