Revitalised India is building closer ties with the US, and pro-actively engaging with China.

Narendra Modi at BRICS leaders meeting September 2017.By Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia

Soon after taking office four years ago, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to shift the emphasis of his country’s flagship regional policy from economics and trade to nurturing political and security relationships. But just what is his vision for the fast-evolving strategic dynamics of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region?

Economic growth under Modi has averaged 7.3%, making India the fastest-growing large economy in the world in 2016 and 2018. With growth forecast at 7.4% in 2018–19 and 7.8% in 2019–20, India is later this year expected to overtake the UK to become the fifth-largest economy in the world.

His highly personalised style and energy, and focus on Indian diaspora communities, has changed India’s diplomacy, elevating it to the rank of ‘leading power’ on the world stage, rather than just a ‘balancing’ power caught between the West and China. As a result, India’s traditional policy of ‘non-alignment’ has been abandoned.

Modi’s term in office has been characterised by a series of important landmarks. He is the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, to host ASEAN leaders at India’s Republic Day parade, and to visit both Saudi Arabia and Iran within the space of two months. He attended this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit after nearly a decade without Indian representation. He also personally sponsored the establishment of the UN’s International Yoga Day in 2015, which now takes place on 21 June each year. And he is set to become the first prime minister of India to deliver the Keynote address at the forthcoming IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.

Modi’s ‘Act East’ and Indian Ocean policies

One of Modi’s earliest foreign policy decisions was to rename India’s existing ‘Look East’ policy to ‘Act East’. Far from being a symbolic gesture, it highlighted India’s renewed focus on ASEAN states, and shifted the emphasis of what had previously been an economic and trade-based policy to nurturing political and security relationships.

Ties with Singapore and Vietnam were immediately ‘stepped up’. In November 2015, India and Singapore signed an enhanced defence cooperation agreement, including the establishment of an annual bilateral defence ministers’ dialogue. India provided Vietnam with patrol boats, a US$500 million line of credit for defence spending, anti-piracy cooperation as well as submarine and combat-aircraft training. A joint statement at the January 2018 ASEAN–India Summit in New Delhi sought to strengthen regional maritime cooperation.

The Modi government has also given priority to India’s new roles and responsibilities in the Indian Ocean. In March 2015, Modi became the first Indian prime minister in decades to unveil a vision for the future of the Indian Ocean, named Security and Growth for All in the Region, or ‘SAGAR’, which means ‘sea’ or ‘lake’ in Hindi. This five-pronged approach included: deepening economic and security cooperation; strengthening maritime security capacities; advancing peace and security; responding to emergencies; and calling for respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries.

In effect, India has begun to counter China’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi seeks to compete selectively in infrastructure projects to enhance regional connectivity; to ensure it will be among the first contributors to humanitarian and disaster-relief operations in its neighbourhood; to expand bilateral maritime-security and -defence cooperation with island states to that of a ‘net security provider plus’; to facilitate a diplomatic and political push into the southwestern and eastern areas of the Indian Ocean; and to significantly upgrade its strategic partnerships with the US, Japan and Australia.

India and the Indo-Pacific

The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has become more frequently used in recent years, coinciding with the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or ‘Quad’, a strategic dialogue between India, the US, Australia and Japan. New Delhi’s ‘Act East’ policy is officially described as ‘the cornerstone of [the Indian government’s] engagement in the Indo-Pacific region’, but there remains confusion over its roles and responsibilities. 

First, the varying geographical definitions of the Indo-Pacific largely encompass the eastern Indian and Western Pacific oceans, but they ignore the Arabian Sea/Gulf region where India has vital stakes, including over seven million resident Indians, as well as energy and investment dependencies. They also overlook the growing importance of the small island states of the Indian Ocean, now a key focus of India’s foreign and security policy.

Second, there appears to be no clear differentiation between India’s policies and priorities towards the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific parts of the ‘Indo-Pacific’. India cannot expect to be a ‘first responder’ or ‘net security provider plus’ in the latter region. Only in the Indian Ocean will India have geographical advantages vis-à-vis the Chinese navy. (I explore India’s differing priorities for the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific more fully in a forthcoming article written jointly with Dr Kate Sullivan of Oxford University in the June–July 2018 issue of Survival.)

Third, there appears to be a dilution of a key Indian principle – that of freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific. This not so subtle concern is clearly inspired by China. Following a meeting of senior officials representing the Quad in Manila in November 2017, the Indian government’s statement surprisingly did not mention freedom of navigation and overflight, nor respect for international law or maritime security, although it has espoused this in the recent past.

US and China

While Modi has bolstered relations with Washington through the much-delayed signing of a memorandum of understanding in August 2016 to provide mutual military access to each country’s support facilities (India was later elevated to the status of ‘major US defence partner’), he has also recently taken surprising and bold initiatives with China. Following the nadir in Sino-Indian relations over the 73-day Doklam border stand-off, Modi flew to China last month to meet President Xi Jinping for an informal summit to improve bilateral communication and ease border tensions.

At the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue defence ministers of 30 countries, along with their military and intelligence chiefs, influential security communities and the world’s media will be listening intently to what Prime Minister Modi says on India’s relations with the US, China, ASEAN and the Indian Ocean/Indo-Pacific.

For the first time, the IISS has also included a dedicated special session to the subject of Indian Ocean security. As Modi faces re-election in the summer of 2019, Singapore, located at the juncture of both the Indian and western Pacific oceans, provides the ideal location for the articulation of India’s policy towards this strategically important region.

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