Foreign Policy Watch: India-United States

The challenges of walking the Indo-Pacific talk

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : India FTAs

Mains level : Paper 2- Limits and challenges India faces in its engagement in Quad and Indo-Pacific construct

The article analyses the similarity, differences and limitations of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific construct and delineate the challenges India as it seeks to deal with China.

Expectations from India in countering China

  • During the mid-2000s the world expected India to be an economic powerhouse, a decade later, those expectations remain modest, at best.
  • The international community has once again decided to court New Delhi to play a decisive role in shaping the region’s strategic future.
  • The expectation this time is more strategic and military, to lead the charge against China from within the region.

Role of India in the Quad and similarity with Indo-Pacific construct

  • 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.
  • Both the Quad and the Indo-Pacific constructs are focused on China.
  • More so, they are also in some ways centred around India’s geographic location and its policies.
  • Put differently, if you take China out of the equation, they would have little rationale for existence.
  • If you take India out of the picture, their ability to sustain as geopolitical constructs would drastically diminish.

Differences between  Indo-Pacific Construct and Quad

  • The Indo-Pacific is a politico-economic vision and the Quad is a military-strategic vision which does not form the military or strategic nucleus of the first.
  • While the 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.
  • The Indo-Pacific,will find it impossible to avoid engaging China, the Quad is mostly focused on diplomatic signalling and with little common intent let alone joint action.
  • 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.

Comparing Indio-Pacific with BRI

  • The BRI is far more advanced, much more thought-out, and enjoyes the support of Chinese state.
  • Several Indo-Pacific countries are already members of the BRI.
  • On the flip side, the BRI 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.

Challenges India face

1) On economic front

  • There must be strong economic partnerships and linkages among its members, merely focusing on strategic talk and possible military cooperation will not work.
  • India’s recent decision not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), could potentially complicate the country’s future engagements in the region.
  • Also worryinng is the already huge gap between India and China on trade with almost every Indo-Pacific country.
  • This growing trade gap will be a major determining factor in shaping the region’s strategic realities.
  • Institutional engagement: India 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.

2) On strategic and military front

  • India strategic and military engagements in the region also fall short.
  • Beijing is a major defence supplier to several of the region’s States including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
  • This dwarfs India’s minimal sales, defence dialogues and occasional joint military exercises in the region.

Way forward

  • 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 and the lack of political consensus about 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.
  • The only choice, it appears then, is for some sort of a loosely structured regional strategic alliance with the U.S. and its allies in the broader Indo-Pacific region.

Consider the question ” What are the similarities and differences in the Quad and the Indo-Pacific construct? What are the challenges India faces as it increases its engagement in the both.” 

Conclusion

India remains caught between a deeply constrained, but unavoidable, need to rethink its strategic posture, and the recognition of its material inability to do so, at least for now.

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