India’s overtures to the US and Japan demonstrate its post-Doklam ambitions
Prateek Joshi says India has grown more assertive in forging foreign policy deals since the resolution of the dispute with China, reaching out to Washington and Tokyo
Almost a month after the Sino-Indian tensions over the Doklam plateau ended with mutual disengagement, a string of aggressive diplomatic engagements by New Delhi have had distinctly China-centric undertones. During the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India earlier this month, both nations pledged to embark on an alternative geo-economic vision in response to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and resolved to strengthen their footprint in the Indo-Pacific region. US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis then visited New Delhi on September 25, the first visit to the nation by a cabinet-level official from President Donald Trump’s administration.
While Mattis’ visit comes amid the announcement of Trump’s South Asia policy and charts a vision for US-India cooperation in Afghanistan, the China dimension looms large, evident in the Pentagon’s statement outlining Mattis’ agenda, stating that “the secretary will emphasise that the United States views India as a valued and influential partner, with broad mutual interests extending well beyond South Asia”.
The signs are that, since the Doklam disengagement, Beijing has altered its stance towards New Delhi, a departure from the hostility throughout 2016, according to Indian strategists. From repeatedly blocking India’s Nuclear Supplier’s Group bid and stifling its attempts to ban the jihadist separatist leader Masood Azhar under UN sanctions, bilateral relations reached a new low in 2016, ending with India successfully testing the mobile version of the Agni-V missile amid speculation that the test was specifically to deter China.
New Delhi’s refusal to endorse the “Belt and Road Initiative” (denying China a market of 1.3 billion consumers), the announcement of Asia-Africa Growth Corridor – spearheaded by India, Japan and Asean – and India’s belief that it successfully stood up to China’s pressure in Doklam, are believed to have prompted a course correction by Beijing. The key to New Delhi’s boosted confidence lies in the condemnation of Pakistan-based terrorist outfits in the recent BRICs Xiamen declaration, which has even India’s hawkish strategists believing that a change – even if notional – is visible on Beijing’s part.
Simultaneously, the Indo-US-Japan strategic grouping shows signs of going beyond mere ideas. The reintroduction of Japan into the Malabar exercises last year, after a decade-long hiatus, the visit of the US ambassador to Tawang (which China claims as a part of southern Tibet) and India’s elevation as a “major defence partner” of the US allude to an emerging security grouping.
Over the past decade, the Indo-Pacific theatre has gained significance in India’s regional ambitions. Conscious of its limitations, New Delhi has been swift in reaching out to Washington, realising the need of assistance in standing up to Beijing. Its manifesto, the “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region”, unveiled in 2015, set the stage for institutionalising bilateral efforts to strengthen defence and economic ties with regional players, particularly Japan.
In this context Mattis, in his joint statement with the Indian defence minister, said Washington “appreciate[s] India’s leadership in the Indian Ocean and seek[s] to work together to build a resilient regional architecture”. Mattis, however, left many guessing, since it was expected that his visit would see breakthroughs on big ticket deals, including the supply of Sea Guardian drones to the Indian Navy and a deal on manufacturing Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter planes.
What is clear for now is that, as a response to China’s rising profile, New Delhi appears to be seriously considering making its rebalancing process more visible and coherent, even though any overt references to China have been deliberately avoided.
Prateek Joshi is a researcher on Asia’s geostrategic issues