With the announcement of a connectivity partnership based on shared commitment to sustainable development, India and the EU now have the latitude to broaden cooperation in the Indo-Pacific
On May 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the India-EU Leaders’ Meeting with the leaders of all 27 member states of the European Union (EU). With the summit’s format itself, the India-EU Leaders’ Meeting was significant since such a format encompassing EU+27 participation has only been convened once before, i.e., with the US President early this year.
From a policy standpoint, the meeting stood as a testament to the EU’s increasing focus on ties with India, in line with the 2016 ‘A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy’ (which highlighted the EU’s shifting focus to Asia with a focus on relations with Japan and India), the 2018 ‘Joint Communication: Elements for an EU strategy on India’ (which recognised India as a natural partner for the EU), and the 2020 ‘India-EU Strategic Partnership: A Roadmap to 2025’ (which enunciated a joint action plan on strengthening the India-EU partnership).
The EU+27 meet with India was significant also from the standpoint of it closely following the release of the EU Council’s ‘Conclusions on an EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’. Wherein, the EU Council underscored the need for forging “specific cooperative initiatives such as Green Alliances and Partnerships in support of the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, aiming at high environmental goals and standards, sustainable management of natural resources, including water, moving to climate-neutral, clean and circular economies.”
On this aspect, New Delhi is a natural partner for Brussels since EU member states have already developed such partnerships bilaterally with India. Case in point, the one of a kind India-Denmark Green Strategic Partnership and the India-Netherlands Strategic Partnership on Water focus on government-to-government cooperation on circular economy, river pollution, delta management, etc. The EU, too, has adopted a focus on sustainable practises and development in India, especially since the India-EU relationship graduated from its erstwhile recipient-donor paradigm and the establishment of the European Investment Bank’s (EIB) South Asia headquarters in New Delhi. The EIB, for instance, has focused on “green, safe and affordable public transport” through its investments in metro systems in Bhopal, Pune, Bangalore, Lucknow and most recently, Kanpur.
In widening the ambit of such engagements to digital, energy, transport, and people-to-people sectors, the India-EU Leaders’ Meeting oversaw the conclusion of a comprehensive India-EU Connectivity Partnership, whereby, the two sides affirmed their commitment to “jointly implement connectivity that conforms with international norms, rule of law, respect for international commitments, and is based on mutually agreed principles of sustainable connectivity.”
Furthermore, with India and the EU sharing the ‘same multilateralist DNA’ — in the words of Charles Michel (President of the European Council)—the Connectivity Partnership will adhere to obligations and goals set by multilateral frameworks like the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, International Labour Organisation conventions, etc.
Most importantly, in taking a page from the 2019 EU-Japan Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure — which underscored synergies between the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy and Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructures, the India-EU Connectivity Partnership recognised India as “a sustainable development partner” towards jointly supporting resilient and sustainable connectivity in third countries and regions like Africa, Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
Over the past two years, the internationalisation of the Indo-Pacific construct has spurred extra-regional powers to emphasise cooperation with regional players like India. Although such partnerships have stemmed from legitimate convergent interests — as in case of increased India-France maritime cooperation in view of Paris’ own sovereignty considerations in the Indian Ocean—detractors have deemed extra-regional involvement to have sparked a return of “Cold War mentality” in the region. Hence, India and the EU have prudently chosen to precede strategic cooperation with the India-EU Connectivity Partnership, which signifies a normative convergence between Brussels and New Delhi’ visions for developing the Indo-Pacific region.
Going forward, India and the EU can now capitalise on their groundwork for strategic cooperation in the region. For instance, following the first-ever India-EU Maritime Security Dialogue held in January this year, the EU Council’s ‘Conclusions on an EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ defined the Indo-Pacific as a region stretching from “the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island States”. This corresponds to the French definition of the region, and stands in tandem with India’s emphasis on the strategic relevance of Northwest Indian Ocean and East Africa region in the wider Indo-Pacific.
Such a conception of the Indo-Pacific was also apparent last year, with the launch of the EU Critical Maritime Routes in the Indian Ocean II (CRIMARIO II) with an expanded geographical scope in South Asia and towards “contributing to a safer and more secure maritime domain, through cross-sectoral, inter-agency and cross-regional cooperation.” With the same having its own information-sharing mechanism, i.e., the Indian Ocean Regional Information Sharing (IORIS) platform, India and the EU can now step up cooperation by considering linkages between CRIMARIO II and India’s Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region, which also aims to “engage with partner nations and multinational maritime constructs to develop comprehensive maritime domain awareness and share information on vessels of interest” in the Indian Ocean.
In addition, under the announced India-EU Connectivity Partnership’s push for digital connectivity, the summit underscored the emphasis on promoting “fast and effective roll-out of 5G on the basis of global standards”, and supporting its application for rural development (particularly, in healthcare and agriculture). Moreover, in expanding the ambit of cooperation ahead of the High-Level EU-India Digital Investment Forum later this year, the two sides also advocated for the early operationalisation of the Joint Task Force on Artificial Intelligence and a further expansion of technological cooperation with focus on Quantum and High Performance Computing.
In a similar vein, India and the EU should renew focus on the India-EU Joint ICT Working Group’s mandate to promote common approaches and standards between the two substantial ICT markets of India and the European Union. This could serve as an instance of India and the EU strategically pooling their agenda-setting capital on a matter that currently has Indo-Pacific nations riddled between Chinese propositions and an America-led global campaign on secure digital infrastructure.
Similarly, on health cooperation, the Joint Statement following the India-EU Leaders’ Meeting noted the intent to cooperate on “resilient medical supply chains, vaccines and Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs), and on the application of good manufacturing standards to ensure high quality and safety of products.” This development follows European authorities reportedly panicking over India’s momentary ban on export of 26 APIs and generic drugs last year. This had shed light on European dependencies in this domain, as India holds “nearly 26 percent of European formulations in the generic medicines space” and houses 253 European Directorate of Quality Medicines (EDQM) approved plants.
However, as reflected in the Joint Statement, this only sparked constructive conversations over making India-EU cooperation in the domain more resilient. Some even suggested mobilising European investments to help India reduce its dependence on Chinese APIs. This, despite the fact that India-EU pharmaceutical linkages have had their share of long-standing divergences over issues like exclusivity of clinical trial data. With India and the EU now seemingly putting aside past tensions in the interest of combating the coronavirus pandemic, there is scope for New Delhi and Brussels to set a precedent of joint cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, by including like-minded regional partners in their effort to reduce direct/indirect dependences on China, diversify supply chains, and institute common quality and safety standards.
Hence, drawing on India-EU shared commitment to sustainable development, the outcomes of the India-EU Leaders’ Meeting will catalyse the alignment of Indian and European propositions for the Indo-Pacific.
The US Navy’s recent Freedom of Navigation Operation in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone underscores Biden’s shift in priorities for US-India defence ties
Last week, the US Navy conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As per the US 7th Fleet’s press release, USS John Paul Jones “asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent, consistent with international law.” The statement even noted India’s policy of requiring prior notification to be “inconsistent with international law.” This led to India’s Ministry of External Affairs issuing a response: “We have conveyed our concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the Government of USA through diplomatic channels.”
In recent years, the US ramped up such operations — mostly against Chinese transgressions in the South China Sea, primarily under the Donald Trump administration’s policy of “strategic predictability, operational unpredictability.” Whereby, FONOPs were not construed “as noteworthy events, but more as a fact of life” to serve as a reminder of the US’ forward presence and commitment to freedom of navigation.
The Joe Biden administration’s continuity on the matter has been apparent with it often invoking the Trump administration’s lexicon (including in the aforementioned press release) on FONOPs demonstrating that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
One may argue, another point of continuity was the recent US FONOP in India’s EEZ, since the Trump administration also oversaw a similar operation in 2019. However, unlike the recent case, the Trump administration did not publicise the same, as it primarily sought to cultivate gains for its ‘Buy American’ policy on increasing US arms exports, by underscoring US support for India’s rise as the preeminent security provider in the Indian Ocean.
In capitalising India’s evolving Southward/Navy-based security calculus, the Trump administration cultivated a focus on India’s maritime surveillance capability in US-India defence trade. This was apparent with the Trump administration yielding to India’s long-standing requests for specific platforms like the MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, and offering the sale of the Sea Guardian UAS by overturning the Obama-era freeze on India’s purchase of unmanned systems.
Furthermore, the Trump administration cleared the sale of more P-8 maritime surveillance aircrafts to India, adopted a policy of front-loading clearances for ancillary equipment for India’s existing fleet of P-8 aircraft, and cleared India’s procurement of MK 45 5 inch/62 calibre anti-surface naval guns.
Under the broader Indo-Pacific strategy, the policy objective of this focus on India’s maritime surveillance capability was to assist New Delhi’s efforts to seize the mantle of providing maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean, via actions like its establishment of the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR).
Biden is expected to practice continuity on this US support for India’s role in the Indian Ocean. After all, the same is at the core of the US’s aim of having its Navy focus its resources and assets in the Western Pacific, without getting overtly occupied in the Indian Ocean subregion of the Indo-Pacific. Hence, at a recent Congressional hearing, Adm. Philip Davidson (Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command) signalled continuity by welcoming New Delhi’s establishment of the IFC-IOR.
However, on the other critical component of such US support i.e. American military hardware underpinning India’s efforts (e.g. India’s fleet of US-made P-8 aircraft serves as the backbone of IFC-IOR’s operations) questions remain over US continuity on the Trump precedent of US-India defence trade’s focus on India’s maritime surveillance capability.
In line with pre-election analyses that warned against undue Congressional intervention into US-India defence ties on account of Democrats’ apprehensions over India’s civil-liberties record, Sen. Robert Menendez (Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee) urged US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to raise the “deteriorating situation of democracy” during his recent visit to New Delhi. Furthermore, the Biden administration has not ruled out the imposition of secondary sanctions on India, over its purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia. These challenges could impede the recent pace of the US’ clearance of arms and export designations for India.
In addition, one cannot discount limitations posed by India’s fiscal constraints on future defence procurements and altered preferences — such as India’s possible return to its traditional focus on a continental Northward/Army-centric calculus in view of recent India-China border tensions.
With these looming challenges and limitations, the Biden administration seems to be increasing its focus on consolidating operational and policy-level synergies with India.
Focus on the former has been apparent with back-to-back interoperability engagements. The February 2021 iteration of the Yudh Abhyas exercise between Indian and American armies witnessed participation from the Indian Air Force’s US-made CH 47 Chinook helicopters and AH- 64E Apache Attack Helicopters, which were inducted in the final years of the Trump administration. This was followed by Secretary Austin’s March visit to India, which primarily focused on “expanding military-to-military engagement across services, information sharing, cooperation in emerging sectors of defense, and mutual logistics support.” Following which, India and the US conducted the Joint Special Forces Exercise Vajra Prahar, to “improve interoperability between the Special Forces of both nations” by engaging in the sharing of best practices on mission planning.
Similarly, the Biden administration seems to be looking for greater synergy on the policy level, in contrast with Trump’s approach of at times having high momentum on defence trade precede policy convergences between India and the US.
During his visit, Secretary Austin noted India’s commitment to a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific — “Prime Minister Modi has stated that India stands for freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, unimpeded, lawful commerce, and inherence to international law.” However, on this aspect, there have been some divergences between India and the US, like New Delhi’s disagreement with Washington’s expansive interpretation of freedoms enjoyed by foreign vessels in littoral spaces.
However, despite India merely mandating prior notification (relative to China’s requirement of prior permission) by foreign warships entering its territorial waters or EEZ under innocent passage, the divergence renders New Delhi’s position to broadly correspond with Beijing’s position. Hence, with the publicised US FONOP in India’s EEZ, the Biden administration sought to hold India to account on its commitment to a common vision for the Indo-Pacific, and possibly push for deliberations on better aligning Indian and American conceptions of a “rules-based order” in the region.
In addition, in context of the US’s policy towards China, the FONOP in India’s EEZ may also be viewed as the Biden administration’s effort to underscore that the Indo-Pacific strategy is not aimed at any one particular country. While Trump officials also often expressed such a non-exclusionary conception of the Indo-Pacific — for instance, US Deputy NSA Matthew Pottinger’s remarks at Raisina Dialogue 2020 — it was no secret that the Indo-Pacific was seen as a political shibboleth within US policy circles and amongst US partners in the region to “identify who among them was working in service of a larger project of zero-sum competition with China.”
Whereas, the Biden administration seems to have undermined the value of this expedient understanding — in terms of helping consolidate a domestic bipartisan consensus on confronting China and rallying like-minded nations behind the US in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration jettisoning this Trump precedent was recently apparent in Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby’s rationale for US FONOPS: “We tend to talk about it in regards to China and their excessive maritime claims but it isn’t all just about China, it’s something we do not against something but for something and we do it all around the world.”
Hence, apart from indicating a shift in US priorities for US-India defence ties, the US FONOP in India’s EEZ has only furthered existing concerns over Biden angling for a reset in US-China ties.
The advantages of India’s early prudence on cultivating multiple “strategic alignments” in the Indo-Pacific, are apparent with French proactiveness in the Indian Ocean region
This month, the Indian Navy will participate for the first time in France’s La Pérouse naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. Scheduled for 5–7 April, the exercise will also witness participation from India’s fellow Quad members—Australia, Japan, and the United States. Reports of France leading the Quad navies during the exercise, have come amidst speculations of a ‘Quad-plus’ framework and rising interest from extra-regional players. The UK, for instance, recently released its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy, which outlined a framework for London’s “Indo-Pacific tilt”. In addition, Josep Borrell—the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, recently called on Europe to “set out a common vision for its future Indo-Pacific engagement”.
However, despite this further internationalisation of the Indo-Pacific construct, French engagement in the region is incomparably unique.
By appointing its first ambassador to the Indo-Pacific, France has underscored its prioritisation of the region, which is home to “its overseas territories and 93 per cent of its Exclusive Economic Zone.” The southern part of the Indian Ocean is home to French territories of Mayotte and La Réunion, the Scattered Islands, and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories. Moreover, France is the only European country that possesses overseas territories in both—the Indian and Pacific oceans. The latter is home to French territories in New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, and Clipperton Island. By the virtue of this “resident power” status, France is an integral part of the Indo-Pacific region and particularly the Indian Ocean subregion. France also boasts of the world’s second-largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on account of nearly 9 million square kilometres of French EEZs in the Indo-Pacific. The French overseas territories in the region are home to 1.6 million French citizens and another 200,000 French nationals live in the Indo-Pacific states.
Moreover, in maintaining a permanent security presence in the region, France’s military outposts are organised into multiple joint regional commands—Command of the French Armed Forces in the South of the Indian Ocean (COMSUP FAZSOI), Command of the French Armed Forces in New Caledonia (COMSUP FANC), Command of the French Armed Forces in French Polynesia and Command of the Pacific Ocean maritime zone (COMSUP FAPF/ALPACI), Command of the French Armed Forces in the United Arab Emirates and Command of the Indian Ocean maritime zone (COMFOR FFEAU/ALINDIEN), and Command of the French Armed Forces in Djibouti (COMFOR FFDJ). Notably, across these commands, the major share of France’s 7,000 personnel presence is in the Indian Ocean, with 4,100 personnel in the subregion and 2,900 in the Pacific.
Hence, with France also identifying itself as a “State of the Indian Ocean rim”, the upcoming iteration of the La Pérouse exercise — which was initiated in 2019 between France, Australia, Japan and the US, will witness participation from India—which Paris has termed as its “foremost strategic partner in Asia”. Moreover, such efforts by France, which are aimed at actualising its “resident power” status in the region, come amidst renewed questions over the US’ role in the Indo-Pacific.
By resuming its invocation of the Trump-era nomenclature of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ and the recent high-level visits of Biden national security officials to Japan, South Korea, and India, the Biden administration has sought to quell initial concerns over the US’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific. However, amidst a broad decline in the political currency of American internationalism, some commentators have now begun to warn against the US entrenching itself in a geopolitical expanse that is “rife with unrealistic expectations and unvetted assumptions” and called for invoking the Indo-Pacific construct “only as a balancing game against China”.
This emphasis on balancing in the region was also apparent in Kurt Campbell’s (Biden’s Indo-Pacific Coordinator) January 2021 article, wherein he advocated for the US to work towards the Indo-Pacific’s need for “a balance of power; the need for an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate, and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both.”
Notably, this article appeared amidst reports of Biden’s national security team internally contemplating a ‘lead from behind’ strategy, with Japan playing “a placeholder role” while Biden would focus on his domestic agenda. In lending credence to this line of thinking, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin chose Japan as the destination of their first overseas travel. Moreover, the joint statement of the US–Japan 2+2 Security Consultative Committee revealed that Blinken and Austin dedicated most of their time with Japanese officials on aligning US–Japan positions on the promotion of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ across the areas of climate change, clean energy, cybersecurity, supply chains, and COVID-19.
In addition, on Campbell’s prescription for a regional balance “in concert with allies and partners” which commands “generally accepted legitimacy”, the Biden administration’s efforts on the Quad stand out. For instance, the recent Quad leaders’ summit culminated with an agreement to spear the manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the Indo-Pacific, as an apparent “proof of concept” of the group’s ability to “lead the Indo-Pacific”.
However, despite continued concerns over Biden’s policy in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi’s early prudence on cultivating other “strategic alignments”—primarily in the Indian Ocean, offers the prospect of continuity.
Another critique of the US’ commitments in the Indo-Pacific has been the widening of the “regional aperture” to include the Indian Ocean region, which some see as “an area of debatable interest” for the US. Hence, despite the significance of the US’ political, military and capacity-building support for India’s efforts in the Indian Ocean region, the primary purpose behind Washington cultivating India’s rise as the region’s security provider is its intent to fully focus its resources in the Pacific subregion of the Indo-Pacific. Under Biden, this focus on the Pacific is expected to persist, with his administration continuing the Trump approach of “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable” US naval operations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
Whereas for France, its actions in the Indian Ocean stem from it having real ‘skin in the game’, with its overseas territories rendering the region to be a matter of sovereignty—much like New Delhi’s outlook. Hence, under its policy of honing multiple “strategic alignments” in the Indo-Pacific, India chose to conduct Joint Patrols in the Indian Ocean with France and turned down offers from “several senior US military officers” to conduct patrols with the US Navy.
Such convergent interests has also spurred the India–France partnership to develop an appetite for lateral expansion, chiefly with the “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis”. In swiftly finalising agreements on reciprocal access to each other’s military bases—i.e. France’s Reunion island, Australia’s Cocos Islands, and India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, the three “resident powers” have instituted operational heft for securing the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, in a sign of continued engagement, the foreign ministers of the three countries are expected to hold a trilateral dialogue a week after the La Pérouse naval exercise.
Finally, as opposed to the US’ belated expansion of its conception of the Indo-Pacific construct to also include East Africa and the north-west Indian Ocean region, Indian and French conceptions have been completely aligned. This has led to France facilitating India’s positioning of liaison officers at the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar and the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH)—which is headquartered at the French military base in Abu Dhabi. Another testament to this convergence is the upcoming annual India–France Varuna naval exercise. Scheduled for 25–27 April, the exercise will witness participation from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a trilateral exercise in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
Hence, with these convergent interests in the Indian Ocean and France now leading the way on possibly manifesting a different ‘Quad-plus’ framework, New Delhi’s early prudence on investing in its partnership with Paris seems to be paying off.
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.