India’s recent logistics agreement with France promises to take its Indo-Pacific strategy one step forward, establishing another strategic partner for New Delhi in the Indian Ocean. But whether the addition of France will bring further clarity to India’s Indo-Pacific strategy cannot be determined with certainty. India’s evolving Indo-Pacific strategy vacillates between securing its interests through partnerships with external powers and accommodating other regional stakeholders that could potentially be provoked by such partnerships. Essentially, this strategy is a hedging bet intended to navigate between the varied and sometimes opposing interests of a host of nations in the Indo-Pacific region.
A Means to an End
India’s Indo-Pacific strategy is steadfastly tethered to the converging interests of a host of nations led by the United States and France. However, it perceives such cooperation as a means and not an end to its own autonomous navigation. To that end, India seeks to carefully balance its relationships in the Indo-Pacific between major powers like the United States, China, and Russia; middle power coalitions with France, Japan and Australia; and smaller Indo-Pacific countries like Seychelles, Mauritius, and Oman. Owing to the compulsions arising from such a varied spectrum of partners, India’s Indo-Pacific strategy cannot be an overt strategy favoring one set of countries against another. It is torn between the need to be a part of coalitions that can prevent unilateral dominance in the region and its traditional foreign policy disposition, which tends to be skeptical of such regional collaborations.
Owing to the compulsions arising from such a varied spectrum of partners, India’s Indo-Pacific strategy cannot be an overt strategy favoring one set of countries against another. It is torn between the need to be a part of coalitions that can prevent unilateral dominance in the region and its traditional foreign policy disposition, which tends to be skeptical of such regional collaborations.
This tension is most evident in Indo-U.S. relations. New Delhi’s values coincide with Washington’s core vision of the Indo-Pacific, which upholds the freedom of navigation, the rule of law, freedom from coercion, respect for sovereignty, private enterprise, and open markets for all nations in the region. Furthermore, there is a growing rationale for deeper Indo-U.S. cooperation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific with the 2015 joint strategic vision between the two countries; the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA); the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA); and the recent renaming of the United States Pacific Command. These moves expose an obvious interest within the U.S. national security apparatus to include India in counterbalancing China’s rise as a sea power in Asia. However, in turning down joint patrols proposed by the United States in the South China Sea, denying Australia’s entry in the Malabar Exercises due to the possibility of China’s ire, and only weakly embracing the Quad, India has somewhat resisted the order the United States wants to promulgate in the Indo-Pacific—as is part and parcel of its naturally cautious foreign policy approach. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that it has excised vast strategic benefits from its partnership with Washington.
With India and France’s recent decision to operationalize the bilateral military logistics agreement signed in March 2018, New Delhi has added another partner to its already-long list of partners in the Indo-Pacific. The move favors India’s strategic interests in the western Indian Ocean: in particular, the French military bases at Djibouti, Abu Dhabi, and Reunion Island are being assessed as a force multiplier for the Indian Navy, especially when combined with LEMOA. Commentators have emphasized the shared maritime vision of India and France, who look to “uphold the law of the sea in the Indian Ocean, prevent the kind of military unilateralism that has come to grip the Western Pacific, secure the sea lines of communication, respond to humanitarian disasters and promote sustainable blue economy.” Much like its relationship with Japan, with whom India has also sought to deepen its alignment by enhancing bilateral ties in the context of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and conducting trilateral and quadrilateral meetings with Australia and the United States, India sees its partnership with France as a means of securing its own autonomy and promoting a multipolar order in the Indo-Pacific.
Although India has created a robust strategic arc from the Persian Gulf and the Asia-Pacific, its Indo-Pacific strategy is more nuanced, involving careful balancing between multiple stakeholders. India has attempted to draw a distinction between its “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy and the “free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific,” with an emphasis on “inclusive.” At the heart of this subtle change lies the desire to navigate any constraints that evolving geopolitics in the region might put on India’s future partnerships. For instance, though India has promised the United States and its ilk that it will help to shape a regional strategy in line with their multilateral Indo-Pacific vision, its multifaceted relationships with China and Russia demand that New Delhi also create latitude for Beijing and Moscow within this vision. Up till now, these countries have mostly been perceived as opponents or at best outsiders to the Indo-Pacific vision when seen from New Delhi’s perspective. In an attempt directed at making its Indo-Pacific strategy inclusive of China and Russia, India seems to be separating the Quad from its Indo-Pacific strategy, a step that enhances ambiguity.
Though India has promised the United States and its ilk that it will help to shape a regional strategy in line with their multilateral Indo-Pacific vision, its multifaceted relationships with China and Russia demand that New Delhi also create latitude for Beijing and Moscow within this vision.
Addressing the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018, Prime Minster Narendra Modi confessed that “no other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China.” The acknowledgement is reflected in India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which avoids any directly confrontational stance vis-à-vis China while partnering with the United States to create a regional structure that is inconsistent with Chinese expectations. While India has readily attended the Quad’s meetings—a move that itself putatively signals anti-Chinese intentions—it has also restored its maritime dialogue with China. As for Russia, its growing efforts to stabilize West Asia, improving relations with Japan, and expanding cooperation with South Korea suggest it could become a “factor of stability” in the Indo-Pacific. Where this leaves India’s Indo-Pacific strategy is a matter of uncertainty.
A Sustainable Vision?
India’s attempt at an Indo-Pacific vision that seeks to incorporate multiple stakeholders via an inclusive architecture that avoids confrontational sentiment may ultimately pose challenges to the sustainability of its strategy. In navigating the competing interests of the United States, China, Russia, and other players in the region, India risks being deemed unreliable by its partners. New Delhi should attempt to manage the expectations of its partners such that they are cognizant of India’s apprehensions and limitations, while the United States and its allies should accommodate India where possible.
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