In early June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to address the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. High level Indian guests have so far stayed away from Asia’s premier defence related summit promoted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies or IISS of UK.
Given the nature of the meeting and its location, Modi will not miss the opportunity to detail India’s perspectives on the Indo-Pacific region. Our partners in the revitalised Quadrilateral grouping – the US, Australia and Japan – are always a strong presence at the Shangri-La Dialogue, using it as a sounding board for ideas and policies.
At the 2016 Dialogue, US defence secretary Ashton Carter outlined the “principled security networks” that the US was seeking to create in the Asia-Pacific region to promote a “rules based international order”. The mechanisms envisaged were US-led trilateral and bilateral military relationships which would hem in China as it sought to expand its writ in the region.
In recent months, the Trump administration, which walked out of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has articulated its nascent strategy. It has taken ownership of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific and thereby stretched the US strategic perspective by pointedly introducing the Indian Ocean into it. When looked at from the former Asia-Pacific formulation, China loomed large; now, in the Indo-Pacific, it looks somewhat smaller since India is in the equation. At present, this is at a conceptual level and it remains to be seen how the new US National Security Strategy, expected to be released soon, will flesh it out.
Some aspects of this have been visible in secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s attack on China for its “predatory economics” and his call for “transparent, high standard regional lending mechanisms” to save smaller regional states from the debt trap of Chinese financing.
Many critics say that the differences between the Obama-era ‘pivot to Asia’ and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ formulation are minor from the military point of view. By walking out of TPP, the US has actually kicked away the trade, finance and investment leg of any Indo-Pacific strategy.
Militarily, the US-led Quad is way ahead of China. What are needed are alternative financing mechanisms to add muscle to the principled security networks. Here Japan and the US have to play a key role. Tokyo already has a big Official Development Assistance programme. It is the US that needs to come up with new ideas. Perhaps, to reinvent the World Bank and its old instrumentalities like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the ExIm Bank to leverage its huge private sector resources.
Just how will Modi play these issues? Clearly, the time has come for India to bat. For too long India has been the tea boy in the match. By his temperament, Modi is a front-foot player who changed the nomenclature of India’s old policy towards the region from Look East to Act East. But there is a question as to what India can bring to the game.
India has long aspired to play the role of a big power and hasn’t done too badly, considering it didn’t have much but ideas and rhetoric to offer. For the past decade, New Delhi has been free-riding on Uncle Sam’s back, but the Trump administration is not quite built that way and will want New Delhi to play a tangible role in its policy.
But perhaps we should not worry too much. Look carefully and you will see that ideas championed by Indians form a significant component of the new American policy. It was foreign secretary S Jaishankar who first raised the warning signals on the nature of China’s Belt and Road Initiative’s financing. New Delhi’s boycott of the BRI Forum underscored this. Though it is the Japanese who have pushed the Indo-Pacific concept, strategic analyst C Raja Mohan has been fleshing it out since 2007.
No doubt, by the time Modi takes the bat, he will be well coached. Hopefully, he will fill the large gaps that remain in the Indo-Pacific vision envisaged by the Trump team and keep his focus on this country’s interests which also need to ensure that the ‘Indo’ part of the formulation does not get ignored, as it is currently.
This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.