Prospective shifts in US policy towards the Indo-Pacific hold broad implications for India, China, and their intermittent skirmishes in the Himalayas
Ahead of the 2020 US presidential election, Joe Biden often invoked Donald Trump’s nomenclature of the Indo-Pacific, to underscore his restorationist foreign policy agenda. However, Biden subsequently steered clear from the oft-repeated assessment that there was little divergence between his proposition and Trump’s record in the Indo-Pacific. Notably, Biden altered the Trump administration’s normative aim of the US cultivating a “free and open” Indo-Pacific to “maintaining" a “secure and prosperous” Indo-Pacific. Thereafter, with its nominations for national security cabinet posts, the Biden campaign even returned to using the term ‘Asia Pacific’.
Amidst consternation around Biden’s commitment to the region, reports emerged of former State Department official Kurt Campbell being nominated as the Biden administration’s “Indo-Pacific coordinator”. However, by then, questions over Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy had expanded to doubts over his China policy. In his acceptance speech, Biden’s nominee for US Secretary of Defence had curiously skipped any mention of the strategic competition between China and the US.
Trump rightfully broke from the post-Cold War US policy of balancing cooperation and competition with China. His new approach encompassed a sustained agenda of confrontation across multiple domains like trade, telecommunications, and maritime posture. In building on the preceding Barack Obama administration’s Pivot/Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific policy, the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy achieved a constructive record on development assistance, multilateral projects for regional infrastructure, and traditional partnerships.
Biden’s distancing from the Indo-Pacific construct seems to be aimed at cultivating some political elbowroom on exploring a conciliatory approach towards China. While a degree of de-escalation—mainly on the rhetoric level—is warranted in view of Biden inheriting “a massive trust deficit” in US-China ties, it remains a matter of concern if that would come at the cost of America’s role in the Indo-Pacific. For instance, under Obama, the prioritisation of a “stable and constructive relationship with China”, contributed to Washington’s ambivalence towards Beijing reneging on its commitment to not militarise the South China Sea. In a sign of that folly recurring, Biden officials have come around to recognizing China as a “serious strategic competitor”, but with the caveat of the need to “work with China when it’s in our [US] interests do so on issues such as climate change”. It remains unclear how the new administration will actually handle China in strategic-military terms.
Sensing an opportunity, Beijing has made the case for US-China ties also warranting Biden’s restorative touch, by calling for the return to a “sensible approach” and address “expanding converging interests by cooperation.” However, as the world grappled with the coronavirus pandemic and the US underwent a turbulent election cycle, Beijing concurrently also sought to gain the initiative in the region. Under China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy, this encompassed: pushing the envelope on its ties with Honk Kong and Australia; altering the military posture vis-à-vis Taiwan, India, and Japan; and, announcing administrative jurisdictions over the contested Paracels Islands, Macclesfied Bank, and the Spratly Islands.
Hence, while pushing for a return to the Obama precedent on managing bilateral ties, Beijing has set the stage to also test Biden’s resolve on continuing America’s role in the Indo-Pacific.
A key component of Trump’s constructive record in the Indo-Pacific was his administration actively pursuing relations with nascent partners. With India, despite occasional friction with Washington over issues like trade, immigration, and its ties with Iran and Russia, the Trump administration continued the post-Cold War US policy of de-hyphenating India and Pakistan, strengthening counter-terrorism cooperation, and institutionalising US-India force interoperability.
Particularly in the defence domain, Trump expanded US support for India’s capacity-building. Under America’s Indo-Pacific calculus, New Delhi’s emergence as a security provider in the Indian Ocean region is imperative, to prevent Beijing from expanding its influence to the critical subregion and permitting the US Navy to focus its assets in the Western Pacific. Towards that aim, US-India defence trade under Trump developed a focus on India’s maritime surveillance capability. Wherein, the Trump administration yielded to Indian requests for particular platforms (e.g. MH-60 Romeo Seahawk maritime helicopters), adopted a policy to ‘front-load’ clearances (e.g. for ancillary equipment for India’s fleet of P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft), and ended the Obama-era freeze on India’s acquisition of US-made Unmanned Aerial Systems (e.g. clearing the sale of Sea Guardian maritime drones).
While this has been a welcome development from the standpoint of lending a policy structure to defence trade, it now also renders that crucial domain to be inextricably linked with the US’ Indo-Pacific policy. As a result, any shift in the US’ commitment to the region could also impact India’s role in the Indian Ocean. This correlation gains credence in view of the centrality of US platforms in New Delhi’s efforts. Case in point being India’s fleet of US-made P-8 aircraft which constitutes the backbone of the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region—India’s flagship effort to position itself as an international hub for maritime domain awareness in the region.
Hence, even as broad US policy continuity on India is assured owing to a durable precedent of American bipartisanship on US-India ties and strong US business interest in India’s market potentialities, Biden’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific will also be an integral factor.
Over the past nine months, India and China have intermittently engaged in clashes along their border. At its height, the standoff even claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. While the two sides continue to engage in military dialogue, the recently inaugurated US administration would definitely figure in Indian and Chinese calculations. Apart from testing Biden’s mettle on supporting India, Beijing would seek to gauge his appetite for a power-sharing mechanism in South Asia and the region at-large. Back in 2009, Obama’s visit to China led to a joint statement, which was widely seen as the US “acquiescing” to Chinese interests. The statement recognised “each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” as a matter of “respecting each other’s core interests” and the same being “extremely important to ensure steady progress in US-China relations.”
With Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi construing the ongoing India-China border tensions as a consequence of their boundary not being demarcated, Beijing could seek to test the applicability of this contested sovereignty claim under the terms of the 2009 joint statement. Beijing could argue for the continued relevance of the understanding owing to Biden’s time as US vice president around that time.
During the election, the Biden campaign’s ‘Agenda For The Indian American Community’ underscored their candidate’s commitment to work with India to “support a rules-based and stable Indo-Pacific region in which no country, including China, is able to threaten its neighbors with impunity.” With the Biden administration now in place, India would seek to test whether that commitment goes beyond mere rhetoric. Biden’s response will be carefully observed, especially since the Trump administration’s support for India had manifested in real terms. For instance, late last year, India invoked the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), to source 11,000 sets of Extended Cold Weather Clothing System from the US Army’s holdings. The systems were then dispatched to Indian troops as part of the build-up along the India-China border.
Hence, in the near-term, even as the Biden administration is expected to remain occupied with a host of issues at home, any shift in US policy towards the Indo-Pacific is certain to hold broad implications for India, China, and their intermittent skirmishes in the Himalayas.
In underscoring the importance of India’s upcoming elections, Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), deemed the “aim of making India a great nation and Mother India a vishwaguru (world leader)” to be at stake. Similarly, last year, speaking at the 125th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament of World’s Religions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted a rise in India’s standing at the world stage to be a step in the realization of India becoming the “guru of the world”. Recently, in arguing for India to reclaim its place as the leader in the realm of education and ideas, India’s Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu even penned an op-ed titled ‘Make India Vishwaguru Again’.
Such invocations of India’s rise to preeminence are not unique, as history stands replete with examples of ascendant nations presenting themselves at the centre of the international system. Instances of such solipsist views range from the Roman Empire’s self-adulating civis romanus sum to Imperial Japan’s grand strategic project of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even the British Empire’s claim for a territorially expansive –– yet purportedly stability-infusing –– imperium of Pax Britannica may be invoked as an example.
Beyond hard power metrics however, scholars have argued that such “ambition to power and influence, not actual capacity” lead discourses on a nation’s purpose in the world — to ultimately inform its foreign and security policy decision-making. Such a “driving vision, an outward-thrusting nature backed by strong conviction and sense of national identity and matching purpose” of one’s role in the world — as Bharat Karnad argues – also distinguishes established great powers and would-be great powers from the rest.
A standard case-study in such solipsist renderings is the United States (U.S.) owing to its outsized role well into the twenty-first century –– as the world’s preeminent economic and military superpower aided by unparalleled soft power.
The idea of American ‘exceptionalism’ — defined as “an unwavering belief in the uniqueness of the United States and a commitment to a providential mission to transform the rest of the world in the image of the United States” — has long featured in American political discourse. Bed-rocking a worldview that the U.S. is the world’s sole “indispensable nation” with a “special role to play in human history”, in the post-Cold War world, this rendering has been rigorously invoked by U.S. foreign policy elites. American legislators, commentators and academicians often invoke the imperatives of the U.S. being the indispensable nation to argue for the maintenance of U.S. global power projection consisting of nearly 800 bases around the world and security partnerships and alliances with over 60 nations. Chiefly, the belief in American exceptionalism informs U.S. foreign policy’s enduring tenet of democracy promotion and furtherance of liberal Wilsonian values around the world –– owing to the Reaganesque notion of the U.S. being the “shining city upon a hill”.
Similarly, the idea of India becoming the vishwaguru portrays India as an exemplar of liberal democratic values. Borrowing the Sanskrit phrase “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the world is one family), the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘Resolution on Foreign Policy’ released at its National Executive in 2015 pronounced all nations to have “sovereign equality”. However, it presented a distinctly elevated role for India owing to its stature as the world’s largest democracy. Deeming Prime Minister Modi’s addresses to various countries’ democratic institutions as “Bharat’s (India) unequivocal commitment to democratic values”, the resolution hailed India’s emergence as the “Pole Star – Dhruv Tara – of the democratic world."
Further, this elevated role for India as an exemplar for democracies, signifies a sense of centrality that offers a break from the past.
In deciphering the worldview that informs Indian foreign policy, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran draws on ancient Indian cosmology. In his book How India Sees The World, Saran draws on the ancient Indian conception of the cosmos as a “vast circle of seven concentric oceans separating six regions or varshas, each with its own mountains and river systems.”
At the centre of which “lies the Jambudvipa” –– a four-petalled lotus island, with “our own varsha, Bharata, defined by the Southern petal.” Interestingly, Bharata or India is not accorded “centrality and superiority” under this rendering. Instead, its peripherality positions it as “only one among the lotus petals that make up our universe.”
Some scholars have referenced this non-centrality to have spurred an “inward-turned New Delhi pursuing prosperity at the expense of exercising ‘power’.” Furthermore, in deciphering a “typified” Indian foreign policy of “insularity and inaction”, scholars have also attributed this non-centrality to have informed a sense of ‘Indian Exceptionalism’ — the belief in India destined to return to its due “rightful place” owing to a perceived moral authority or civilisational imperative.
In contrast, scholars point to the Chinese worldview –– wherein China is deemed to be the “center of the universe.” Similar to Indian cosmology’s Jambudvipa ordering of the system in concentric circles, the Chinese idea of Tianxia –– which translates to ‘All Under Heaven’ –– imagines an all-inclusive system of concentric circles. However, this system, at times referred to as ‘the tribute system,’ functions on a clear hierarchy with China as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ –– the perceived “civilised imperial capital at the center flowing out to embrace the various “barbaric” peoples at the periphery.”
In contemporary times, the relevance of this centrality-based worldview seems apparent as China moves away from the erstwhile Deng Xiaoping doctrine of “keep our light hidden and bide our time”. As China assumed the second spot in the global economic pecking order, its foreign policy took a turn towards revisionism. From employing its economic levers to influence smaller nations, to guarding a regional sphere of influence with a massive build-up of anti-access/area-denial capabilities, China today seems to be elbowing its way to the ‘Middle Kingdom’ status.
Whereas, the centrality offered by the Dhruv Tara (Pole Star) aspiration has not only led to the shedding of “the traditional Indian reluctance to speak about its democratic values”, it has also lent focus to India’s “responsibilities” towards global governance.
For instance, the earlier referenced BJP foreign policy resolution aimed for the vishwaguru role for India — in terms of “an anchor of the global economy and as a leader in advancing peace and prosperity across the world” — by primarily fulfilling India’s “global responsibilities as the world’s most populous youth nation and largest democracy.” The relevance of this aim seems apparent with the Modi government presenting India to be “ready, as a responsible regional power and an emerging global actor” with an agenda-shaping role at multilateral institutions.
Consider the instance of the Paris Agreement. With French Prime Minister François Hollande, Prime Minister Modi announced the International Solar Alliance (ISA) to break the developed-developing nations’ impasse. Prime Minister Modi has characterized this as India’s leadership role in driving the once-insurmountable agenda of cobbling a global alliance to tackle climate change. Further, at the founding conference of the ISA in New Delhi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj referred to India’s $27 million support towards hosting the ISA Secretariat as India’s “responsibility” in proving to the world that “economic growth and sustainable development are not mutually exclusive but reinforce each other.”
Similarly, at other multilateral platforms, India has sought an agenda-shaping role. Some examples include, the push at the G20 summit in Brisbane for the inclusion of the Base Erosion and Profit Sharing (BEPS) Action Plan as part of the G-20 declaration to combat the global challenge of black money repatriation; the temporary hold-out on the Trade Facilitation Agreement for the inclusion of “slightly tighter language on the agreement not to challenge public stockholding in developing countries”; and the push for counter-terrorism cooperation at fora like the BRICS summit as a precursor to India’s broader push for the UN General Assembly to adopt the critical Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
In summation, the Vishwaguru aspirations of the Modi government bears some interesting parallels to the centrality espoused by China’s ‘Middle Kingdom’ worldview and the liberal democratic orientation of the ‘Shining City upon a Hill’ rendering of American exceptionalism. As India heads to the polls next year, it remains to be seen if this conception of Indian aspirations constitutes a lasting shift in India’s conduct of its foreign policy or merely a temporary shift under the Modi dispensation.
Perhaps the odds favour the former as Indian foreign policy — as former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Dr. Alyssa Ayres argues – seems poised to step “forward with a problem-solving disposition” on multilateral platforms..
In the recently released National Security Strategy, the Trump administration criticized China for “using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.” It accused Beijing of having “geopolitical aspirations” that “endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.” In contrast, the same document lauded India’s “emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner” and underscored Washington’s commitment to “increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.” Many deem this manichaean rendering –– of China and India as binaries –– as the writing on the wall recognizing India’s emerging role as a “balancer” to China. In reality, the US has long construed India and China in manichaean terms ––praising the former’s “emergence” to cultivate it as a balancer whilst condemning the latter’s “aspirations” in order to contain it. The earliest evidence of this dates back to the Cold War.
Speaking in Washington D.C. on May 4, 1959, then-Senator John F. Kennedy deemed India to be following “a route in keeping with human dignity and individual freedom,” while “Red China” sought a “route of regimented controls and ruthless denial of human rights.” Emphasizing India’s “role as a counter to the Red Chinese”, Senator Kennedy construed India and China to be in a race “to demonstrate whose way of life is better.” Displaying no qualms over where Washington’s chips must fall, Senator Kennedy said, “We want India to win that race. We want India to be a free and thriving leader of a free and thriving Asia.” Similarly, the Trump National Security Strategy argued that a “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” is currently underway in the ‘Indo-Pacific’. It also underscored Washington’s interest in seeing a “free and open Indo-Pacific” –– where the US would “support its [India] leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.”
Over the years, this manichaean rendering has been a recurring theme –– from lauding the Indo-US “shared heritage of pluralist federalism, born in a struggle against colonialism,” and mutual pledges of “chalein saath saath, forward together we go,” to urging China to become “a responsible stakeholder” and arguing for China to “face consequences and international condemnation” for its trampling on civil liberties.
However, US efforts to court India have often sputtered. According to Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute, India’s colonial experience gave rise to a fixation with preserving “strategic autonomy” leading to an “unwillingness” to seek formal alliances with major world powers like the US. Thus, India has been hedging its bets trying “to stay friends with everyone,” especially with respect to the evolving Sino-American rivalry. As a result, while India has sought increased cooperation with the US without the “restrictive expectations” of a formal alliance, it has also become the second-largest contributor to the Beijing-driven Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and sought membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), using both as a “counterweight to unrepresentative global institutions” of the US -led liberal world order.
Further, according to veteran CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, American courtship of India into its grand strategic calculations of balancing the rise of China has often been “constrained and hindered by America’s complex relationship with Pakistan.” For instance, the US Pacific Command (PACOM) which extends from China to Australia and from Hawaii to India sees its jurisdiction precariously end along the Indo-Pakistani border, probably another testament to Washington’s view of India as a “natural balancer” to China. The US has been courting successive Indian governments “since 2002 to post a liaison officer at the Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii” to explore force interoperability and defense personnel exchanges. However, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government deferred the proposal with a request to post an Indian Liaison Officer at the US Central Command (CENTCOM) instead, the combatant command that covers India’s historic rival, Pakistan. A similar US request for an Indian liaison at PACOM was made to the Manmohan Singh government in 2005, which too was stalled by a counter-request for the posting of an Indian Liaison Officer at CENTCOM because “many areas of Indian concern” were said to be to the “west of the PACOM/CENTCOM divide.”
Most recently, speaking at Carnegie India in New Delhi, US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster outlined his vision for a “durable” US-India partnership. To enhance relations “from the strategic to the durable,” he said, “Over time, we should expand officer exchanges at our war colleges and our training facilities, and even at some point post reciprocal military liaison officers at our respective combatant commands.”
However, in stark contrast to previous administrations, Ambassador Juster’s rather passive invitation stands in the backdrop of the Trump administration increasingly isolating Pakistan via erratic presidential tweet-storms and suspension of military aid. Compounding the growing US-Pakistan divide is the opportunism shown by China, which has increased its cooperation with its “all-weather friend”, with the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the development of the warm-water deep commercial seaport in Gwadar. The Pakistani prime minister recently inaugurated the Economic Free Zone at Gwadar Port which is reported to be operated by the China Overseas Port Holding Company.
In view of this deepening China-Pakistan axis, the US manichaean rendering is beginning to germinate amongst the top-brass of India’s armed forces. For instance, Business Insider recently reported India’s Naval Chief Admiral Sunil Lamba’s call to acquire additional anti-submarine warfare equipped P-8 Poseidon aircraft from the US. This was reported to be aimed at deterring Chinese submarine activity that had been sighted “four times every three months.” Further, Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat recently proclaimed the time to be right for India to “shift focus” from its border with Pakistan to “its northern border” with China. Lastly, Indian Air Force Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa recently hosted the Chief of US Air Force General David L. Goldfein for talks on the importance of asserting “a rules-based order” in the “critical sea lanes” of the Indo-Pacific. The meeting was reported to have assumed greater “significance” owing to General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, currently serving as Air Force Commander at PACOM, also participating in it.
In summation, the Trump National Security Strategy should not be seen as a major departure from the past, as the assertion of a "geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order" playing out in the Indo-Pacific bears seminal resemblance to the manichaean rendering of the Kennedy-esque conception of a “free” India and “Red” China. However, with the Trump administration’s alienation of Pakistan, coupled with Beijing’s opportunistic courtship of Islamabad into its sphere of influence, the Indian armed forces increasingly seem to be acclimatizing to American manichaeism.