Thumbnail images: 

Donald Trump has done more damage than good to the Asian security architecture and is likely to do more of the same. Not only that, this process is also hurting India’s long term interests because it is damaging the value of the idea of the Indo-Pacific as an open and inclusive construct and not an architecture as such. More significantly, the Indo-Pacific order today suffers from a dichotomous American position. It wants to reinstate its hegemonic leadership position on security whereas on economy it wants a recalibration that is costly even to its allies in the region.


One important risk to the idea of the Indo-Pacific however comes from diversity of perspectives. While the US and Japan both use the phrase Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIPS), the meaning they attach to it is fairly different. India on the other hand is the only one to use the word “inclusive” in its official utterances on the concept. India’s primary concern, the Chinese naval activities in the western Indian Ocean, is also largely outside the contours of how others have defined the geographic canvass of the concept.


The American dualism of security and economy positions is the core reason why fearing economic backlash, regional economic powers are warming their ties with China once again despite serious underlying tensions and disputes with China.  Building strategic multilateralism, while the economic multilateralism and openness collapses, gradually is not likely to yield intended results. Allies will stay in the American-led regional order but they will always be hedging their risks against American unpredictability, which is the major challenge to the idea of "free and open" Indo-Pacific.  


One of the first indicators that India needed to urgently relook at the concept of the Indo-Pacific was when Shinzo Abe attended the Chinese Embassy ceremony to mark Chinese liberation day in Tokyo in late September 2017. Deteriorating relations between China and Japan were considered one of the key developments behind the gathering of support for the Indo-Pacific. However, it does appear to have settled, at least for the time being. Most significantly, this happened more than a month before Donald Trump undertook his first major tour to East Asia. This was also a tour in which Trump wholeheartedly endorsed the concept and asked other countries to join or support. This was followed by the release of the US National Security Strategy document in December 2017 and the US National Defence Strategy in early 2018. The NSS argued that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region”, adding a sense of immediacy attached by the Trump administration to the subject. However, the US is not going to lead the Indo-Pacific by consensus-building.


To China, the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy would look even more like a containment strategy because it comes alongside the ongoing trade war. In that case, its response to the Indo-Pacific is likely to be a hard power-based one. Therefore, we are still way away from using the Indo-Pacific platform towards creating a rules-based and inclusive order, which is how India imagined it. This is especially true as Chabahar port’s development and the implementation of the International North South Corridor (INSTC) are likely to suffer due to the American sanctions on Iran. These two projects are symbols of India’s image for an open and inclusive rules-based order. So where does that leave India as a norms and consensus builder in the region? Or is India postponing those goals and at what cost?


In some ways, it can be argued that the contemporary Indian approach to the Indo-Pacific is similar to Nehruvian notion of non-exclusionary regionalism as against the then emerging military alliance systems of SEATO and CENTO. Like during the Nehruvian era, even today India also does not see the region through the lens of balance of power and that is why it has consistently argued to make the order inclusive. India believes that the Indo-Pacific order can engage China and not work against it. China’s rise is inevitable, thus, it is better to include it in a dialogue than otherwise. However, terms of engagement can be set a lot differently as well as peacefully if done collectively and within the frameworks of  relevant international laws. It is this notion of the Indo-Pacific that is likely to gain currency among the smaller Southeast Asian nations too. These countries have no choice, at least not in the immediate sense, to choose between the US and China. In fact, forcing such binaries is counterproductive. Trump’s policy is doing exactly that today in the region. 


Where India is going wrong is in aligning its interests too closely with that of the powers. While India does not have alliance partnerships, it has joined China on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank of the BRICS. However, it has kept itself out of the possible major lending recipient from these agencies, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On the other hand, India gives alternate spin to the idea of national interest and has joined other likeminded countries for promoting the Indo-Pacific concept. The autonomous Indian position on keeping open the regional water and airspace is yet not clear. India still has not provided a viable alternative to the binaries offered by the US and by China.


As a rising power, this is the right time for India to broaden its understanding of what comprises its national interest. By its present strategy, India is losing out on its leadership potential that it had in the early days of the development of the concept of Indo-Pacific. It looks now as if India has handed over the management of Indo-Pacific to the US, especially under the Trump administration. This also raises the larger question as to the exact nature and objectives of the Indian foreign policy. India’s foreign policy appears more like ad hoc reactions to the great powers’ initiatives than as an independent foreign policy in the absence of an active role on the ground. And where is the much vouched strategic autonomy after the 2+2?  The Shangri La Dialogue speech by the Prime Minister Modi was useful. The reiteration of free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific was productive too. The urgency of the speech, however, is yet to materialize. The world moves on faster, while India continues to only respond.  


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.