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Insights into Editorial: Out at sea

Insights into Editorial: Out at sea



In its National Security Strategy (NSS), the U.S. has called China a “challenger” and “rival” while welcoming India’s emergence as a “leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner”, and declared that it seeks to increase ‘Quadrilateral’ cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.

The NSS also states that the U.S. would support India’s growing relationships throughout the region. While the broader emphasis on improving the partnership is welcome, policymakers in New Delhi should be cautious and cognizant on its national interests.

US’s national security strategy: Key points

Geopolitically, the NSS places the greatest emphasis for American interests on the Indo-Pacific region, an area that includes India. It is interesting to note that the NSS uses this term, instead of Asia-Pacific, indicating that the United States has as deep an interest in South Asia as it does in East Asia.

The document explicitly includes India in its definition of the Indo-Pacific, which stretches “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, [and is] the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world.” In fact, about half of the world’s population lives within this Indo-Pacific region. The following items were outlined.

  1. Combating China

The strategy deems China, like Russia, to be a “revisionist” power, determined to reshape the world according to its own ideals. The strategy calls for stronger traditional alliances and new partnerships in Asia amid a “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order.”

  1. Countering Russia

The strategy is harsher on Russia than the president has been in public comments. It says Russia uses “subversive measures” to weaken America’s credibility and European governments.

  1. Budding India Alliance

The strategy promotes a deeper partnership with India. Pakistan, on the other hand, must crack down on “transnational terrorists” operating from its soil, it says.

  • But the document offers Pakistan the carrot of greater trade and investment ties if it helps on counterterrorism.
  • The regional approach could be part of the broader effort to counter China, which is investing billions in Pakistan.
  1. Fighting Global Threats
    North Korea and Iran are singled out as the leading threats to US security, followed by what Trump used to call “radical Islamic terrorist” organizations like the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. The strategy emphasizes cyber threats and says the administration will assess such risks to security, energy, banking and transportation.

While budding alliance with India is a welcoming step, India should cautious on two counts.

One, India should be wary of any attempts at being pitted as a front in the U.S.’s efforts to check China’s rise. Two, while the notion of the IndoPacific sounds grandiose and enticing, India must not forget that its primary area of concern is the IndianOcean Region (IOR).

India’s foreign affairs should be in line with Rules-based order

As its stature in global politics increases, it is in the nations as well as global interest that India remains a balancing power.

  • For instance, India’s vote in the UN General Assembly over Jerusalem should be seen in line with a “rules-based world order.”
  • At the same time, there is no question that India should hedge against the rapid expansion of Chinese presence in the IOR.
  • This is further underscored by recent acknowledgment by the People’s Liberation Army that it is “planning to explore the possibility of more foreign military outposts in Africa, West Asia and other areas.”
  • For India, geographically the area of concern, and so the area of focus, should mainly on IOR, stretching from the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Malacca.
  • While reiterating its commitment to upholding the established laws of the global commons, New Delhi should not go adrift in the larger Indo-Pacific.

As more powers make inroads into this strategically crucial space, India must consolidate its position and not expect others to do its job, for it would only mean ceding space in the long run.

How can India achieve this?

There are two ways of doing this — beefing up Indian capacity and securing interests and then expanding partnerships to fill voids.

  • India should undertake capacity building in its own backyard be it South Asia or the IOR to secure its position as a leading global power.
  • It is imperative for policy-makers in New Delhi to conduct a reality check on relations with our neighbours.
  • Over the last couple of months, there have been hectic parleys with various nations in various formats — quadrilateral, trilateral, etc. But it cannot be at the expense of the neighbours.
  • While being part of various groupings is important, it is imperative that they are in line with our interests.
  • That is where more clarity is required on the recently resurrected Quad. Because except India for the other three the primary focuses is the Pacific Ocean especially the South China Sea.

Recent India’s Key initiatives

Some recent initiatives illustrate the way forward for India.

  • Last month, India and Singapore concluded an overarching bilateral agreement for naval cooperation. Besides being only India’s second bilateral logistics arrangement, it gives it access to the Changi naval base at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca.
  • With Singapore’s assistance, India is also working out modalities for joint multilateral exercises with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
  • India is also negotiating similar logistics agreements with several other countries.
  • Another initiative which fits the bill is the Goa Maritime Conclave hosted by the Indian navy last month where Navy Chiefs and maritime heads of 10 Indian Ocean littoral states brainstormed on ways to improve cooperation in the region. It is an India-led initiative where the navy has offered to share information of maritime movement in real-time.

Way forward

These developments show the way forward for India to engage with like-minded countries in the region without getting entangled in groupings which are seen as being targeted or military in nature.

This is the template for India to take forward to build its primacy in the IOR before venturing into adjacent waters while also making sure that its interests are taken heed of while getting into various groupings and not end up doing someone else’s bidding.

By continuing to secure the support of the United States for economic growth and its security position in Asia, India first and foremost pursues its own national interests and should maintain its strategic autonomy.