Does the US-driven Exclusive Indo-Pacific Have a Promising Future From India’s Outlook?

Mental maps have a direct effect on actions and open the door for converting the geographical world into the geopolitical one. The Indo-Pacific construct that draws attention to the special importance of the Indian Ocean where India naturally has a geographical advantage and which indicates an India card for the United States against China has been guiding thoughts about the mental map of Asia (literally the Asia-Pacific) for the last decade. The emergence of the strategic triangle of the twenty-first century with the concurrent rise of China and India and a relative decline in US hegemonic power has first led to the construct of the Indo-Pacific, that is closely related to the issue of how to manage the change between these three, immediately afterwards, bunched together India with the United States, Japan and Australia under the name of the Quad, a semi-formal security forum.

The lack of mechanism that can solve the problems in the Indo-Asia-Pacific leaves the priority of balancing the stability of the region with its own national interests to the responsibility of each state. Thus, the Indo-Pacific signifies a new functional purpose of who constitutes the region and what issues are the driving force in the formation of regional orders, that is literally based on the balancing of China’s rise by promoting and prioritising India’s power projection. India, thus, has been presented as a natural balancer amid China threat theory has been fed broadly by the West, particularly the United States. India together with the United States has been witnessing to China’s strategic presence in the Indian Ocean while the United States has been facing with a rapidly increasing Chinese footprints in the Western Pacific. However, while the systemic rivalry is the matter of the United States with China, India and China have often been going into regional competition over zone of strategic influence or superiority in geographical space.

India as an actor that has traditionally avoided formal alliances has recently been intensely feeling to get stuck in the security dilemma in its relations with China. Therefore, India’s decision to join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), involving 14 nations including the 7 Southeast Asian nations along with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji that has been announced amid US President Joe Biden’s first official trip to Asia in May has raised some questions as to whether it is an attempt for India to go into the Western camp. In fact, there are clear indications that India, which has too protectionist system on trade, as well as desperately seeking flexible room for manoeuvre in foreign policy, has been trying to manage to walk a fine line of not to confront China or not to stand solely in the Western fold. In 2019, India decided to withdraw from the negotiations for the China-centric Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a fifteen-member free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand along with the 10 Southeast Asian nations. Indo-US bilateral trade and investment agreement has been stalled in 2020 while a free trade agreement (FTA) was off the table in 2021. Lately, India has maintained a subtle neutral approach, which mostly seems pro-Russian, on the Russian invasion of Ukraine despite US sanction expectations.

Given the IPEF, which is not a trade agreement even if fair and free trade is one of its four pillars along with supply chain transparency and resilience, technologic infrastructure and clean energy, and anti-evasion of tax and anti-corruption. The Indian decision to join was not a foregone conclusion, but it provides an opportunity of a counter-balance to Chinese dominance of economic and infrastructure architecture, as India has already been dealing with persistent and large trade deficit with China. Though, India’s isolation from all major economic agreements has a big impact on taking a part of the IPEF, of which the first ministerial meeting took place on Sept. 8 and 9 in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, India’s protectionist system will likely continue to restrict the extent of its participation in the IPEF, which has already been styled flexible as anything concrete has yet to be committed by members. As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar stated that India’s IPEF focus is the matter of connectivity along with supply chain that seeks to diversify its ASEAN and Japan partnerships amid building infrastructure to forge closer links to Southeast Asia through Myanmar and Bangladesh.

India, hence, intends to keep its strategic ties diversified and balanced to ensure a rules-based regional architecture. Admittedly, the Indo-Pacific is a two-sided coin for India: on one hand, it offers India an opportunity of strengthening its strategic leverage; on the other, it has a risk of a dangerous encounter with China. Given the latter scenario, India unlikely fall into the Thucydides trap in the Indian Ocean, which explains the logical nuance of what PM Modi first called the Indo-Pacific as a natural region in 2018. Currently, India has also re-clarified its Chinese concerns. In late August, in Bangkok, EAM Jaishankar said at the India’s Vision of the Indo-Pacific lecture that the bilateral relationship is going through an extremely difficult phase after China’s actions on the border since May 2020, also stressing that India and China have to come together to let the world witness the Asian century. The subtext of Minister’s statements is twofold: It says to Washington that India will not rely solely on the United States and confront China, it says to Beijing that India will not rely solely on the United States and confront China; so, the US-Chinese rivalry is the US-Chinese business, New Delhi sets its own strategy (being a third great power/indeed balancer between the two), by itself, with respect to its own strategic interests, and acts accordingly. Meanwhile, there is an Indian brand of the Indo-Pacific vision but not an Indian brand of the Indo-Pacific strategy unlike the other stakeholders. Evidently, India’s foreign policy has a Conjunctural Non-Alignment (CNA) posture, coined by the author, that functions as a kind of risk control strategy that allows equal-status and multi-oriented strategic ties including China, as well as that guarantees at safeguarding its independence against traditional alliance formations and its own room to manoeuvre in world politics.

[Photo by Office of the President of the United States, Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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