Power Politics in Indo-Pacific and India’s Challenges

Annpurna Nautiyal
May 19, 2019
Image Courtesy: worldview.stratfor.com

Though the global power scenario is still unfolding, the emergence of a new great power competition, particularly China’s rise as an aggressive power, suggests that the US domination of global affairs has ended. The advent of multi polarity due to rise of India, Brazil and South Africa and replacement of Japan by China in the Asia-Pacific as a dominating and central force is not only bringing new geopolitical realities but is also changing the power matrix as well as socio-cultural and civilizational settings in the region. In this new power game, while Russia seeks to maintain its influence in Europe, China is looking to expand its control and influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America to reduce its deficit vis-a-vis the US and gain strategic advantages in the long run – India, too, is also aspiring for a global role through developing stronger  relations with US and other like minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Since Russia and China have been strengthening their militaries to challenge the US and its allies, therefore the global security scenario in the 21st century is not only changing drastically but is precariously poised.

With the US mired in domestic issues and taming Russia, North Korea and Iran,   America’s foreign policy seems to be direction less; its ambiguous policies towards ASEAN and pressure on India for stopping all oil imports from Iran have also increased uncertainties, helplessness and worries. On the other hand, Chinese aggression in South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region is increasing perceptional differences and mutual mistrust between US and China. The agenda of securing trade and connectivity routes through sea is making the global order more competitive. China has not only made inroads in different territories ranging from the Far East and South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, but has also frequently challenged freedom of navigation, over flight and various other tenets of the international rules based order by flagrant violations of the rules of conduct, and a belligerent display of its economic, naval and military power. Chinese designs for expanding its economic clout through trade, commerce and loans for infrastructure development in Indo-Pacific not only aim for its economic primacy and hegemony but also a new form of colonization. The projects being developed under BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) are not only meant for economic abuse of power but also for replacing the US as a global power and restraining India’s rise as a leading power of Asia.

By constructing all weather roads and highways along the Indo-China border China has secured access but through the BRI it aspires to use geo-economic clout in order to achieve its geo-strategic objectives. China held the first BRI summit in Beijing in 2017 and the second in April 2019.  Cooperation agreements with China for BRI were signed by 68 nations and international organizations in 2017, while 29 heads of state attended the 2017 meet as compared to 38 world leaders who attended the 2019 summit. China desperately wanted India to join its BRI and even issued maps showing the disputed areas of Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as part of India but India did not participate in both summits as BRI crosses Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Chinese willingness to woo India was also reflected by China’s endorsement of Masood Azhar as global terrorist in the UN in contravention of its veto in all previous occasions on this issue. However, India is not convinced as it feels that BRI attempts to reestablish China-centric regional order by pushing countries like Sri Lanka or Pakistan into a debt trap. Therefore, through its outreach to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, access to ports like Sabang and Chabahar India aims to counter Chinese moves. However, China’s increasing submarine fleet, port access in Djibouti and Sri Lanka poses enormous challenge for India. China’s carrot and stick approach involves military might and economic assistance through soft loans and investment. Though ASEAN and India’s neighbours do realize the adverse effects of excessive economic dependence on Chinese money and its debt trap as Hambantota in Sri Lanka has been acquired for 99 years and Gwadar in Pakistan for 40 years but for reducing their dependence on India they prefer to ignore it.

Prime Minister Modi’s emphasis on equal access, freedom of navigation, overflight and commerce as a right under international law in the common seas and air spaces , as well as peaceful settlement of disputes indicates concerns and worries apropos China’s unlawful actions. On India’s part, despite its Act East policy, development of strategic partnership with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, ROK, Australia, Singapore and free trade agreements with ASEAN and formation of quadrilateral strategic dialogue with leaders of United States, Japan, and Australia, differences in economic and military capacities is not letting India foil Chinese aims. Despite denials, the trilateral Malabar naval exercise between US, India and Japan, cooperation with France including the biggest 17th naval exercise and India’s partnership with the Quad have potentially become key factors in countering the Chinese threat in Indo-Pacific. The support India attained in UN on issue of Masood Azhar is indicative of India’s approach from passive to persuasive, as well as diplomatic success of Modi’s foreign policy. However, US pressures to stop all defense relations with Russia, oil supplies from Iran and restriction under CAATSA might not be good for India’s military, economic and energy security as well as the multipolar power structure it wants to create to deal with China.

*** The author is Vice Chancellor (Officiating) and Professor of Political Science, HNB Garhwal University, Srinagar, Garhwal, Uttarakhand ***