Can interests of India and the United States converge in the Indo-Pacific?

Niranjan Marjani
March 1, 2020


US President Donald Trump visited India from 24 to 25 February. This visit was looked at from various contours or expectations. The most expected and awaited issue was the possibility of a trade deal between India and the US was. But there could be no agreement on the trade deal during this visit. However both the countries signed defence deals worth $3 billion. Along with the defence deals the strategically most important issues pertaining to this visit have been policies of both the countries with respect to terrorism and Indo-Pacific.

China’s economic and strategic assertiveness across Indo-Pacific are matters of concern for both India and United States since that directly affect their interests in the region. The US considers India as its strategic partner and a counterbalance to China. A joint statement released by the White House mentions that both India and the US have agreed to strengthen a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. According to the statement, India and the US would put special emphasis on relations in the maritime and space domain. The statement also addresses the interests of India and the US in the Indo-Pacific stating that strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific is central to India-US partnership.

While India’s engagements with the US have been strengthening and deepening over the past few years, it is important to consider the convergence from two points of view. One is approaches of both the countries with regard to the Indo-Pacific region. Second is options and challenges for India.

Approaches of India and the US

A comparison of approaches would enable determination of the suitability of India and the US for increasing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. As, India and the US have somewhat different approaches for the Indo-Pacific region. While China is a challenge for both the countries, India and the US present different outlooks to tackle that challenge in the region.

India’s approach is based on cooperation and to ensure that overlapping interests do not lead to conflict between powers. For that India has time and again reiterated the necessity of a rules-based order and freedom of navigation as the basis for a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific. India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific was defined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he addressed Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2018. He outlined India’s vision of Indo-Pacific as a positive one. Modi said India considers Indo-Pacific as a geographic entity that includes all the countries located in the region. India does not look at Indo-Pacific as a club of limited members. India’s stand also has been that there should be no arrangement that is aimed at a particular country.

The US, on the other hand, has a more direct approach which could even be termed as confrontational. The US identifies China as a challenge and a threat to the US’ interests in the Indo-Pacific. This approach leads to the US pushing forward for a mechanism that directly addresses the challenge from China. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad has been considered as a possible counterbalance to China. The Quad is a proposed mechanism between the US, India, Japan and Australia. Its idea was proposed in 2007 but it is yet to take a formal shape. Although in the past two years the member countries have been holding meetings to discuss the future course of action.

Options and challenges for India

Although India’s partnership with the US is getting stronger, India’s Indo-Pacific policy must also be considered from the point of view of the options that India has. China’s assertiveness across South China Sea and the US’ targeting China make it difficult for India to implement its own vision of Indo-Pacific. The policies of both China and the US tilt towards polarization of the region. The US considers India as a major strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s influence. On the other hand, India has been balancing its relations with both the US and China. At present it is a formidable challenge for India to balance its relations with the two powers as well as to protect its own interests.

India’s vision and proposal for a free and open Indo-Pacific is based on premise of existence of strong institutional mechanism or multiple mechanisms in order to maintain a balance. But here India’s approach differs significantly from the US and even China’s approach. In 2016, an international tribunal had ruled against China over the control of strategic reefs and atolls. However, China had refused to recognize and accept the ruling. Similarly, the US has a history of taking stand against institutions in the past few years.

India’s Indo-Pacific policy is primarily ASEAN centric. But the challenge for India is that the ASEAN is also not united in its stand on free and open Indo-Pacific, despite a document being put out. Some of the ASEAN countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. With respect to the US, it had taken a confrontational approach against institutions like ASEAN and even the European Union. If the Quad is given a formal structure, its success would depend upon the consensus and cooperation among all the four members.

Another challenge for India is the transactional nature of Trump’s foreign policy. Trump has backed India for a role in the Indo-Pacific against China, but the US has been taking Pakistan’s assistance in Afghanistan. Besides, recently the US and China indicated a truce in their long running trade war.

Trump’s visit to India is an important event in India-US relations and also in world politics. However it would take efforts from both the sides for convergence of interests in the Indo-Pacific.

*** The author is an Independent Journalist and Researcher based in Vadodara. His areas of interest are India’s foreign policy, international relations and geopolitics. He writes articles for various national and international publications. His articles mostly focus on the strategic angle of international politics. Apart from India, his areas of interest include politics of Spain. He also contributes articles in Spanish to publications in Spain and India ***