Tridivesh Singh Maini | Sohna
In the past few days and weeks, a lot has been written and said about two issues. Firstly, the spotlight was on the usage of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of Asia Pacific. This term, which is commonly used in certain strategic circles in Japan, Australia, US and India, alludes to an Asia, where China is not at the centre and hints at a larger role for India in conjunction with Japan, Australia and the US. While the Trump administration has used the expression Indo-Pacific more frequently, even members of the Obama Administration, especially Hillary Clinton did use this expression. The real push for this expression has come from the Australian government, as well as its strategic thinkers.
On the eve of his South Asia visit, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had used this term, while US President Donald Trump too used it on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of the Chinese. While addressing a gathering of businessmen on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Vietnam, the US President emphasised on the need for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific.’
The second issue that has garnered a lot of attention in the past few weeks is the working level meeting of India, Australia, Japan and the US, referred to as the Quad, on the eve of the East Asia Summit in Manila. As with every foreign policy division, there are mixed reactions to India being part of such a grouping.
A broader Standpoint
Both these developments are important, and linked to India’s Act East Policy (the name given to India’s outreach to South East Asia, East Asia and Indian Ocean Region), earlier referred to as the Look East Policy.
While the first development is important, because it sends an unequivocal message — at least symbolically — that in spite of the Trump Administration’s isolationist approach on economic issues, it has a clear understanding that India needs to play a broader role in the Indo-Pacific region.
While addressing a gathering of businessmen on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Vietnam, the US President emphasised on the need for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific.’
If one were to look at the Quad grouping, it has immense significance. While all the debate in India is about whether or not India should join an alliance which is led by the US, and the repercussions it will have on India’s ties with China, it is important to bear in mind that with a whimsical Trump at the helm, US policies are bound to remain unpredictable. However, Japan and Australia — two countries that have begun to question China’s increasing assertive approach on geo-political issues — are the key players.
The Australia-China relationship too has witnessed a significant downward spiral. Aggressive behavior by Chinese students on Australian university campuses has drawn the attention not just of policy makers, but sections of the media and civil society as well, who are concerned about free speech. It would be pertinent to point out that in the past too, such an arrangement was proposed in 2007, but it did not work out as a consequence of Chinese objections. Even today, there are some people in India who have advised against such a move.
Purely from the Indian perspective, it is important to not get carried away by the usage of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ by the US. The fact is that if Trump’s economic policies are closed and inward looking, it will only lead to a more dominant China. Apart from this, China has also read Trump very well and realised that his transactionalist approach, driven purely by business interests, and his style of diplomacy with an emphasis on personal ties is easy to deal with. The $250 billion business deals which were signed during US President’s China visit, along with the rousing welcome given to him during his visit, were a clear reiteration of this point. India will ultimately need to judge the Trump Administration by its actions on the ground. While some convergences are inevitable, Trump’s purely business oriented approach and his lack of predictability will pose a challenge. The other problem with this alliance is that while Australia and Japan may pitch the grouping in terms of a ‘Democratic alliance,’ the US President does not have very strong feelings with regard to either democracy or Human rights. During his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, there was not even a passing reference to human rights issues, and neither was there talk of the same during his interaction with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
New Delhi needs to work closely in this context with not just Japan and Australia, but should expand the alliance to countries within ASEAN, like Vietnam, who are vary of China’s expansionist designs.
As for the Quad, it is a work in progress. India and Japan in any case have established strong strategic and economic ties and both countries are looking to expand their relationship beyond the bilateral relationship — the Asia Africa Growth Corridor being one example. Of late, Australia too has sought to build closer ties with India. It is important for these three countries, to not depend upon the US excessively and not to react too soon. They need to see how things pan out in terms of China’s geo-political priorities.
A more grounded ‘Act East’ Policy
While there is a tendency to get distracted by platitudes of world leaders, especially US Presidents, and also to get carried away by talk of alliances and counter alliances, New Delhi should focus on accelerating trade and connectivity with neighbours like Myanmar and Bangladesh to give greater momentum to its Act East Policy. There is also scope for closer economic ties with Laos and Vietnam. Apart from strategic and economic ties, New Delhi needs to use its ‘Soft Power’ in South East Asian countries more effectively and also give a genuine thrust to people-to-people contact.
Apart from this, India needs to focus on economic progress, without which its clout is not likely to be anywhere near China’s. Even countries which may lavish praise on India for being a ‘Democracy’ kowtow to China due to its economic heft. There is no better example than US President Trump, who after running an aggressive campaign against China, was clearly swayed by the economic prowess of Beijing. On the whole, both the developments need to be welcomed, and while India’s foreign policy cannot be driven by ideological biases of the past, the occasional praise heaped not India does not imply that it has got a ticket to sit on the high table. Finally, India needs to work out a manageable relationship with China, and leverage the fact that it has a large market, which Beijing clearly cannot neglect. Balancing all these priorities requires deft manoeuvring and a reasonable consensus on key issues.