Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become the first Indian leader to deliver the prestigious keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a conference which annually brings together defence ministers, military chiefs and strategists from across the Indo-Pacific region in Singapore.
Modi was previously invited in 2015. But after the denunciations of China’s role in the South China Sea by Vietnam’s Nguyen Tan Dung and Japan’s Shinzo Abe in their 2013 and 2014 keynote addresses, respectively, Modi demurred. Now, with relations in the South China Sea on a more even keel and with an important corner turned in China-India relations recently, Modi was more forthcoming.
In his address, Modi articulated a vision of India’s role as a stabilising force in an Indo-Pacific regional order currently in flux. Neither New Delhi’s vision nor its role and its underlying “Act East” policy is particularly novel. On the contrary, they are of a piece with India’s outreach to its east since the end of the cold war.
Exactly 20 years earlier – and barely four months removed from India’s May 1998 nuclear tests – then-foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, observed in a Foreign Affairs article that India, in testing its nuclear devices, had “acted in a timely fashion to correct an imbalance and fill a potentially dangerous vacuum” in the emerging Asian balance of power. Long before the concept of the Indo-Pacific was a twinkle in the eyes of strategists, he projected India’s emerging role in the Indian Ocean region and in Asia more broadly.
A decade-and-a-half later, India’s then-national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, outlined New Delhi’s enduring principles of order in Indo-Pacific geopolitics. Such an order, he noted, ought to be inclusive, comprising all powers – regional and extra-regional – relevant to the practice of Asia’s security. Its geographic scope ought to be extensive, extending from Suez to the Pacific and seamlessly enfolding the maritime periphery with the rising continental core.
Its security structure ought to be plural and open-ended, having learned its lesson from history of collective security arrangements gone sour (notably SEATO and CENTO in the early days of the cold war).
Finally, the regional order’s institutional mechanisms ought to be consultative and non-prescriptive, respectful of the region’s preference for consensus-based approaches to problem solving, and centred in that crossroads of Asian inter-civilisational interaction, Southeast Asia.
The prescience of Singh’s vision, the sweep of Menon’s conception and the resolve of Modi’s words form an unbroken thread that reflects India’s basic foreign policy strategy in the Indo-Pacific region and provides key insight regarding its future contributions.
India will be an enabling power, seeking to establish a loose understanding of principles and practices related to the core issues of the region’s international relations, such that power is exercised in a spirit of self-restraint by its dominant entities. India will also be an engaged power, and will hope to frame its rise in consonance with the greater Asian region as a whole.
India will be a pluralistic power, facilitating the involvement of the widest spectrum of participants in the region’s endeavours, by and large downgrading the role of exclusivist minilateral constructs that smack of bloc-based politics and military alignment.
Finally, India will be a stabilising power, prepared to use its security capabilities to help resist revisionism to the status quo and thereby maintain a more stable equilibrium – a key national interest in the Indo-Pacific region.
That said, the “Indo” and the “Pacific” are not created equal in the ordering of New Delhi’s security interests. East of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, these interests remain decidedly secondary. A wide-angled view of India’s diplomatic approaches and operational activities in that important waterway – the South China Sea – which links the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean affords useful insights in this regard.
In January 2015, Modi and then US president Barack Obama issued a landmark Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, which explicitly referenced the South China Sea and called upon all parties to ensure freedom of navigation and resolve disputes according to universally recognised principles of international law, notably UNCLOS.
By July 2016, following the South China Sea arbitration award in favour of the Philippines, India had conspicuously separated itself from the common US-Japan-Australia position calling on China to mandatorily abide by the decision. When Abe, an established China antagonist, visited New Delhi for the annual bilateral summit that year, India bent him to its will in the semantic formulation on the arbitration award that prevailed in their joint statement.
No navigational patrols have been conducted either by the Indian Navy in the South China Sea, in a joint or independent capacity. As a matter of policy, the navy conducts coordinated patrols at best – and that too only with maritime neighbours, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar.
As for its independent defence cooperation activities with the claimant states in the South China Sea, it is instructive to note what New Delhi has not provided or conducted. It has not sold offensive weapon systems to a South China Sea littoral state (despite long-standing ties with Vietnam). It has not deployed its vessels to this contested waterway to defend its economic interests. It has not laid out an operational doctrine to defend sealines of communication east of Malacca. And until earlier last month (when it conducted a maiden exercise with Vietnam), it had not engaged in a naval exercise – high-intensity or otherwise – with a South China Sea claimant state.
By contrast, in its core Indian Ocean area of interest, the Indian Navy and its political masters have been on a veritable tear, signing a spate of mutual logistics supply and reciprocal berthing agreements. From Djibouti and Reunion to Seychelles and Mauritius to Duqm (Oman) and Diego Garcia to Singapore and Denpasar (Indonesia), the Modi government has been busy stitching up its own “string of pearls” in this crucial thoroughfare.
At the end of the day, many of the same questions that abounded 20 years earlier about India’s strategic orientation and future role in the Indo-Pacific region will continue to ring into the future.
Will India seek to diplomatically forge a broad range of strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific while maximising its leverage by not aligning with any particular state or group of states? Or will it develop a preferred partnership with a select power or set of powers? Will India serve as an ‘external’ balancer in the region? Or will it, with a Machiavellian realism, contrive to lend its decisive weight to the winning side on the immediate regional challenge of the day?
Will India seek to forge a ‘natural alliance’ of democratic states along the Indo-Pacific periphery, framed in conscious distinction to China and its regional interests? Or will it seek to articulate an alternate Asian model of international relations that is keyed to regional tradition and historical circumstance?
India’s leaders from Jaswant Singh to Narendra Modi have displayed a consistent grasp of the country’s strategic purposes in the Indo-Pacific region, despite the breadth and depth of these questions. Observing and carefully tracking India’s actions, both, at the table of diplomacy and on the ground and at sea, will provide the most enduring clues to New Delhi’s own vision of its role in this Asian and Indo-Pacific Century.