To safeguard its strategic interests from the US-China tussle, India must emphasise cooperation and a rules-based order, Niranjan Marjani writes.
Competition for strategic space in the Indo-Pacific has intensified in recent weeks. With the US and China engaged in attempts to expand their respective spheres of influence, the region is being pushed towards instability.
On 31 July, the US, Australia, and Japan agreed to invest in infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China. A few days later, the US pledged to invest an additional $300 million for the security of the Indo-Pacific.
Consequently, the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China held a meeting in Singapore on 2 August. They agreed to a draft that would serve as a basis for future negotiations to resolve any potential disputes between Southeast Asian countries and China.
In the days following, the navies of China and the ASEAN countries held a computer-simulated drill at Singapore’s Changi naval base. All 11 navies agreed to hold field maritime exercises in October later this year in order to build trust and resolve disputes concerning the South China Sea.
These developments cast a shadow over India’s strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific. India has opted not to join the initiative by the US, Japan, and Australia. Given that India is proposing a multi-polar system and a rules-based order, it is important to assess this goal in light of the competition between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific.
Although the Indo-Pacific concept was arguably conceived as a counterbalance to China, the current unpredictability in US foreign policy is threatening to destabilise the alliance between the US, Japan, and Australia. Donald Trump’s change of direction with respect to North Korea and Russia has led allies to doubt America’s commitment. His falling out with the European Union over contributions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) could also be considered an attempt to reshape the order of the military alliance.
It is not yet clear exactly how the US, Japan, and Australia will cooperate in the Indo-Pacific against China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The question remains whether the US will be a stable partner if any institutional arrangement takes shape.
Meanwhile, the militarisation of the South China Sea by China is a major area of concern for both regional and global powers. Although China defends its militarisation as an act of self defence against the US, it creates challenges for India’s strategic outreach to the Indo-Pacific.
Beijing has described the ASEAN-China negotiations for a South China Sea code of conduct as a long process for which no timetable could be set. Following China’s assertion, Singapore has called for a resolution of disputes by the rule of law and the acting Chief Justice of Philippines has said that the Philippines and its neighbours should jointly patrol the South China Sea.
In 2016, China rejected a judgment given by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled against China’s territorial claims. China’s continuing strategic assertion is unlikely to resolve its dispute with Southeast Asian countries. Additionally, a more confrontational stance against the US would not only destabilise the South China Sea but also the wider Indo-Pacific.
For India, a strong institutional structure is one of the basic requirements for its assertion of multilateralism and a rules-based order. India’s concept of multi-polar order is based on the premise that any arrangement must not be directed against any particular country. At present, the actions of both the US and China are not only polarising but are also directed towards undermining the institutions of global order.
Strategically, New Delhi stands to lose in the power play between the US and China, as India has deep economic engagements with both.
By not joining the US, Japan, and Australia, India is choosing to retain its autonomy. But India must not allow the rivalry between the US and China to affect its own strategic interests. India should look to cooperate with Middle Powers such as South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia. These alliances could be the first steps to multilateralism and a rules-based order.