As Biden’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific remains under question, Trump’s legacy of bolstering regional powers could force US policy continuity
US President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, recently outlined the worldview of the incoming administration. In a televised interview, Sullivan claimed, Biden will have a “clear-eyed strategy” based on the understanding that China is “a serious strategic competitor.” A couple of days earlier, Biden had invoked the incumbent Donald Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific” nomenclature to affirm his commitment to “ensuring security and prosperity” of the region and vowed to hold “China’s government accountable for its abuses on trade, technology, human rights, and other fronts.”
However, these pronouncements followed a period of serious consternation regarding Biden’s intent to practice continuity of the Trump administration’s policy of confronting China in multiple domains and concurrently consolidating America’s place in the Indo-Pacific region.
With the Indo-Pacific strategy, Trump built on his predecessor, Barack Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ (subsequently renamed ‘Rebalance to Asia’) policy to assert the US as a “Pacific power”. Furthermore, with the Indo-Pacific construct, Trump accorded policy heft to the US security establishment’s long-standing view on interlinking the destinies of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In evident contrast to his ‘America First’ abhorrence for Washington underwriting the security of its partner nations, Trump also followed through on Obama-era priorities. With Japan, the Trump administration reaffirmed that the US-Japan security alliance’s purview also extends over the contested Senkaku islands. With Australia, the Trump administration oversaw the actualisation of the Obama-era goal to hone a 2,500-strong US Marine Rotational Force at Darwin. Trump also oversaw the return of the Philippines into the US’ ‘hub & spokes’ network of alliances, with Manila reneging on its decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with Washington.
Thus, during the 2020 presidential campaign, as Biden presented a restorationist foreign policy agenda based on rekindling “our historic partnerships”, the Indo-Pacific seemed like a domain where there would be little daylight between Trump’s record and Biden’s proposition. Moreover, during the campaign, Biden also signalled continuity with his repeated invocation of the “Indo-Pacific” nomenclature.
Following the election, however, Biden seemingly tweaked Trump’s normative aim of cultivating a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, to emphasise the “maintaining” of a “secure and prosperous” Indo-Pacific. Subsequently, with his national security cabinet nominations, Biden barely mentioned the threat posed by China and his nominee for US Secretary of Defence even returned to using the Asia-Pacific moniker. This only fed speculation over Biden looking to return to a conciliatory approach towards China by gradually putting out to pasture the strategic construct of the Indo-Pacific. The Chinese view the same as a means by which the United States “has sought to divide the region, promote an anti-China alliance, and create a geopolitical climate in which all countries in the region must take sides.”
However, it would be difficult to imagine that Biden would entirely jettison the Indo-Pacific construct. With respect to nomenclature, for instance, barring a few minor tweaks to indicate Biden’s own imprint, it is unlikely that his administration would reverse Trump’s 2018 decision to rechristen the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command. Similarly, from an organisational standpoint, it is also unlikely that the Biden administration would reverse Trump’s administrative restructuring. For instance, the Office of the Secretary of Defence now hosts a reorganised policy department which groups “allies and partners— Indo-Pacific maritime rim and island states—together in one component office, and China in another.”
Finally, on the policy level, Biden could face external pressure from regional powers that have subscribed to the Indo-Pacific construct over the past few years. After all, the Trump administration has set the precedent of the US bolstering regional powers through increased burden-sharing—both in terms of material resources and vocalising their own political positions with regards to China’s rise.
Over the past four years, this has manifested in myriad ways: The emergence of exclusive mini-laterals amongst Indo-Pacific powers (e.g. the forthcoming India-Japan-Australia supply chain initiative) and even with other external powers (e.g. the fast developing Paris-Delhi-Canberra partnership); regional powers like Australia taking the lead against Chinese telecommunications carriers and in demanding greater transparency on Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak; and finally, ASEAN shedding its hedging impulses to assert its “centrality” in the Indo-Pacific construct.
To countries in the Indo-Pacific and particularly Southeast Asia, there appears to be two broad schools of opinion regarding US policy in the region. The first deems that the region suffered a setback during the Trump administration and a reset is more likely under the Biden presidency. The second is more cautious about placing its bets on the latter. This is primarily due to apprehensions that Biden may adopt a lukewarm approach towards China which in turn could require a more calibrated stance by littorals in the region—some of whom had become more vocal about China’s assertions over the last couple of years.
A more plausible scenario is, perhaps, one where US involvement in the region would range across a spectrum rather than taking a definitive hard or soft approach. Hence, regional actors in the Indo-Pacific would seek to, on the one hand, deepen networks with middle powers and on the other, strengthen institutional frameworks—the most vital being ASEAN. Unlike the ambivalence and reluctance which typically characterised the organisation even a couple of years ago, ASEAN over the past year has signalled its intent to maintain what it perceives as its “centrality” in the Indo-Pacific. This comes in the wake of rising involvement of extra-regional powers in ASEAN’S backyard and has been a welcome development especially for the smaller littorals who have for years been at the receiving end of an asymmetrical power equation with Beijing.
Simultaneously, middle powers like India and Australia have also assumed stronger postures with regards to the uninhibited expansion of Beijing’s tentacles across the length and breadth of the region. Together with Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra appear to be well-positioned to root for a stable and secure Indo-Pacific, and thereby offer the smaller countries a viable alternative to a security partnership with the US.
President Trump helped bolster the strategic climate in this region to the extent that while Biden may seek to balance with China, he will not be able to do so in all domains. For instance, owing to Trump’s record with Freedom of Navigations operations, Beijing’s assertions in the South China Sea will demand an unequivocal response from the US. Moreover, over the past few years, regional actors have also banded together to conduct their own drills in the Strait of Malacca and the surrounding waters.
Furthermore, the fact that there have been attempts towards ‘Quad-Plus’ engagements with South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, etc, is testament to the growing security, and more importantly, intra-region interactions. Meanwhile, the varying degrees of setback for democracy and human rights which took place in countries like Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines over the past few years would likely invite Biden’s prime attention. Not to mention, his heightened focus on non-traditional security issues such as health and climate action.
With respect to economic alliances, the US is widely believed to have disrupted the economic balance of the Indo-Pacific. The zero-sum terms of the US-China trade standoff has significantly complicated regional dynamics, especially since China is the principal commercial partner to most countries in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the finalisation of the The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a step towards the reduction of trade costs and a means for pooling regional strength in agriculture, manufacturing, and technology.
While China views the RCEP as a counterweight to Washington’s economic presence by offering a Chinese model and a Chinese solution, Beijing’s weight will not become overwhelming if ASEAN maintains a prominent role alongside Japan and Australia under RCEP. A renegotiation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) to include Washington could also be on the cards particularly if Biden seeks to regain a degree of foothold in the region’s economic integration. However, that will prove to be difficult at best.
Going forward, while the US’ rhetoric could increase, owing to Biden’s focus on non-traditional threats and human rights issues, regional powers will assume prominence on security and economic matters. Hence, the Indo-Pacific is set to become a region that is perhaps finally coming into its own and will witness greater intra-region collaboration.
France actualising its “resident power” status in the Indo-Pacific has led to its emergence as India’s partner of choice in the Indian Ocean region
n October, France appointed its first ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, tasked with representing French interests in the region. Notably, France was also the first European country to launch an Indo-Pacific strategy. Wherein, France identified the Indo-Pacific as “a geopolitical and geo-economic reality,” on account of the region being home to “its overseas territories and 93% of its exclusive economic zone.” Beyond such endorsements of the Indo-Pacific construct — which seeks to interlink the destines of the Indian and Pacific Oceans — France has particularly focused on the former with India-France ties at the core of its engagements.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2018 visit to India oversaw the release of the ‘Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.’ Wherein, Prime Minster Narendra Modi and Macron recognised “the crucial role that the multi-dimensional India-France strategic partnership will play in ensuring peace, security and stability in, and in bringing robust economic growth and prosperity” to the Indian Ocean region. At the time, media reports drew parallels with US President Barack Obama’s 2015 visit, which also oversaw the release of a separate statement on the “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.” However, the India-France statement focused solely on the Indian Ocean and even identified France as a “State of the Indian Ocean rim,” given its overseas territories of La Réunion, Mayotte and French Southern and Antarctic Territories.
Another similarity between the trajectories of India-France and India-US ties, has been the recent surge in defence trade. As per data from 2013-17 (compared with the previous five years), the US recorded an increase of 550 percent in its arms exports to India. In the same timeframe, France recorded an increase of 572 percent. Hardly moving towards the envisaged dynamic of co-production and co-development, the India-US case included India’s purchase of platforms like AH-64E Apache helicopters and CH-47F Chinook helicopters.
Whereas in the French case, the surge came at the hands of India’s 2016 purchase of the Rafale multirole fighter aircraft and the reinvigoration of the delayed Project-75 for technology transfer of Scorpene submarines. France’s support on the latter has been critical, in view of the US having tight restrictions on the export of submarines, a reduction in India’s dependence on Russian platforms due to threat of sanctions, and China outnumbering India with its operational fleet of submarines. In addition, Project 75 is at the core of the Modi government’s push to cement India’s position as a submarine building nation, in sync with its ‘Make in India’ and ‘Aatma Nirbhar Bharat’ initiatives.
Furthermore, in late 2019, at an event hosted by the Observer Research Foundation, French Navy Chief Admiral Christophe Prazuck announced that India and France were in talks to hold Joint Patrols in the Indian Ocean. Subsequently, early this year, India and France conducted a Joint Patrol from the Reunion Island, with French Navy personnel aboard an Indian Navy P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft. Whereas, with the United States, which is often deemed to be India’s “natural partner” in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi has declined offers from “several senior US military officers” to conduct such patrols.
In addition, the India-France partnership has swiftly developed an appetite for lateral expansion, with the initiation of the India-France-Australia trilateral. Since its announcement by President Macron in 2018, the “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” has been institutionalised with the three partners finalising agreements on reciprocal access to each other’s military bases. Building on France and India’s March 2018 agreement for “reciprocal logistics support between their Armed Forces,” France and Australia signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) in May 2018, and India and Australia finalised the MLSA early this year.
This bears significance for extending cooperation to the eastern flank of the Indian Ocean. In addition to France’s Reunion island, which provides access to the western/southwestern Indian Ocean, partners will now have reciprocal access to the eastern/southeastern Indian Ocean with Australia’s Cocos Islands (near the straits of Sunda, Lombok, and Ombai-Wetar) and India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands (which overlook the strait of Malacca).
Finally, this trajectory of India-France partnership stems from substantial policy-level convergences and is not merely the product of nascent conversations around European “strategic autonomy” or India’s intent to diversify its portfolio of strategic partnerships.
Consider, for instance, India’s decision to conduct Joint Patrols with France and not the United States. With the Southern Indian Ocean being home to overseas French territories, the decision fit squarely within India’s precedent of practising its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy for maritime cooperation. In the past, this has encompassed India limiting its engagement to joint surveillance with the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius, and Coordinated Patrols (CORPATs) with near and extended maritime neighbours like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. With France’s “resident power” status in the Indian Ocean, India then did not technically depart from its long-standing policy precedent.
Furthermore, one may argue, France’s engagement in the Indian Ocean stems from it having real ‘skin in the game.’ Wherein, its overseas territories render the region to be a matter of sovereignty even for Paris. At the same time, the common prioritisation of the region does not seem to impede French acceptance of India’s natural providence over the Indian Ocean region. For instance, towards India’s gradual emergence as a net security provider in the region, India set up the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) to “engage with partner nations and multinational maritime constructs to develop comprehensive maritime domain awareness and share information on vessels of interest.” Headquartered in Gurugram, France was the first country to post its Liaison Officer at the IFC-IOR.
This is not to say the United States is not supportive of India’s interests. In fact, India’s fleet of US-made P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft constitutes the backbone of IFC-IOR’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts. Similarly, one cannot deny the importance of American support for India’s envisioned maritime capacity build-up. The Donald Trump administration for instance, yielded to requests for specific platforms (like the MH-60 Romeo Seahawk helicopter), adopted a policy to ‘front-load’ clearances for ancillary equipment (like for India’s P-8 aircraft), and even overturned the freeze on India’s purchase of unmanned systems (like the Sea Guardian UAS). Moreover, the US would remain India’s preeminent partner in the broader Indo-Pacific, owing to its unrivalled power projection capabilities and network of offshore bases.
However, unlike the India-France case of sovereignty, the American calculus over the Indian Ocean pertains to broader US strategic considerations in the Indo-Pacific. Whereby, the US’ primary purpose behind cultivating India’s emergence as a regional goods provider in the Indian Ocean, is the intent to then focus its resources in the Pacific theatre (chiefly, the South and East China Seas) of the Indo-Pacific expanse.
Lastly, unlike the India-US case — wherein the momentum of defence trade has often preceded policy-level convergences, India-France defence ties have stemmed from a complete alignment of outlooks. Both countries for instance, have long championed a definition of the Indo-Pacific which extends to the shores of East Africa. Even though the India-US defence dynamic has recently assumed a degree of nuance with its discussed focus on Indian maritime capability, it was only in January this year when Washington expanded its definition of the Indo-Pacific to completely align it with India’s emphases on East Africa and the north-west Indian Ocean region.
Whereas, convergence with France has led to India expanding its footprint, with Paris reportedly facilitating New Delhi’s desire to post a Navy Liaison Officer at the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar. In addition, in view of India’s continued interests in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, France is also expected to oversee India’s inclusion in the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) — which is headquartered at the French military base in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Hence, even as the US is expected to remain India’s preeminent partner in the Indo-Pacific, France’s “resident power” status renders it to be India’s partner of choice in the Indian Ocean region.
The Industrial Security Annex (ISA) will help actualise the US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) and also translate into gains for Make in India initiative in defence sector
The US and India recently concluded the second edition of 2+2 consultative ministerial dialogue. Held between the chiefs of India and the United States’ defence and foreign ministries, the consultative platform stands symptomatic of Washington and New Delhi gradually moving away from the erstwhile top-heavy approach of relying on personal chemistry between respective heads of state.
Moreover, bereft of frictions that have come to plague the US-India trade dynamics, platforms like the US-India 2+2 dialogues have helped insulate bilateral strategic ties. For instance, at the inaugural edition of the dialogue in 2018, even as the Ministry of Commerce, India and the Office of the United States Trade Representative were locked in contentious trade talks, the US and India inked the second of three foundational defence interoperability agreements.
At the second edition of the consultative dialogue in December 2019, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh convened with their American counterparts – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, in Washington DC. This time around, the meeting took place in the midst of escalated US-India trade tensions, with Washington revoking India’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) programme and New Delhi having imposed retaliatory tariffs in the face of US tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.
Keeping with the precedent of pursuing strategic avenues regardless of turbulence on the trade front, the dialogue bore a significant – and highly belated, development with regard to US-India defence ties. The two countries signed the Industrial Security Annex (ISA). As per the joint statement issued at the US-India 2+2 dialogue, the ISA seeks to “facilitate the exchange of classified military information between Indian and the US defence industries.” The signing of this annex was long time in the making, as either sides had expressed “their readiness to begin negotiations” on inking the ISA even at the inaugural 2+2 dialogue in 2018.
Essentially, the ISA permits the transfer of advanced defence technology across the cross-section of Indian and American public and private entities. Most crucially, the ISA institutes safeguards “to ensure that the [shared] information is protected under Indian law.” The implementation of the ISA stands as a crucial precursor to the complete actualisation of the US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative.
Set up in 2015 under the Barack Obama administration, the US-India DTTI aims to take bilateral defence ties away from a traditional buyer-seller dynamics to the one based on co-production and co-development. However, over the years due to little progress on avenues like the ISA, the DTTI had translated into limited gains for the bilateral defence ties.
A result of the close working dynamics between then US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Indian Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar, the DTTI sought to bear benefits for either nations’ defence sectors. For instance, the push under DTTI for collaborative projects would entail the transfer of cutting-edge US technology to India, and its integration into global production supply chains. For the United States, the same would spur the expansion and diversification of supply and labour chains, and most importantly, offer the perfect inlet into a lucrative arms market – as India continues to be one of largest importers of arms in the world.
Under the DTTI, the US and India launched seven joint working groups to explore collaborative projects on aircraft carriers; jet engines; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; chemical-biological protection; naval systems; air systems; Next Generation Protective Ensembles; and Mobile Hybrid Power Sources. In October 2019, however, during a visit to New Delhi by Ellen Lord – the US Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, the two countries announced the suspension of the project aimed at sharing technology for building fighter jet engines on account of “a challenge in terms of US export controls.” Instead, recognising that DTTI has been “an ongoing process”, both sides announced that they were “now poised to actually achieve tangible outcomes.” Thus, ahead of the 2+2 dialogue, the countries signed a ‘Statement of Intent’ and characterised “deliverables in the near, medium and long terms” – including platforms for drone warfare, light weight arms and networked systems.
Even before the recent signing of the ISA – which as mentioned serves as a primary precursor among other Congressional clearances for ensuring the safe transfer of sensitive defence technologies — some supplementary projects had furthered the spirit of the DTTI. For instance, Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) and Lockheed Martin currently employ about 500 locals to produce two dozen aircraft empennages every year. In Hyderabad, TASL and Boeing employ around 350 skilled workers towards the production of helicopter fuselages. Boeing has also strengthened its supply chain with around 160 Indian partners, towards supporting sub-assembly production of aft pylon and cargo ramp components of heavy-lift helicopters.
However, these co-production projects are essentially “offset obligations”, towards India’s formal acquisition and induction of US arms platforms like the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, the Apache AH-64E multi-role combat helicopters, and the Chinook CH- 47F (I) heavy lift tandem rotor helicopter.
The US-India relationship is dynamic. Bilateral trade peaked at USD 142.6 billion in 2018. The US is India’s second-largest supplier of arms. Indian armed forces exercise more with American forces than with any other military in the world. And lastly, the US-India dynamics is underpinned with a robust (nearly four million people-strong) Indian American community. Bereft of any formal arrangements – either a free trade agreement or a security alliance treaty, the underscored developments reflect the uniqueness of the US-India relationship – driven by convergent interests and shared values. The same, however, also has its downsides. For instance, the recent hiccups in US-India ties – either on trade with US concerns on Indian market access barriers or even the US’ attempt to seek Indian policy congruence towards Iran or Russia through coercive means (like economic sanctions) – have also stemmed from the lack of an institutionalised framework informing bilateral ties. Compounding this lack of a formalised structure is the degree of transactionalism which the Trump administration has increasingly turned into a normative feature of contemporary US foreign policy.
In then navigating challenges – either structural (or due to lack thereof) or temporospatial ones emanating from the dispensation of the day – the dynamics requires champions for US-India bilateral ties on multiple levels. As discussed, the 2+2 consultative dialogue is a prominent example of the US-India bilateral trajectory moving away from overtly depending on top-level leaders’ personal chemistry to compartmentalise and delegate on multiple levels along the political leadership.
On defence ties, the same would not only mean moving away from a simple ‘buyer-seller’ dynamics – as the US-India DTTI rightly envisions, but also cultivating real ‘skin in the game’ – in terms of fortunes for the Indian and American people. The offset obligations being catered to by the joint facilities by TASL, for instance, with American defence manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are the ideal avenues that require scaling up. As mentioned, although those current projects are cultivating local jobs and connecting Indian subcontractors to global giants in the defence sector, the gains are minimal as compared to the goals envisioned by ‘Make in India’ and ‘Skill India’ missions. Unfortunately, however, according to recent reports, ‘Make in India’ projects in the defence sector “worth over Rs 3.5 lakh crore” are either “stuck or still meandering through different stages, without the final contracts to launch production being inked.”
Therefore, the US and India signing the ISA at this critical point in time is set to accord a belated fillip to not only the US-India DTTI but also to ‘Make in India’ initiative in defence sector.