IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

The challenges of walking the Indo-Pacific talk

30th October, 2020 International Relations

Context: In countering China, India must note that strategic talk alone cannot trump overriding economic realities.

  • The recently concluded third annual United States-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue has amplified the
    • ongoing conversation in India on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad),
    • the Indo-Pacific,
    • the threat from China, and,
    • the United States as a potential ‘alliance’ partner.
  • No strategic vision has captivated India’s foreign policy mandarins and strategic community in recent times as have the Indo-Pacific and the Quad.
  • The international community has once again decided to court New Delhi to play a decisive role in shaping the region’s strategic future.

The concepts, the differences

  • The Indo-Pacific is a grand politico-economic vision while the Quad is a forum for strategic and military consultations among India, the U.S., Australia and Japan.
  • Quad members are also major States in the Indo-Pacific region, and both the Quad and the Indo-Pacific constructs are focused on China.
  • They are also in some ways centred around India’s geographic location and its policies. if we take India out of the picture, their ability to sustain as geopolitical constructs would drastically diminish.
  • Indo-Pacific and the Quad are also quite different from each other.

Politico-economic vision and Military-strategic vision

  • Indo-Pacific provides a complex political and economic picture with a hesitant, but growing, articulation of China as a strategic challenge, the Quad is inherently more anti-China in character and intent.
  • Quad, still in its institutional infancy, is mostly focused on diplomatic signalling and with little common intent let alone joint action.
  • At the moment Quad’s ability to succeed would entirely depend on China — the more aggressive China gets, the more resolute the Quad countries would be in strengthening it.

Indo-Pacific vs. Belt and Road Initiative

  • It is too early to say whether the Indo-Pacific as an economic construct will be able to pose an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
  • The BRI is far more advanced, much more thought-out, and has the economic might of the Chinese state behind it.
  • Several Indo-Pacific countries are already members of the BRI.
  • On the flip side, the BRI is a ‘Chinese’ project and is already under immense stress from its inherent weaknesses, such as China’s unilateral pursuit of the BRI and the associated economic burdens on the States that sign up to it.

Hurdles in India’s strategy

  • For a politico-economic construct such as the Indo-Pacific to survive, there must be strong economic partnerships and linkages among its members.
  • Merely focusing on strategic talk and possible military cooperation will not work because at some point, the unavoidable economic logic will kick in.
  • India’s economic engagement of the Indo-Pacific. For ex. decision not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the region’s flagship free trade arrangement, could potentially complicate the country’s future engagements in the region.

The challenges of walking the Indo-Pacific talk

  • The RCEP decision, a direct result of domestic political compulsions in India, comes in the backdrop of the already huge gap between India and China on trade with almost every Indo-Pacific country.
  • The growing trade gap that India and China have with these countries will be a major determining factor in shaping the region’s strategic realities.
  • New Delhi’s decision not to sign on to the RCEP also needs to be viewed in the broader context of the Chinese institutional engagement of the region.

India’s bilateral trade

  • In the case of India, it does not have FTAs with Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Bangladesh and the Maldives.
  • It has FTAs with South Korea, the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, Japan and Sri Lanka.
  • In the case of China, it has FTAs with all these countries barring the U.S.
  • It does not have an FTA with Bangladesh, while negotiations are on with Sri Lanka. Trilateral FTA negotiations are also going on between China, Japan and South Korea.
  • Economic compulsions will go a long way in shaping strategic realities for a variety of reasons including that trade with China is crucial for the economies of these States.
  • Even if they attempt economic decoupling from China, it would be a long process, if pursued with adequate alternatives and political determination.
  • The lesson is straightforward: strategic talk alone cannot trump economic realities.

China’s larger military reach

  • If our economic engagements with the region were insufficient, which are at least partly due to domestic political considerations, our strategic and military engagements in the region also fall short.
  • Beijing, for instance, is a major defence supplier to several of the region’s States including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, dwarfing India’s minimal sales, defence dialogues and occasional joint military exercises in the region.

Economic role is key

  • India’s role in the Indo-Pacific will remain limited if it does not prove to be a major economic partner to these States.
  • But given the economic slowdown in India today in the wake of COVID-19 (compared to the much better place that China is in) and the lack of political consensus about the RCEP, India’s ability to economically engage with the region remains limited.
  • On the military-strategic side too, India’s performance in the region is less than desirable.
  • There is a fundamental difference between sustainably engaging the Indo-Pacific region using economic, strategic and military tools, and choosing to take the easier and quicker path of a military ‘alliance’ with the U.S. and its allies.

There is an unapologetic ‘realist’ turn in India’s foreign policy and the Indian debates on balancing and alliance formation are undergoing major changes as well.