One year after his famous “America is back” speech, US President Joe Biden has unveiled his Indo-Pacific policy. The 12-page fact sheet on Indo-Pacific vision released by the White House promises to intensify the United States’ focus on the region with a strong India as a partner. The reason for this sudden love, respect and awe for India is mentioned in the document – “mounting challenges” posed by the rise of China. The foreign policy course correction comes after a tumultuous year, pandemic beaten economy and strategic decisions in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In September 2021, Biden hosted the meeting of Quad leaders to signal his support to back the four country partnership. But even as the work was in progress, the US announced the launching of yet another partnership, the AUKUS – Australia-UK-US – partnership wherein the US promised to equip Australia with nuclear powered submarines, ostensibly to match the Chinese naval might in the South China Sea.
While India and Japan publicly welcomed the announcement, both New Delhi and Tokyo were gingerly waiting for the new tripartite platform to unfold the operative part of the partnership. The French were upset at the loss of business.
Beijing registered a strong protest saying all this is a reflection of outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception that would intensify regional arms race. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian justified the views of Samoa and Kiribati and suggested that AUKUS will instigate confrontation and division in the region, accelerate arms race and undermine regional peace and security.
Beijing also raised the issue of violation of the spirit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty. China continues to segregate the Indo-Pacific countries as Asian and South Pacific nations and deliberately evades any reference to the Indo-Pacific in order to avoid giving importance to India’s centrality to the region.
China also mockingly warned India and Japan that the US through AUKUS will favour Australia at the cost of Quad. The commitment by the US to strengthen its role in the Indo-Pacific for a longer and enduring engagement, and its recognition of the challenges posed by the hegemonic ambitions of China and India’s salience in the Indo-Pacific region, is a fitting reply to Beijing.
A new framework for Indo-Pacific
While the Donald Trump regime wore its anti-China policies on the sleeves, the Quad was apprehensive that the Biden dispensation would scale down Washington’s antipathy to Beijing. As of now, Quad is the only regional outfit to deal with the issues arising out of the challenges posed by China’s belligerence in economic, military and strategic outreaches. The concept of Indo-Pacific, therefore, needs to emerge into an institutionalised framework and start working on as many verticals as possible and necessary in the present context.
There are three significant aspects that engage academic and strategic thinkers all over the world – the emerging new world order versus the Liberal International Order (LIO), military might versus economic strength, and the US-dominated liberal hegemony versus China-led authoritarian hegemonism.
The LIO, based on the template of respecting national sovereignty, rule of law, free trade, preserving global commons and above all providing a democratic dispensation, led by the US post-Second World War, faced mounting challenges during the Cold War. The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union sought to modify the rules of America’s engagement with the rest of the world, heralding a phase of liberal hegemony, albeit brief, in a world perceived as unipolar. The eastward expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the background of diminished threat of Cold War-prompted Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is now facing a challenge from Russia, which perceives this expansion as a security threat.
The undisputed supremacy of the US dollar as the prime global currency and its status as the global reserve currency gave a powerful push to America’s power posturing, military might and dominance over international trade and economic institutions. The economic ascendency of China has successfully positioned its currency, Renminbi, as a challenger to the dollar especially after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved it as one of the international reserve currencies included in its Special Drawing Rights (SDR). China’s seminal and leadership role in the Asian Infrastructure & Investment Bank (AIIB), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building (CICA), and the New Development Bank for BRICS has catapulted Beijing’s position to that of a rule maker.
The rise of China and the renewed assertion of Russia in regional and international issues and the challenges to America’s economic and military might is compelling liberal democracies to look for a multilateral alternative under a collective leadership framework.
It is here that the salience of India in the emerging Indo-Pacific assumes even greater importance. New Delhi has gained the support and confidence of the US, has scaled up naval cooperation with other maritime powers, and is active in global issues. Meanwhile, India is also aware of the challenges that it faces in the region and in the international arena as well as in rebuilding its domestic economy post-pandemic.
Indo-Pacific offers the much needed global leadership opportunity for New Delhi. But this comes with a number of riders.
The most important challenges are maintaining our time-tested strategic autonomy, speeding up economic and administrative reforms so that the domestic economy grows unrestricted, and supporting multilateralism without losing out on the advantages of existing bilateral arrangements.
Meanwhile, all concerned agencies should begin to develop the parameters of an Indo-Pacific institutionalised trade infrastructure that will look at a new supply chain network based on a liberal world order and free trade without hegemonic objectives.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)