India and the emergence of the Indo-Pacific

India needs to identify the issues and partners needed to anticipate, the changes in the power structures in the Indo-Pacific over the next half a century. 

Conventional wisdom in the global strategic community has it that the gravity of the world economy would shift decisively towards the Indo-Pacific. In fact for some actors and many observers, this moment of dominance has already arrived, though China’s recent economic hiccups prove to be a problem. China and India, largely due to their sizes and will emerge as the two largest powers in this part of the world. The Chinese economy is already five times larger than India, and despite the expected slowing down in the rate of growth of its GDP, the power differential will widen in the medium term. India should aim, acting in concert with those with similar strategic objectives and fears, to bring about changes in a pro-active manner rather than react to developments.


It is not as though Indian decision-makers are unaware of these momentous changes or are not trying to evolve a vision. However, the effort requires a clearer focus – for example, the conversion of Look East to Act East, an increase in the dialogues across the region, the decision to involve Japan in the Malabar exercises in the Indian Ocean, despite China’s reservations. But near simultaneous military exercises with the Chinese PLA, separate exercises with Sri Lanka & with Australia, coordinated naval patrols with Thailand and Myanmar and not with Malaysia or Indonesia among others convey an image of lack of clarity, and of India spreading its resources too thin.

The primary question then is how will the rise of China impact the general balance of power in the region, and on India’s own freedom of action? Over the last decade, particularly since Xi Jinping’s assumption of power, China has discarded Deng’s rule of lying low. Xi’s Chinese Dream is slowly unfolding as a neo-imperial design; in their eyes to regain for China what might have been its destiny had the Ming emperor not closed off China half a millennium ago.

Accordingly, it has become particularly aggressive in the South China Sea, laying down its claim in the “nine dash line” and creating Islands on disputed reefs where it is building military airfields, the promulgation of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) and raising a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. The result of these territorial disputes and aggressive display of force has been the rise of tension in the region. Japan, Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam have seen their sovereignty challenged directly, while many others like India have a vital interest in keeping SLOCs in South China Sea open.

China’s ambitions are not limited to the South China Sea; its increasing footprint in the Indian Ocean is a pointer to its overarching ambitions. Its maritime silk route plans, which has got subsumed in the Belt Road initiative, is a sophisticated version of the “String of Pearls” project. Creating economic opportunities for nations in the region, by tempting them with infrastructure projects is hard to oppose, particularly because of the ambiguity of the actual costs that the recipients would have to pay. Submarine visits among others, reveal the real intent – control over SLOCs and over the political economy space of the recipient countries. The second question is whether this scenario is a given? Or are there better ways to bring economic growth to countries within the region that do not compromise their political freedom? How might India work with these countries in a spirit of genuine partnership, delivering better economic, political and social outcomes?

India’s rich seafaring tradition has useful lessons for preparing for the future. India was able to develop close economic and cultural relationships with all countries in the littoral – from present day Indonesia to Zanzibar. Coastal India saw its fortunes intimately linked with lands of South East Asia. Colonialism, and its destruction of traditional trading patterns, disrupted this link. Autarkic economic policies of post-independence India led to further downgrading of these relationships. A globalising India has started engaging much more with this region across different sectors, whether one looks at trade, culture, tourism, or education. However it is not enough. India’s policy makers have also generally (mis)understood India’s eastern coastline as running from Bengal to Tamil Nadu, forgetting that the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are a thousand kilometres further east.

China’s Malacca dilemma and its alternate Kyaukpyu route in Myanmar are both close to the islands, giving India tremendous advantages. Further, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are India’s neighbours. The third question then is, how does India step up its engagement with the countries with which it enjoys a deep civilisation link and shares similar strategic objectives in the face of a rising, aggressive China? And how can the Andaman & Nicobar Islands be used to better engage with South East Asia?

The fourth question to ask is whether or not India’s rise is a given, or are there domestic and external factors that need to be tackled? India’s demographic dividend would only become a reality if it’s health and educational outcomes improve drastically. In addition to mobilising domestic resources, India would need to attract substantial FDI so that the economy can generate employment opportunities for the millions entering the labour markets. But does its physical infrastructure and enabling environment limitations facilitate such investment? Can India go-alone or should it become part of larger economic communities that are in the offing? Manufacturing, in any case, has moved from a single location assembly line to trans-national production chains. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) looks quite likely to emerge soon, once its ratification gets underway in participating countries, but India is not reckoned as a potential partner. Fundamentally, India’s trading and economic regimes are out of alignment with that of potential partners – ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, USA (and the EU). So the question remains on the nature of India’s options. How does India leverage its strengths so that it can become part of multiple production chains?

The last set of questions deal with India’s choice of partners. Over the next twenty years or so, the USA would remain the biggest power, militarily and economically, in the Indo-Pacific. Projections of USA’s decline are grossly exaggerated, and while it would not be able to exercise supremacy, its predominance is a reality, with or without Obama’s pivot. But the USA will not, and cannot, act unilaterally. While India will not become a part of a formal alliance, the Malabar exercises allows for a platform for coordinated action, should the need arise. Which countries should form the core of such a platform and what are the mechanisms required for achieving such minimum coherence? Beyond the core, partnership with other countries could be issue and need-based. (For example, disaster relief, and anti-piracy patrols;) Closer economic relations with China, in addition to the countries mentioned above, would go hand in hand. As China moves up the value-added chain, Indian firms could form production linkages with Chinese entities. There is considerable scope for complementarities between parts of the two economies, such as the need for Chinese to deploy surplus funds and assets and need for investment and technology in India.

Indian policy makers would need to analyse each of these issues using the SWOT (Strenghth, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat) framework. The country has an emerging community of strategic thinkers and writers who should be engaged along with other stakeholders such as the business community, and academics among others. Going forward, various sets of policy options could be arrived at that would enable India to identify the issues and partners needed to anticipate, and nudge, the changes in the power structures in the Indo-Pacific over the next half a century.

Photo: stratman² (2 many pix!)