Navigating the Indo Pacific: Challenges for India

Uma Purushothaman
January 05, 2020


The Indo-Pacific has become the resounding catchphrase in International Relations discourse these days. While the construct gives centrality to India, allowing it to project power and become a norm shaper, it is not without its share of challenges for Indian foreign policy.

At the recently concluded Delhi Dialogue, India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, admitted that “one of the problems in building partnerships in the Indo-Pacific maritime region was the lack of consensus on what such a concept meant or “even its geographic extent”. The Minister was alluding to the fact that for countries like the US, the Indo-Pacific ends at the shores of the Indian subcontinent, while for India and Japan, the concept is much broader in expanse, extending to the shores of Africa. This lack of definitional consensus with the US is troubling for India on several counts. New Delhi is concerned about China’s growing naval capabilities and presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean, but the waters towards its west or the Western Indian Ocean are New Delhi’s “primary area of interest” as suggested in its maritime security strategy document as it buys around 65 percent of its oil and gas supplies from the Middle East. It is also home to over seven million Indians who send back billions of dollars in remittances. This could be crucial at a time when the Indian economy seems to be headed for a slowdown. The region also hosts Pakistan, a long-standing rival, and Iran, with whom India has strong cultural ties and views as a source of energy supplies. In fact, US policies towards Iran are disruptive for the entire Middle East. So, any turmoil in the Middle East could affect India’s economy as well as its security. 

The American definition also does not take into account India’s strong engagement with the Indian Ocean Region countries. The US definition reflects the American view of the Indo-Pacific as a concept only to rein in the Chinese. While India understands and shares the Chinese apprehension to some extent, the US also needs to understand India’s development imperatives and security concerns. Unless the two countries can come to an agreement about the extent of the Indo-Pacific, further cooperation might not be possible. India would be justified in thinking then that the US only sees India as a cat’s-paw against China, but has little interest in building a strong India. Moreover, in President Donald Trump, the US has a President who wants to withdraw from the rest of the world, and India would naturally be concerned about how much of the burden it will have to shoulder, given how unpredictable the current US President is. It is uncertain at this juncture if the US has the will, resources, or strength to prop up an India-centric security framework in the region.

The second challenge is that Tokyo, New Delhi, Washington and Canberra, the four members of the much-vaunted Quad, do not seem to have the same levels of strategic awareness and military capabilities in the Indian Ocean.

The third challenge again is related to China. Most of India’s close partners in its Indo Pacific strategy, whether they are members of the Quad or the Indian Ocean Region nations or ASEAN, all have stronger economic ties with China than with India. This could turn out to be a problem in the future, particularly if China decides to play hardball. The example of how the Quad frittered out in 2008 after Australia under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd left it to cater to Chinese sensitivities will not be forgotten easily in India. So, there is a possibility of cooperation on the Indo Pacific being held hostage to domestic politics in these countries and to China’s concerns. 

The fourth challenge is related to India’s own capabilities. It is not certain how much India will be able to invest in developing its naval power and in its partner countries, given the economic situation in India, where there are so many competing pressures on the budget. The fifth challenge is to convince partners in the Indo Pacific region that India is sufficiently invested in the region and is there for a long haul. This has become a little difficult, with India not signing the RCEP. While the domestic reasons for not joining the RCEP were valid, it would be interesting to see if this will affect the way the region views India’s credibility and if it will damage the Indian economy in the long run as it could make India uncompetitive and close it out of the Asian market. An economically weak India will hardly be of interest or use to any of its partners. 

Finally, overemphasizing the Indo-Pacific runs the risk of antagonizing China since Beijing sees the Indo Pacific essentially as a strategy to contain it. While the US and Australia are physically distant from China; India, Japan, and their other partners being geographically close to China need to be more nuanced in their pronouncements and strategies vis-a-vis the Indo-Pacific. While it is true that modern technology has made distance a non-factor in war, geography still matters, particularly since India shares a long border with China. The US needs to understand this dilemma that New Delhi faces.

The challenges delineated above point to the need for India enhance investments in engaging more with its partners in the Quad to bring about definitional clarity on the Indo-Pacific, to work more robustly with the armed forces of its partners to have more coordination and to develop into a reliable partner for the region. The key for India would be to remain realistic about its goals in the Indo Pacific, keeping in mind its own as well as its partners’ will and capabilities.

*** The author is an Assistant Professor at Department of International Relations at Central University of Kerala ***