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India’s Role in the Asia-Pacific Topic Week Wraps Up on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

We received a strong and quality response to our Call for Articles requesting publications on India’s Role in the Asia-Pacific. Our authors were diverse in background and experience. Their analysis highlighted competition between India and China in the maritime domain, various foreign policy initiatives of the Modi administration, and India’s aspiration to assume greater influence and responsibility on the international stage. We thank our authors for their excellent contributions.

Below is a list of the articles that featured during the topic week, with relevant excerpts outlining the main thrust of each publication’s analysis. 

India as the Pivotal Power of the 21st Century Security Order by MAJ Chad Pillai

“As the United States increasingly faces challenges to its global power by Iran, Russia, and China, its relationship with India will grow in strategic importance.”

How The Indian Ocean Remains Central to India’s Emerging Aspirations by Vidya Sagar Reddy

“Safe maritime connectivity, external trading, and overseas investments require India develop political confidence in its neighborhood and a dedicated navy to ensure secure seas.”

India-China Competition Across the Indo-Pacific by David Scott

“Implicit competition in what has been dubbed “a new great game for influence in the Indo-Pacific” between these two rising powers is the order of the day in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the West Pacific, and the South Pacific.”

Sino-India Strategic Rivalry: Misperception or Reality by Ching Chang

“Whether the maritime competition between China and India is in the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea may prove to be only an elusive speculation though seemingly plausible.”

Diluting the Concentration of Regional Power Players in Maldives by MAJ Ahmed Mujuthaba

“Even though it is popular for its crystalline waters and sun bathed beaches, recently Maldives has been appearing on the minds and finds of security strategists. So why have strategists shifted their gaze to this tiny tourist destination all of a sudden?  Two reasons: India and China.”

Strategic Maritime Balancing in Sino-Indian Foreign Policy by Ryan Kuhns

“Not only have the mountain passes and peaks of the Himalayas become zones for potential conflict, where in the past they served as natural buffers, but the shared space of the Indo-Pacific also links the interests and security concerns of present day India and China.”

India in the Asia-Pacific: Roles as a ‘Balancer’ and Net Security Provider by Ajaya Kumar Das

“While India’s ascendance to great power status will take time, owing to domestic constraints, how India positions itself in the Indo-Pacific balance of power and rises as a ‘net security provider’ will contribute significantly to its security and status.”

Modi’s Asia-Pacific Push by Vivek Mishra

“The Modi government’s strongly maritime oriented foreign policy launched in 2014 has proven somewhat rewarding, particularly in helping the Indian Navy transcend its image of a force that punches below its weight. The politico-strategic recalibration by India in its Asia-Pacific policy has sought to retool its mid-1990s Look East policy with more purpose.”

Understanding Sino-Indian Relations – A Theoretical Perspective by Byron Chong

“The analysis will show that Sino-Indian relations reflect a peculiar kind of stability: although their relationship will continue to be marked by distrust and intermittent disputes, the risk of escalation to war remains unlikely. In general, Sino-Indian relations are influenced by four factors: (1) their history of enmity; (2) strategic competition; (3) nuclear relations; and (4) trade.”

India as a Net Security-Provider in the Indian Ocean and Beyond by VADM Pradeep Chauhan (ret)

“The Prime Minister’s firm declaration of national intent for India to be a net security-provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond, means the various connotations of maritime security (defined as freedom from threats emanating ‘in’, ‘from’, or ‘through’ the medium of the sea can no longer be denied centrality in any serious consideration of India’s national security.” 

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Reach the CIMSEC editorial team at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

India as a Net Security-Provider in the Indian Ocean and Beyond

India’s Role in the Asia-Pacific Topic Week

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (ret)

With the Indian economy continuing to register arguably the highest rate of growth amongst the major economies of the world and the rise of India as a major reckonable power in her own right, come commensurate levels of international responsibility. As the country’s erstwhile National Security Adviser and ex-Foreign Secretary, Mr. Shiv Shankar Menon, had put it, sooner rather than later India will have to make real political and military contributions to stability and security in this region that is so critical to our economy and security. What has inhibited us since the Seventies have been limited capabilities and the fact that other States were providers of security in the area.  Now that both those limiting factors are changing, our approach and behaviour should change in defence of our interests.”[1]

India is actively pursuing and promoting the ‘blueing’ of her burgeoning ocean economy, with her trade to GDP Ratio (Openness Index) recording a decadal average of 40%. The Prime Minister’s firm declaration of national intent for India to be a net security-provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond, means the various connotations of maritime security (defined as freedom from threats emanating ‘in’, ‘from’, or ‘through’ the medium of the sea[2]) can no longer be denied centrality in any serious consideration of India’s national security. 

India’s requirement to ensure stability in her maritime neighborhood underpins her acceptance of this role of providing net security. This need for regional stability is informed by a number of reliable studies[3] that show political instability in one’s neighboring countries has a powerful and frequently adverse effect upon one’s own national economy. The magnitude of this effect is similar to that of an equivalent rise in domestic political instability in one’s own country. This negative effect is felt through a number of channels of inter-State commercial interaction. Amongst the principal ones are ‘space-time-and-cost’ disruptions of external trade. These, in turn, affect domestic manufacturing and local consumption and hence, money-flows and market-dynamism. Another is the sharp spurt in military expenditure and outlays as mitigating mechanisms against one’s own country being ‘infected’ by the malaise of instability affecting one or more neighboring or proximate countries. Likewise, increased uncertainty and risk dissuades overseas business-investment[4] as well as physical capital accumulation, not limited to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) alone. Tourism, which is an important source of revenue and economic buoyancy for many island nations in the Indian Ocean, is similarly adversely affected by catalysts of regional instability — an increased threat of piracy, for example.  Indeed, there is “strong empirical support for the proposition that a country’s growth rate depends not only on domestic investment but also on the investment of its neighbouring countries”[5].

In fact, there is growing clarity within New Delhi’s corridors of power that, as Zoltan Merszei famously said, Money is a coward.  Investment capital will not flow down a hazardous, unlit street where the risk is visibly higher than the potential reward[6].” The Business Dictionary defines ‘Risk’ as “the probability of loss inherent in financing methods, which may impair the ability to provide adequate return”[7]. In geopolitical terms, risk may be considered to be the probability of occurrence of an event factored against the degree of loss that is anticipated, should the event occur. In the context of this discussion, I hold that money does not go where there is excessive politico-military uncertainty, since such a condition defines excessive risk.

The 2011 edition of the ‘World Development Report,’ which focused specifically upon conflict, security, and development, emphasizes that violent conflict was undoubtedly one of the biggest drivers of poverty in the developing world[8]. One of the biggest risks for developing countries, it argued, was that of being caught in a ‘conflict trap’ — a vicious circle whereby poverty stokes conflicts, and conflict in turn increases poverty. With the weight of evidence that links regional instability to low economic growth in all nations in the near proximity of the politico-militarily unstable one, and recalling that the core national interest of India is to assure and ensure the material, economic, and societal well-being of the people of India, ensuring stability in her maritime neighborhood is quite clearly a major national imperative.    

It is this requirement for regional stability that provides the context of India being perceived — both externally and, increasingly, internally as well — as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.  Perhaps the first time that such a sentiment was formally expressed on an international stage was at the 2009 edition of the “Shangri La Dialogue” organized annually in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), wherein Mr. Robert Gates, who was then Secretary of Defesce of the United States, said, “We look to India to be a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond….”[9].  This was repeated in the 2010 edition of the “Quadrennial Defense Review” of the USA, which emphasized, “….as its military capabilities grow, India will contribute to Asia as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”[10]  However, the most categoric and unequivocal declaration of this intent occurred at no less than the Prime Ministerial level, when the erstwhile Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh said — “…We live in a difficult neighborhood, which holds the full range of conventional, strategic, and non-traditional challenges ……….. Our defense cooperation has grown and today we have unprecedented access to high technology, capital, and partnerships. We have also sought to assume our responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean Region.  We are well positioned, therefore, to become a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond…”[11]

India Minister of State Defense Rao Inderjit Singh speaks during the plenary session at the 14th Asia Security Summit, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue 2015 in Singapore on May 30, 2015. The United States on May 30 called for an "immediate and lasting halt" to reclamation works in disputed waters in the South China Sea, saying Beijing's behaviour in the area was "out of step" with international norms. AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
India Minister of State Defense Rao Inderjit Singh speaks during the plenary session at the 14th Asia Security Summit, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue 2015 in Singapore on May 30, 2015.  ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The opportunity is clearly recognized [12] and the apex level of political signalling seems sufficient. And yet, one continues to encounter misgivings about whether India has the military capability to play the role of a net security provider for the region. These are largely remnants of a half century of muddled thinking[13] that viewed ‘security’ only in terms of the defense of territory within a state system whose defining characteristic was an incessant competition for military superiority with other nation-states, all lying within a classic state of anarchy without superior or governing authority. Yet, for most people of the world, threats to individual security, such as disease, hunger, inadequate or unsafe water, environmental contamination, crime, etc., remain far more immediate and significant. Thus, as nation-states such as India begin to incorporate the many facets of ‘Human Security,’ they find themselves moving away from the earlier, excessively narrow definition.  Consequently, new terms such as ‘Non-Traditional Security’ and ‘Human Security,’ drawn from the 1994 Report of the UNDP[14], have made their way into our contemporary security lexicon and established themselves within our individual and collective security consciousness. Apart from ‘Military Security’ which does, of course, continue to enjoy primacy in a world system defined by sovereign nation-states, the UNDP lists as many as seven components of Human Security: Economic Security, Food Security, Health Security, Environmental Security, Personal Security, Community Security, and, Political Security[15]

Threats arising from a lack of maritime security could be faced by individuals themselves or by one or more of the levels by which individuals organize into societies and into nation-states.  They could arise from natural causes or from manmade ones, or from the interplay of one with the other, as in the case of environmental degradation, or, global warming. Indeed, there is a growing realization that climate change has a very significant security dimension that impacts us at the national, regional, and global levels — and, going in the other direction, at subnational and human (individual) ones. As Sir David King, the UK Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change, points out, “A growing body of credible, empirical evidence has emerged over the past decade to show that the climate change that has occurred thus far – involving an increase of 0.8°C in global average temperatures – is already influencing dynamics associated with human, sub-national, national and international security”[16].  Perhaps even more disconcerting is the ease with which the various security impacts of climate change transcend the traditional stove-piping of internal and external security. 

For instance, as rising global temperatures create enhanced heat and water stress, agricultural failures at a national level are very likely across entire regions. The probability is high that substantially lowered levels of food security will result in human migration, in turn causing a whole slew of ills ranging from a sharp increase in ‘barbarism’ to demographic shifts. The Syrian unrest — and the consequent rise of the ISIL/ISIS/Daesh[17] as a transnational threat — offers an illustrative case. The West Asian, the North African, and the Mediterranean regions have all being experiencing a drying trend over the last few decades, with a notable decline in winter precipitation — in conformity with the forecasts that had already been made by climate-modelling.[18] As a consequence of the extreme drought suffered by Syria between 2007 and 2011, involving severe and widespread crop-failure and the loss of livestock, there was a mass internal displacement of some two million farmers and herders into urban areas that were already stressed with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. By 2011, around a million Syrians faced extreme food insecurity and another three million had been driven into extreme poverty[19]. While several factors — such as political insensitivity, a lack of democratic mechanisms for the venting of public frustration and brutal State repression — drove the political unrest and conflict that followed (and contributed to the appeal of the ISIL/ISIS/Daesh), it is difficult to pretend that this widespread impoverishment and large-scale displacement — which was a result of climate change — did not play a major role[20]

Today, threats to human security, such as religious extremism; international terrorism; drug and arms smuggling; demographic shifts — whether caused by migration or by other factors; human trafficking; environmental degradation; energy, food and water shortages; all figure prominently as threats that are increasingly inseparable from military ones. Likewise, the linkages between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ threats arising from the impact of climate change are clearly discernible in the maritime space as well. For instance, the Republic of the Maldives is located a mere 250 nm south-west of India. Its constituent islands and atolls have an average elevation above the current Mean Sea Level of just five feet (the highest elevation is a mere eight feet!). Thus, it is extremely susceptible to a rise in sea levels because of global warming.  The 5th Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predicts that in a ‘high emissions’ scenario, there will be a global rise by 52-98 cm (20.47 to 36.22 inches) by the year 2100[21]. Even with a regime of aggressive reduction in emissions, a rise by 28-61 cm (11 to 24 inches) is predicted and this could be disastrous for Maldives — its population is about 336,000 people, many or all of whom could suddenly become ‘boat people!’ Where will they all go? Probably to India! Clearly, India needs to have multi-dimensional contingency plans in place to deal with the obvious security implications of the unfolding of such a scenario. 

A global map indicating areas impacted by a six meter rise in sea levels. Source: NASA.
A global map indicating areas impacted by a six meter rise in sea levels. Source: NASA.

Such realizations are leading Indian security-planners to embrace concepts such as ‘cooperative’ instead of ‘competitive’ security and ‘comprehensive’ rather than merely ‘military’ security. These are the very concepts that constitute the foundation of India’s ability and willingness to be a net security-provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond. This ability is premised not so much upon India’s arguable capacity by way of material wherewithal, but instead, upon India’s widely acknowledged and impressive capability — organisation, training, operational and maintenance philosophies, procedures, practices, etc. It is important to differentiate between ‘Capacity-building’ and ‘Capability-enhancement.’ Capacity-Building is most often used in the context of material wherewithal — i.e., the provision of hardware. This could include platforms, infrastructure, equipment, or spares, any or all of which might be provided to entities that have a need to develop a certain capacity to undertake one or more maritime (or naval) role.

For example, when the coastal police are given shallow-draft patrol boats with which to carry out patrols in coastal waters, this would constitute capacity-building‘Capability Enhancement’ on the other hand, refers to the realization of a potential aptitude or ability. In a maritime context, it implies that the potential recipient already has the capacity (or some proportion of it) to undertake a naval/maritime role, and further inputs will now enhance his existing capability to exploit the material wherewithal so as to derive better results. Capability-enhancement is mostly by way of intangibles and cognitive processes. To continue with the example of the coastal police, the provision of patrol-boats would have built some reasonable capacity. However, once the coastal police imbibe the various methods, procedures and processes that will enable them to logistically-support, maintain, repair, and operationally deploy these boats, their capability in terms of coastal patrolling would have been enhanced. Likewise, a certain navy (or maritime-security force) may well possess operationally viable sea-going Offshore Patrol-Vessels (OPVs). This would be capacity. On the other hand, if the crew aboard the OPV in question did not know how to distinguish between, say, a ‘demersal’ trawler (one designed to catch fish that live close to the seabed) and a ‘pelagic’ trawler (one designed to catch fish that swim close to the surface of the sea), it might be unable to establish ‘suspicious’ behavior as a function of the depth of water in which it is operating. When India provided the Tarmugli (now renamed PS Topaz) and the Tarasa (now renamed PS Constant) to Seychelles, India was engaging in capacity-building. However, the ‘planned preventive maintenance’ needed to sustain these ships in an operational state might well require additional ‘capability-enhancement’ inputs from India by way of maintenance-philosophies, maintenance-schedules, technical-training, etc.

There is considerable evidence that India is, indeed, rising to the occasion. Examples of regional capacity-building are the provision (against generous Lines of Credit) of patrol vessels, short/medium-range maritime patrol aircraft, coastal surveillance radars, shore-based AIS Stations, spares, etc., to several of India’s maritime neighbors. Recipients include Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Regional capability-enhancement by India is extremely vigorous.  This incorporates, inter-alia, infrastructure-development such as the setting-up of an afloat-support organisation for ships and patrol craft, the creation of a dockyard in Maldives, airfield development and allied support facilities in Mauritius, and a wide variety of maritime training — in India as well as in-country training by Indian training-teams. It also includes the conduct of extensive hydrographic surveys by specialized Indian ships and aircraft. Indian ships and aircraft make a major effort in regional surface and airborne EEZ-surveillance to counter maritime crime such as illegal immigration, human-trafficking, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, and piracy. Beneficiaries once again include vulnerable Indian Ocean nation-states such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Myanmar, Vietnam, etc.

A critical success in India’s regional endeavors has been the creation of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). IONS is the current century’s first (and to date the only) robust and inclusive regional maritime-security organizational structure within the Indian Ocean. It was launched by New Delhi in 2008 with active participation of very nearly all 37 littoral nations of the Indian Ocean region at the level of their respective Chiefs of Navy/Heads of national maritime forces. It is broadly modeled upon the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and has gained impressive traction over the past eight years. Its inclusiveness is evident from the fact that both India and Pakistan — often associated with being arch rivals and even spoilers, at times — are active and enthusiastic members. For the moment, suffice to say that it represents a unique opportunity to progress common responses to common regional threats.

A visualization of nations included in various common security forums and organizations.
A visualization of nations included in various common security forums and organizations, demonstrating the broad inclusivity of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).

Indeed, the current and future maritime plans and processes through which India can translate this statement of intent into tangible reality lie at the core of India’s willingness to be a net security-provider.

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (ret.) retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. An alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

[1] Shiv Shankar Menon; “We Must Now Choose”; lecture on “India’s Changing Geopolitical Environment” at the ‘Changing Asia’ series of Lectures, New Delhi, 23 Jan 2016, available at url: http://www.outlookindia.com/article/we-must-now-choose/296484

 [2] Address by Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, inaugurating the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) Seminar at New Delhi, 14 February, 2008; available at url: http://archivepmo.nic.in/drmanmohansingh/speech-details.php?nodeid=633

 [3] Alberto Ades, (Goldman, Sachs & Co) and Hak B Chua (Malaysian Management Institute); “Thy Neighbour’s Curse: Regional Instability and Economic Growth”.  JSTOR: Journal of Economic Growth, Vol 2, No 3, (Sep. 97), pp 279-304; available at url:   http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40215960?uid=3738256&uid=2134&uid=2483820223&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=2483820213&uid=60&sid=21104638501903

[4] Ari Aisen and Francisco Veiga; “How Does Political Instability Affect Economic Growth?”; IMF (Middle East and Central Asia Department) Working Paper, January 2011.

[5] Hak B Chua; “Regional Spillovers and Economic Growth“.  Yale University, Economic Growth Center, September 1993

[6] Zoltan Merszei; speech at the Empire Club of Canada on 16 February, 1978; available at url: http://speeches.empireclub.org/61635/data?n=2 (accessed on 18 May 2014)

 [7] http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/financial-risk.html (accessed on 18 May 214)

[8] http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWDRS/Resources/WDR2011_Full_Text.pdf (accessed on 18 May 214)

[9] Dr Robert Gates; “America’s security role in the Asia–Pacific”; The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue: 14th Asia Security Summit; 30 May 2009; available at url: http://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri%20la%20dialogue/archive/shangri-la-dialogue-2009-99ea/first-plenary-session-5080/dr-robert-gates-6609 (accessed on 07 August 2015)

[10]Quadrennial Defense Review Report”, Department of Defense, United States of America; February 2010; p.60

[11] Press Information Bureau, Government Of India (Prime Minister’s Office); “PM’s speech at the Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony for the Indian National Defence University at Gurgaon”, 23-May, 2013; available at url: http://pib.nic.in/newsite/mbErel.aspx?relid=96146 (accessed on 07 August 2015)

[12]  Shivshankar Menon; “India in the 21st century World”; Address at the Indian Association of Foreign Affairs Correspondents (IAFAC); 13 February 2014; available at url: http://www.irgamag.com/resources/interviews-documents/item/7409-india-in-the-21st-century-world (accessed on 10 Aug 15)

 [13] In April 1968, the then Minister of state for External Affairs, Mr B R Bhagat, told the Indian Parliament:  “… If we dispersed our efforts and took on responsibilities that we are not capable of shouldering, it would not only weaken our own defence but would create a false sense of security and might even provoke a greater tension in this area.”

 [14] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); “Human Development Report, 1994”; Oxford University Press, 1994;  available at url: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/255/hdr_1994_en_complete_nostats.pdf (accessed on 08 August 2015)

See also:

Oscar A Gómez and Des Gasper;  “Human Security”; United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report Office, available at url: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/human_security_guidance_note_r-nhdrs.pdf (accessed on 08 August 2015)

 [15] UNDP “Human Development Report, 1994”, Op Cit; p. 24

 [16] David King, Daniel Schrag, Zhou Dadi, Qi Ye and Arunabha Ghosh; Report on “Climate Change: A Risk Assessment”, Ed. James Hynard and Tom Rodger; Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) [University of Cambridge, UK], Commissioned by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office; p. 120

[17] ISIL: Islamic State of Syria in the Levant = ISIS: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also sometimes expanded to Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham) = Daesh (an Arabic acronym formed from the initial letters of the group’s previous name in Arabic: “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa al-Sham”, where ‘al-Sham’ was commonly used during the rule of the Muslim Caliphs from the 7th Century to describe the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, Anatolia [in present day Turkey] and Egypt).

See:  Faisal Irshaid; “ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh? One Group, Many Names”; BBC Monitoring, 02 December 2015; available at url: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27994277

[18] Hoerling et al. (2012); “On the Increased Frequency of Mediterranean Drought”, Journal of the American Meteorological Society; (See also NOAA [ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] Press Release “NOAA Study: Human-caused Climate Change a Major Factor in More Frequent Mediterranean Droughts”’ October 27, 2011; available at url: http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2011/20111027_drought.html

[19] CP Kelley, Shahrzad M Mohtadi, MA Cane, R Seager and Y Kushnir (2015); “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought”; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 11, pp. 3241-3246

[20] F Femia and C Werrell; ‘Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest”; The Center for Climate and Security; available at url: http://climateandsecurity.org/2012/02/29/syria-climate-change-drought-and-social-unrest/  

 [21] Chapter 13 of ‘Working Group 1’ Contribution to the 5th IPCC Report; available at url: https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_Chapter13_FINAL.pdf 

Understanding Sino-Indian Relations – A Theoretical Perspective

India’s Role in the Asia-Pacific Topic Week

By Byron Chong

Sino-Indian relations have become increasingly complex in the last few years. Though bilateral trade and cooperation has been growing, relations have been increasingly strained by mutual suspicion and intermittent disputes. Given the huge influence the two Asian giants have over the global strategic environment, a key question that arises will be whether they can maintain a stable relationship amidst their growing distrust.

This paper will analyse their relationship through the perspectives of the three major international relations (IR) theories of realism, liberalism, and constructivism and will be split into two parts. The first will describe the main factors that influence bilateral relations. The second will analyse these factors using the three main IR theories as mentioned. The analysis will show that Sino-Indian relations reflect a peculiar kind of stability: although their relationship will continue to be marked by distrust and intermittent disputes, the risk of escalation to war remains unlikely. In general, Sino-Indian relations are influenced by four factors: (1) their history of enmity; (2) strategic competition; (3) nuclear relations; and (4) trade.

History of Enmity

China and India share a number of similarities. Both take pride in their historical past as ancient civilizations and aspire to great power status. Both have nuclear weapons, fast growing economies, and are currently rising powers[1]. Despite their many similarities, their geographical proximity to each other has inevitably created friction.           

Indeed, China and India share a long history of enmity. Between them, they have an ongoing territorial dispute that stretches over 4,057 kilometers. This dispute produced a war in 1962, followed by crises in 1967 and 1986[2]. Throughout the decades, despite repeated attempts to come to an agreement, the demarcation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) remains highly disputed.  

China’s occupation of Tibet since 1950 has been another contentious issue. India’s strategic interests in Tibet as a buffer state led it to support Tibetan rebels fighting Chinese rule in the mid-1950s. The Indian government also allowed the Dalai Lama to form the Tibetan government-in-exile in India to conduct “anti-China activities”[3]. For China, India’s continued support to the Dalai Lama is seen as a sustained attempt to undermine Chinese control over Tibet[4].

The Dalai Lama, left, speaks with the former Gujarat state Chief Minister Narendra Modi during an international seminar on Buddhist Heritage in Vadodara, south of Ahmadabad, India, Friday, Jan.15, 2010.
The Dalai Lama, left, speaks with then Gujarat state Chief Minister Narendra Modi during an international seminar on Buddhist Heritage in Vadodara, south of Ahmadabad, India, Friday, Jan.15, 2010.

Growing disagreements with India eventually pushed China to align itself more closely with Pakistan[5]. It was believed that the two-front threat to India from Pakistan and China would distract India from intervening in Tibet. China has supported Pakistan militarily, first with conventional arms and later with nuclear and missile technology[6]. India’s animosity with Pakistan has produced four wars (1948, 1965, 1971, 1999), repeated border skirmishes, terrorist attacks in India, continued tensions over Kashmir and a wider strategic competition for influence in South Asia[7]. The fact that China continued to support to Pakistan even after a warming of Sino-Indian ties simply perpetuated New Delhi’s distrust of Beijing[8]

Both sides have attempted to repair their relationship with various confidence-building measures (CBMs) like reciprocal state visits, signing of various bilateral agreements, joint military exercises, and strengthening of bilateral trade[9]. However, these CBMs have been undermined by intermittent crises which flare up over the historical disputes including occasional border skirmishes and incursions into each other’s territory[10], the stapling or outright denial of visas to those from the disputed states of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh by Chinese immigration[11], visits by the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh[12], and even alleged Chinese diversion of rivers flowing into India[13].

Strategic Competition

While India and China have previously cooperated on issues like climate change and trade[14], international forums have gradually become a competitive arena for the two, where they have attempted to marginalize or deny access to each other. For instance, in 2008, China tried to oppose the Indo-US deal that would allow the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to trade nuclear materials with India[15]. Similar ‘Chinese’ roadblocks have been encountered by India at the East Asia Summit (EAS), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), Asian Development Bank (ADB), etc. Where India has greater influence, it has similarly tried to restrict Chinese access or influence, such as at the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Mekong Ganges Cooperation (MGC) forums[16].  

Their competition has also expanded into the maritime sphere. In recent years, China has become increasingly dependent on maritime trade with 82% of its oil imports transiting the Indian Ocean (IO) and the Malacca Straits[17]. Protection of its sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in the IO has become a driving force behind China’s plans for a ‘blue water’ navy with greater power projection capabilities. The Chinese navy has also increased its naval activity in the IO with increased port calls at Karachi, Colombo, Chittagong[18] and anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden[19]. Most worryingly, China has been increasing its political and economic relations with India’s neighbours, raising concerns about a “string of pearls” of potential bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar[20].  

This conflicts with India’s aspiration towards strategic leadership in the IO[21]. It sees Chinese presence as an incursion into its strategic backyard and perhaps an attempt at “strategic encirclement”[22]. India has responded in two ways. Firstly, its military has been improving its power projection capabilities with plans to acquire new aircraft carriers, naval aircraft[23], and upgrades to its missile capabilities[24]. Secondly, India has been building strategic and economic partnerships with states in the Western Pacific like Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and most importantly, forging a global partnership with the United States (US). Such agreements have increased India’s presence in East Asia, leading some in Beijing to see this as an attempt to weaken China’s influence in the region and make a ‘counter-encirclement’ attempt[25]. This competitive behaviour in both the international and maritime sphere has led to increased friction and distrust in their relationship.

Such friction has been tempered by a level of restraint on both sides. Despite the many strategic agreements with each other’s neighbours, none of these involve any actual military alliances that may draw them into wider disputes. Both have also resisted deploying a significant naval presence in each other’s strategic sphere, with China limiting its major deployments in the IO to anti-piracy operations, and India avoiding the establishment of a permanent naval presence in the Western Pacific[26].

Nuclear Relations

The nuclear capabilities of both sides demonstrate the existence of mutual hedging strategies. China’s Dongfeng (DF) 31 missiles have the range to hit all parts of India but little of US territory. The basing of medium-range missile systems in Tibet is clearly targeted at India[27].  India in turn, has begun development of an Anti-Missile Defence (AMD) system and longer range missiles such as the Agni-III, which has been called “China-specific”[28].

India's Agmi-III intermediate range ballistic missile.
India’s Agmi-III intermediate range ballistic missile.

While such hedging strategies could potentially drive rapid armament leading to instability, this likelihood is tempered by ‘escalation-resistant’ policies of both sides. Both adhere to minimalist nuclear doctrines, preferring relatively small numbers of weapons and platforms. While China maintains a numerically larger and more sophisticated arsenal, India has not shown any interest in closing this gap. This acceptance of ‘unequal’ capabilities reduces the possibility of an escalatory nuclear arms race[29]. Moreover, despite the intermittent friction in their relationship, none of their disputes have ever had a nuclear element to them[30]


Bilateral economic trade has been growing the last few decades. From a mere US$ 133.5 million in 1988, total trade reached nearly US$ 70 billion in 2014[31]. However, two asymmetries exist within this relationship. Firstly, bilateral trade is less important to Beijing than to New Delhi. Charts 1 and 2 show that while China is India’s top trading partner, their trading volume is only a fraction of the total trade China has with others like the US, South Korea and Japan. Secondly, their bilateral trade has been heavily skewed in China’s favour. Almost 90% of India’s exports to China are low-cost raw materials and iron ore. In contrast, imports from China consist mostly of higher-value finished goods[32]. The result as shown in Chart 3 is a growing trade deficit for India which has become a source of disagreement between the two. India has been pressuring China to import more products in the areas of pharmaceuticals, agricultural produce, energy, etc, and in turn has set high tariffs to protect Indian industries[33]

Chart 1: India’s Foreign Trade in USD Millions (2014)[34]


Chart 2: China’s Foreign Trade in USD Millions (2014)[35]

india foreign trade

Chart 3: India’s Trade with China in USD Millions (2010-2014)[36]

india trade


Characteristics of all three IR theories are reflected in Sino-Indian relations. Realism in general assumes that there is no central power governing the international system. States therefore prioritise self-interest over collective interest and have to accumulate power in order to survive. Such thinking drives states to attain a favourable balance of power and compete for influence. Balancing can consist of internal balancing – building up one’s own power, or external balancing – accumulating power through external relations[37].  Liberalism focuses more on cooperation between states. States that are mutually dependent incur greater political costs in conflicts, and thus choose to pursue peaceful relations. This includes commercial interdependence for trading nations and strategic interdependence for states with nuclear weapons. Participation in international organizations is also believed to promote cooperation, leading to peace. Lastly, constructivism stresses the importance of identities, perceptions, and norms in determining how decisions are made.

For constructivists, the early disputes that marred Sino-Indian relations created a perception of mistrust and hostility. This perception was kept alive and reinforced by the periodical crises arising out of their many unresolved disputes. This situation is further exacerbated by their inescapable geographical proximity and near simultaneous emergence as rising powers. Combining elements of realism and constructivism, it can be argued that competition and friction between the two Asian giants will be inevitable since their common aspiration for great power status would force them to compete for influence, resources, and markets within the same strategic neighbourhood.

This does not mean that war is inevitable. For liberalists, the awesome power of nuclear weapons serves as a major restraint to conflict. Indeed, while crises and even limited conflict has occasionally flared up between past nuclear rivals like US-Soviet Union, India-Pakistan, and China-Soviet Union, caution and restraint was always shown when the danger of escalation loomed[38]. This stability is strengthened when we consider the escalation-resistant nuclear policies of the Sino-Indian nuclear dynamic.

Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a meeting in Xian, Shaanxi province in May 2015.
Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a meeting in Xian, Shaanxi province in May 2015.

This however, has not prevented their strategic competition which has led to mutual balancing strategies seen in international forums and in the maritime sphere. Both India and China have balanced internally by strengthening their military, and also externally by building relations with each other’s neighbours. Again, their behaviour reveals a convergence of realism and constructivism. Firstly, India has shown greater willingness to work with the US – the preeminent superpower – in order to balance China – whom it perceives as the greater threat. This behaviour demonstrates Stephen Walt’s balance of threat thinking[39], as opposed to balance of power. Secondly, both India and China’s mutually balancing behaviour is driven by the fear of each other’s growing power and their own need to accumulate power for security. This creates an action/reaction dynamic known as a security dilemma which is potentially destabilizing as it creates a negative spiral of increasing tensions and perception of insecurity on both sides. 

The security dilemma however, is tempered by policies which seem somewhat inconsistent with realist balancing strategies. First, restraint has been shown in the military-strategic sphere. Both sides have been careful to moderate their actions and avoid getting into strategic agreements that may get them involved in major disputes with each other. Second, is their growing economic interdependence. Such engagement is extremely rare between balancing rivals as it usually leads to dependence of the weaker power upon the stronger[40]. Yet, India has embraced economic trade with China. Thirdly, although they see each other as rivals, their participation in CBMs reveal a genuine interest in strengthening ties.

Their relationship thus reveals an almost paradoxical policy of limited engagement and restrained balancing. What could be the motivation behind such behaviour? Noted political scientist Avery Goldstein provides a clue. He argues that China’s overwhelming imperative since the late 1990s has been to strengthen its economic and military strength while avoiding any external conflict[41]. This “strategy of transition” which is expected to last another thirty to forty years[42], inevitably raises questions about China’s intentions once this transformation is complete.

It is this uncertainty over China’s long-term intentions which has forced India into this two-pronged strategy of engagement and balancing. In the long run, India engages its neighbour both economically and politically to improve ties and hope a friendly China emerges. Simultaneously, India also strengthens its military, preparing itself for the worst case scenario (i.e. internal balancing). It also strengthens ties with China’s neighbours for the purpose of external balancing and to gain access to larger regional trade organizations like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

China’s behaviour mirrors India’s. It pursues engagement since a stable regional environment facilitates the build up of its national strength. China also balances India through internal and external balancing while avoiding overly confrontational behaviour. But while India views bilateral trade through liberalist lenses, China sees it with a realist tinge. Indeed, there have been accusations that China’s trade policies have been designed to weaken her competitors and rivals, which may account for India’s large trade deficit vis-à-vis China[43].


As the analysis has shown, strands of realism, liberalism, and constructivism are inseparably interwoven into Sino-Indian relations. The central motivation for both state’s behaviour is however, fundamentally realist, undergirded by liberalist and constructivist thinking. The ultimate goal for both sides is the accumulation of power. Trade, international cooperation ,and friendly relations are encouraged since it facilitates this power accumulation. For India, such engagement also increases the chances that a friendly China emerges. In parallel, both states seek to expand their influence into each other’s backyard, as a means to accumulate more power and at the same time, undermine their potential future competitor. But this is done in a cautious manner to avoid destabilising relations which would hinder power acquisition.  

What does this mean for Sino-Indian relations? With both sides focused on accumulating power and avoiding open conflict, one would expect their relationship to be broadly stable. However, the mutual distrust emanating from unresolved historical disputes coupled with their ongoing competition for overlapping spheres of influence makes it inevitable that intermittent crises will occur. These recurring crises will make complete rapprochement difficult, if not impossible.

Yet, these crises are unlikely to result in escalation for two reasons. Firstly, both India and China have demonstrated great discipline in moderating their military-strategic behaviour. Secondly, the mere presence of nuclear weapons encourages even greater caution and serves to minimise the risk of war. The result is thus, a long-run stability punctuated by occasional disputes and crises. While resolution of their rivalry remains improbable, escalation to war is similarly unlikely. In the long-run, the stability of their relationship will depend on how well both states can manage their competitive strategies and resolve their disputes, which in turn will limit the frequency of crises. There is no doubt however, that nuclear weapons will continue to serve as major limiting factor to war even in the future.  

Byron Chong is currently pursuing his Masters in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. A passion for history and international politics drew him to this field of study after his first degree in engineering. His current research interests lie in the strategic and security affairs of the Asia Pacific region.


Basrur, R. “India’s Escalation-Resistant Nuclear Posture.” In Escalation Control and the Nuclear Option in South Asia, edited by Michael Krepon, Rodney W. Jones, and Ziad Haider, 56-74. Washington, DC: Henry Stimson Center, 2004.

Basrur, R. “The Politics of Sri Lanka’s Economic Relations with India.” In International Relations Theory and South Asia, Vol. I, edited by E. Sridharan, 242-259. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Basrur, R. “India and China: Nuclear Rivalry in the Making?” RSIS Policy Brief (2013): pp. 1-8. Accessed April 21, 2016. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/PB131001_India_and_China_Nuclear_Rivalry.pdf

Basrur, R. “Nuclear Deterrence: The Wohlstetter-Blackett Debate Re-visited.” RSIS Working Paper, No. 271 (2014): 1-29. Accessed April 2, 2016. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/rsis-pubs/WP271.pdf

Brewster, D. “Beyond the ‘String of Pearls’: Is there really a Sino-Indian security dilemma in the Indian Ocean?” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 10, No. 2 (2014): 133-149.

Egreteau, R. “The China-India Rivalry Reconceptualized.” Asian Journal of Political Science 20, No. 1 (2012): 1-22.

Frankel, F. R. “The Breakout of China-India Strategic Rivalry in Asia and the Indian Ocean.” Journal of International Affairs 64, No. 2 (2011): 1-17.

Garver, J. W. “The Security Dilemma in Sino-Indian Relations.” India Review 1, No. 4 (2002): 1-38.

Goldstein, A. “An Emerging China’s Emerging Grand Strategy.” In International Relations Theory and the Asia-Pacific, edited by John Ikenberry and Michael Mastanduno, 57–106. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Goldstein, A. Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2005.

India Department of Commerce, “Export Import Data Bank.” Ministry of Commerce and Industry, 2015. Accessed January 21, 2016, http://commerce.nic.in/eidb/iecntq.asp

Jacob, J. T. “India’s China Policy: Time to Overcome Political Drift,” RSIS (2012): 1-8. Accessed January 21, 2016, from RSIS: https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/PB120601_India_China_Policy.pdf

Kumar, V. “India well positioned to become a net provider of security: Manmohan Singh.” The Hindu, May 23, 2013. Accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-well-positioned-to-become-a-net-provider-of-security-manmohan-singh/article4742337.ece

Malik, M. China and India: Great Power Rivals. Boulder, CO: First Forum Press, 2011.

Malone, D. M., and Rohan Mukherjee. “India and China: Conflict and Cooperation.” Survival 52, No. 1 (2010): pp. 137-158.

National Bureau of Statistics of China. 2015. “China Statistical Yearbook – Value of Imports and Exports by Country (Region) of Origin/Destination.” China Statistics Press (2015). Accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/ndsj/2015/indexeh.htm

Panda, A. “India is capable of developing a 10,000-Kilometer range ICBM.” The Diplomat, April 6, 2015. Accessed January 21, 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2015/04/india-is-developing-a-10000-kilometer-range-icbm/

Pandit, R. “China-specific Agni III to be tested today.” The Times of India, May 7, 2008. Accessed January 21, 2016, from: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/China-specific-Agni-III-to-be-tested-today/articleshow/3016689.cms

Scott, D. “Sino-Indian Security Predicaments for the Twenty-First Century.” Asian Security 4, No. 3 (2008): 244-270.

Sitaraman, S. “South Asia: Conflict, Hegemony, and Power Balancing.” In Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons: Why Secondary States, Support, Follow, or Challenge, edited by Kristen P. Williams, Steven E. Lobell, and Neal G. Jesse 177-192. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

US Department of Defence. Annual Report to Congress: Military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China. Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defence, 2012.

Walt, S. W. “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power.” International Security 9, No. 4 (1985): 3-43.

 [1] David. M. Malone and Rohan Mukherjee, “India and China: Conflict and Cooperation,” Survival 52, no. 1 (2010): 137-138.

[2] Rajesh Basrur, “India and China: Nuclear Rivalry in the Making?” RSIS Policy Brief (2013): 3.

[3] John W. Garver, “The Security Dilemma in Sino-Indian Relations,” India Review 1, no. 4 (2002): 6.

[4] ibid.

[5] Malone and Mukherjee, “India and China,” 142.

[6] Mohan Malik, China and India: Great Power Rivals (Boulder, CO: First Forum Press, 2011), 42.

[7] Srinivasan Sitaraman, “South Asia: Conflict, Hegemony, and Power Balancing,” in Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons: Why Secondary States Support, Follow, or Challenge, eds. Kristen P. Williams et al. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 184.

[8] Malik, China and India, 58.

[9] Renaud Egreteau, “The China-India Rivalry Reconceptualized,” Asian Journal of Political Science 20, no. 1 (2012): 9-10.

[10] ibid., 9.

[11] Malone and Mukherjee, “India and China,” 144.

[12] Francine R. Frankel, “The Breakout of China-India Strategic Rivalry in Asia and the Indian Ocean,” Journal of International Affairs 64, no. 2, (2011): 3.

[13] Jabin T. Jacob, “India’s China Policy: Time to Overcome Political Drift,” RSIS (2012): 5, accessed January 21, 2016, RSIS: https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/PB120601_India_China_Policy.pdf

[14] Malik, China and India, 44.

[15] Malik, China and India, 55.

[16] ibid., 46-77.

[17] US Department of Defence. Annual Report to Congress: Military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China. (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defence, 2012), 12.

[18] John W. Garver, “The Security Dilemma in Sino-Indian Relations,” India Review 1, no. 4 (2002): 13-14.

[19] David Brewster, “Beyond the ‘String of Pearls’: Is there really a Sino-Indian security dilemma in the Indian Ocean?” Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 10, no. 2 (2014): 137.

[20] Garver, “Security Dilemma,” 5.

[21] Vinay Kumar, “India well positioned to become a net provider of security: Manmohan Singh,” The Hindu, May 23, 2013,  accessed January 21, 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-well-positioned-to-become-a-net-provider-of-security-manmohan-singh/article4742337.ece

[22] Garver, “Security Dilemma,” 6.

[23] Brewster, “String of Pearls,” 135.

[24] Ankit Panda, “India is capable of developing a 10,000-Kilometer range ICBM,” The Diplomat, April 6, 2015, accessed January 21, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2015/04/india-is-developing-a-10000-kilometer-range-icbm/

[25] David Scott, “Sino-Indian Security Predicaments for the Twenty-First Century,” Asian Security 4, no. 3 (2008): 259.

[26] Brewster, “String of Pearls,” 146.

[27] Scott, “Security Predicaments,” 254.

[28] Rajat Pandit, “China-specific Agni III to be tested today,” The Times of India, May 7, 2008, accessed January 21, 2016, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/China-specific-Agni-III-to-be-tested-today/articleshow/3016689.cms

[29] Rajesh Basrur, “India’s Escalation-Resistant Nuclear Posture,” in Escalation Control and the Nuclear Option in South Asia, ed. Michael Krepon, et al. (Washington, DC: Henry Stimson Center, 2004), 57.

[30] Rajesh Basrur, “India and China: Nuclear Rivalry in the Making?” RSIS Policy Brief (2013): 7, accessed April 21, 2016, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/PB131001_India_and_China_Nuclear_Rivalry.pdf

[31] India Department of Commerce, “Export Import Data Bank,” Ministry of Commerce and Industry, 2015, accessed January 21, 2016, http://commerce.nic.in/eidb/iecntq.asp

[32] National Bureau of Statistics of China, “China Statistical Yearbook – Value of Imports and Exports by Country (Region) of Origin/Destination,” China Statistics Press, 2015 accessed January 21, 2016, http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/ndsj/2015/indexeh.htm

[33] India Department of Commerce, “Export Import Data Bank.”

[34] ibid.

[35] Malik, China and India, 46.

[36] ibid.

[37] Scott, “Security Predicaments,” 247.

[38] Rajesh Basrur, “Nuclear Deterrence: The Wohlstetter-Blackett Debate Re-visited,” RSIS Working Paper, no. 271 (2014): 15, accessed April 2, 2016, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/rsis-pubs/WP271.pdf

[39] Stephen M. Walt, “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power,” International Security 9, no. 4 (1985).

[40] Rajesh Basrur, “The Politics of Sri Lanka’s Economic Relations with India,” in International Relations Theory and South Asia Vol. I, ed. E. Sridharan, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011), 244.

[41] Avery Goldstein, “An Emerging China’s Emerging Grand Strategy,” in International Relations Theory and the Asia-Pacific, eds. John Ikenberry and Michael Mastanduno. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 60.

[42] Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 38.

[43] Malik, China and India, 57.

Featured Image: Chinese and Indian border troops stand together at border crossing.

Modi’s Asia-Pacific Push

India’s Role in the Asia-Pacific Topic Week

By Vivek Mishra

The Modi government’s strongly maritime oriented foreign policy launched in 2014 has proven somewhat rewarding, particularly in helping the Indian Navy transcend its image of a force that punches below its weight. The politico-strategic recalibration by India in its Asia-Pacific policy has sought to retool its mid-1990s Look East policy with more purpose. The Act East Policy announced in November 2014 intends to counterweigh its desire to improve relations with ASEAN countries on one hand and increase India’s strategic regional footprints in the Asia-Pacific on the other.

India’s new Asia-Pacific policy has been the result of its ever increasing economic, political, and military stakes in the region. It was a rare moment in this regard when India became a Full Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in 1995 and a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. India’s Asia-Pacific push further manifested in 2010 when the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AIFTA) came into effect in January 2010 with regard to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The economic component of India’s Asia-Pacific policy is pivoted around India-ASEAN trade which reached stood at $76.52 billion in 2014 and is expected to cross $100 billion in the future.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi with other leaders in the family photo during the 13th ASEAN-India Summit, in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia on November 21, 2015.
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi with other leaders in the family photo during the 13th ASEAN-India Summit, in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia on November 21, 2015.

Modi and the Asia-Pacific

Prime Minister Modi’s Act East policy, launched within months of his assuming office in May 2014, was an effort to coalesce India’s economic goals with its strategic determinations in the Asia-Pacific. In this regard, India expected to leverage its partnerships not just with the countries of Southeast Asia but Japan, Australia, and the US in advancing its evolving interests in the Asia-Pacific region. One of such evolutionary interests has been India’s changed stance on the South China Sea (SCS); transitioning from a combination of indifference and apprehension to clarity. This was put across by none other than Prime Minister Modi himself at the ASEAN-India Summit in November 2015 when he brought up the disputes in the SCS and conveyed India’s expectations on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS. By evoking the Code of Conduct in the Asia-Pacific Maritime domain Modi also depicted India’s resonance with other countries sharing its apprehensions in the region like the US, Philippines, Vietnam and Japan.

These policy enunciations by India were buttressed by actions that sought to advance its interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Within six months of coming to power the Modi government offered a $300 million credit line to Vietnam for trade diversification. The trade diversification grant was also understood as India’s push for diminishing Vietnam’s trade dependence on China and a simultaneous increase in the country’s expenditure in India’s flagship Make in India initiative. The line of credit complimented an earlier credit of $100 million in the preceding month to help Vietnam in defense procurement and the modernization of its armed forces, including submarine training. This investment was specifically directed towards procurement of four offshore patrol vessels that are anticipated to patrol Vietnam’s littoral besides the Indo-Pacific.

The Union Minister for Defence, Shri Manohar Parrikar and the Minister of National Defence of Vietnam, General Phung Quang Thanh signing a joint vision statement on Defence Cooperation in Progress, in New Delhi on May 26, 2015.
The Union Minister for Defence, Shri Manohar Parrikar and the Minister of National Defence of Vietnam, General Phung Quang Thanh signing a joint vision statement on Defence Cooperation in Progress, in New Delhi on May 26, 2015.

India’s increased focus on the Indo-Pacific has also been a result of its recent policy tweaks. Its increasing cooperation with countries of Southeast Asia, Japan Australia, and the US in this region stands as testimony of the same. The Indian Prime Minister’s personal connection with the Japanese leader is often synonymous with a unified Asian nationalism symbolised by the ethos of a common “world of Narendra Abe.” While the two leaders’ connection lends currency to the possibility of India’s increased role in the Asia-Pacific, it also feeds of the potential of an anti-China coalition in Asia. Japan has been included in the annual MALABAR series of naval exercises as a permanent member despite Chinese oppositions. The focus of 2015 trilateral MALABAR exercise; destroying hostile submarines, surface warships and aircraft, caused significant angst in Beijing. The strategic rivalry in the maritime domain is a reality between India and China. Even as India continues to push for strong and better relations with the countries of the Asia-Pacific, such pursuits cannot be detached from an anti-China criticism. For instance, the anti-submarine focus of the AUSINDEX 15 exercise was seen as a developing response by both India and Australia to China’s submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean.

The year 2015 was also crucial for India’s Asia-Pacific policy as an important break came in India-Australia strategic cooperation. India and Australia conducted their first bilateral naval exercise, the aforementioned AUSINDEX 15, focused on anti-submarine warfare. While Australia sent its Lockheed Martin P-3 anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft, India employed its Boeing P-8 long-range anti-submarine aircraft. Besides building on the Framework for Security Co-operation announced by the Australian and Indian Prime Ministers in 2014, AUSINDEX showed a bilateral willingness to deepening defense cooperation in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. The desire to attain better navy-to-navy relations and to attain a high level of interoperability between the two navies suggests an interest mutual cooperation between the two countries in the Indian Ocean, Indo-Pacific and the larger Asia-Pacific region.

Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead, Head Navy Capability Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and Rear Admiral AB Singh, Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet along with Commanding Officers participating ships and submarine of HMAS Sirius, HMAS Arunta, HMAS Sheean, INS Shivalik, INS Ranvijay and INS Shakti during AUSINDEX-15. Source: Indian Navy

Besides partnerships with some of the bigger countries in the Asia-Pacific, India has also focused on smaller countries. Brunei, a small but crucial country locked in territorial dispute with China, figured in India’s latest Asia-Pacific calculus. The Modi government’s outreach to the small nation resulted in some important agreements between the two nations. Both the countries signed a defense MoU that includes four major areas: exchange of visits at different levels; exchange of experience, information, and training; conduct of joint military exercises, seminars and discussions; and cooperation between defense industries. Especially, naval ship visits from each country and training of armed forces were steps aimed at expanding India’s strategic footprints in the Asia-Pacific.

India’s Cooperation with the US in the Asia-Pacific

India’s Asia-Pacific policy is hinged on its policies in the Indian Ocean and importantly, on its concerns with policies in the overlapping maritime region, the Indo-Pacific. India’s increasing focus on the Indo-Pacific together with its recalibrated Indian Ocean focus has given credence to the thought that India might be actively considering expanding its patrols in the Asia-Pacific region. Recent speculations about Indo-US joint patrols in the SCS, although debunked, constitutes a possible reality in the pipeline. This exercise, however realistic an assumption, is most likely to be a joint exercise with other countries. Most notably, this prospect is associated with the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” signed during President Obama’s visit to India January 2015. The document, in highlighting common grounds for the countries on issues of freedom in navigation and overflight vis-a-vis the South China Sea, was a first in the direction of fostering cooperation between the world’s oldest and largest democracies in the Asia-Pacific maritime domain. This sentiment was reiterated by both the countries in the latest joint statement between the US Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter and India’s Defense Minister, Manohar Parrikar. Ashton Carter’s three day visit was an effort toward materializing the possibility of increasing India’s Asia-Pacific role. Interestingly, this visit was preceded by an assertion in New Delhi by Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr, chief of the Pacific Command, that called for both the US and India to be “ambitious together.” He also pointed out the Indo-Pacific as the strategic intersection of India’s Act East policy and the US’ rebalance strategy.

Even as the US continues to push for a strong relationship with India in the defense sector, many of the implications of the bilateral relationship are being played out in the maritime domain. The waning sheen of the US’ rebalance strategy has forced the US to think of alternative ideas to prop up the rebalance’s ability in shaping the future geostrategy of the Asia-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean have emerged as the south-west leg of  the US’ rebalance strategy to manage China, amidst an environment that is being increasingly characterized by a diminishing mutuality in relations between the US and its non-NATO alliance partners in the Asia-Pacific.

India’s Mandate for the Asia-Pacific

As India evolves as a regional power and a global economy, there is a commensurate change in its role. India is now willing to don the role of a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region. India’s anticipated role in the Asia-Pacific derives its political and ethical mandate from a need to ensure freedom of navigation in the region, even as an unprecedented rise in trade transit through the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific is taking place. Between 1992 and 2012, the average number of ships in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea jumped by over 300 per cent. Non traditional threats in the region like terrorism and piracy significantly factor in that assessment. The other reason is the imminent threat that emerges from the possibility of maritime area denial by China, especially in the Strait of Malacca. Albeit easily deniable, a somewhat less openly talked reason is New Delhi’s increasing ability to respond to Beijing’s access to the Indian Ocean, at least in posturing if not otherwise.

This idea of commensurate maritime state response from India is intrinsically linked to the Great Game that is being played in the Asian maritime theatre between the US, India, Japan, Australia, and China. The Asia-Pacific region figures crucially by a natural extension of India’s Great Game.

Vivek Mishra is a Fulbright visiting scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, from August 2015 through May 2016. Originally from India, he is a PhD candidate in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Vivek is writing his PhD thesis on “American Maritime Strategy in the Indian Ocean in the Post-Cold War Era, 1990-2012.” Specifically, his research involves analyzing the evolution of the US naval presence in the Indian Ocean; the American strategy in the Indian Ocean in the Post-Cold War Era; the US naval relations with key regional navies like India, China, Australia and Pakistan; and the role of the US in tackling non-traditional security threats like piracy and terrorism. 

Featured Image: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Evaristo Sa/Getty Images)