Despite the cordial meetings between PM Modi and President Xi’s and their photo ops on the sidelines of the BRICS and SCO summits, India has been drawing the red line with China on its concerns. Official briefings have disclosed clear communiques from India on the issue of China blocking India’s move in the United Nations to question Pakistan on the release of 26/11 attack mastermind Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi as well as China’s economic corridor in PoK.
Only last month the news of Chinese submarines docking in Karachi, had rattled New Delhi. Almost a deja-vu reaction to the Chinese subs making an appearance in Sri Lanka last year. China’s statements that the Indian Ocean is not India’s backyard have only added to Indian anxiety. Not surprisingly, visits in June with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who arrived at an Indian naval base, followed by a trilateral with Australia and Japan on regional security issues have focused on adventurism in the Indian Ocean Region and aggression in the South China Sea.
There is a growing clamor for India to take up the role of a regional security provider in Asia in the wake of what is being termed as Chinese expansionism. Its was not surprising that both -the renewed India – US Defense Framework Agreement and trilateral discussions, put a strong emphasis on maritime security, and strengthening of India’s defense capabilities to fulfill this ambition. It is a role that India is eager to take up but, in reality, has a long way to go to achieve in terms of resources and capacity.
PM Modi’s administration has succeeded in renewing expectations from India, with his first year in office dedicated to revamping the look east policy to act east. The fundamental shift is India’s willingness to work with the U.S. and Asia-Pacific countries on regional security coalitions and shedding of timidity to call China out.
However, while New Delhi has walked the tightrope to ensure that its strategic choices are not perceived as binary (between the US and China), it is imperative to underline that India’s resource build up is still a work in progress and jumping the gun in terms of expectations will not bode well for India’s long term vision.
So , beyond the hype it is important to assess how India conceptualizes its own role in Asian security. What roles does it envisage for itself ? The answer perhaps lies in understanding the larger blueprint within which India is calibrating its strategy.
Conceptually, India’s strategic approach has been rooted in three broad trends : One, revitalizing India’s strategic partnerships with major powers and being recognized as an able contributor to Asian security. Two, reclaiming the south Asian neighborhood to boost India’s role as a regional power. And three, a renewed thrust on economic diplomacy independent of strategic compulsions.
No longer wanting to sit on the fence, India is looking to play a role in shaping the regional architecture, by increasing economic integration,
(ASEAN, EAS, RCEP etc), building strategic partnerships and deepening defense cooperation (US, Japan, Vietnam, ASEAN, Australia) with a special emphasis on maritime security. But is all of this easier said than done?
Realistically, the grand posturing aside, this is a tall order considering the challenges India faces. For one, many a skeptic will tell you that if India can’t even manage its own neighborhood how can it claim to extend its influence in the Asia Pacific?
An uneasy neighborhood with constant complaints of neglect and lack of leadership from India have been an open secret. Despite PM Modi’s recent efforts, Chinese entrenchment in South Asia – from the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative to the deepening military ties, is a glaring reality. While this is no zero game of influence, reclaiming the neighborhood would be a pre-requisite to India’s ambitions of a larger role in the great game for Asia. This is no easy task.
A re-energized look east policy, can only take off if the gaping lacuna in the development of North East India and almost absent physical connectivity with East Asia are fixed. A reputation of slow delivery on projects and the mismatch of political aspirations and resource capacity to deliver are hard truths India has to face up to. The ‘Make in India’ campaign is looking to reverse this but the plans will need time to fructify.
Even the much celebrated relationship with the US has fallen victim in the past to a lack of momentum and strategic mistrust. Maintaining robust Indo-US ties is imperative to give India a foot in the door of Asian geopolitics. Joint collaborations in defense and technology have to really come through for India to live up to the hype. Till then expectations will only burden India.
As India gradually rises to its role as a regional balancer in Asia, it is important for India to tell the world to give it time to set its own house in order. New Delhi still has a long way to go in assuring these states of its reliability, not only as an economic and political partner but also as a provider of regional security. The political will is clear, it is time for the commitments to come through. Till then managing China, while building up India’s capacity is the way forward. The hype can wait.
|Author | Shruti Pandalai (The author is a Research Analyst & OSD Outreach with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. She can be reached at email@example.com)|