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HomeOpinionNew Delhi finally gets Indo-Pacific wing but smaller regional powers are busy...

New Delhi finally gets Indo-Pacific wing but smaller regional powers are busy forum shopping

Indian foreign policy is far from being realist and has failed to devise methods to secure strategic alliances with smaller regional powers.

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India’s decision to set up a separate ‘Indo-Pacific’ division in its ministry of external affairs raises more questions than it answers.

On the face of it, it is a welcome development as the new division aims to build a coherent Indo-Pacific strategy, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had outlined at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018.

But over the past few years, China through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has effectively pushed back any serious attempt by India and the US to form a balancing alliance with smaller regional powers against Beijing.

The end result is a divided Indo-Pacific landscape.

To make matters complicated for India, other smaller regional powers are going for what international relations expert call forum shopping – joining several forums and then singling out the one that offers them the best deal and furthers their strategic interests.

In a scenario like this, several regional organisations have now sprung up across Indo-Pacific and the sheer number has nearly made it impossible for India to build a concerted response to China’s rise.

As the Indo-Pacific dynamics change rapidly, India’s policy seems muddled and riddled with weak attempts at hedging.

And the question to ask is: Does India really have an Indo-Pacific strategy even as it sets up a division dedicated to it?

Also read: With just 1,400 diplomats, India’s foreign influence is severely limited

Why is no one balancing against China?

A sharp insight by Richard Rossow, Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at Centre for Strategic & International Studies, sums up the current state of Asian affairs: “While the United States is still trying to turn the clock back to regain lost strategic space in East and Southeast Asia, China is already driving into the Indian Ocean…”.

The Asia Power Index by the Australia-based Lowy Institute suggests that China has managed to achieve near power-parity with the US in Asia.

In international relations, realist theory suggests that in any system when one power rises, the smaller ones automatically form an alliance to balance it. Interestingly, the rise of China has not been met with such concentrated efforts at balancing.

T.V. Paul, James McGill Professor of International Relations at McGill University, provides a compelling explanation for this phenomenon. He argues that most small Asian powers require heavy economic investments to meet their developmental needs. China has leveraged this situation and pushed massive investments in these countries, thereby ensuring they don’t join a military balancing alliance against it.

In the case of India, where the BRI card has limited utility, China has used more hard-power means, such as the Doklam conflict, forcing India to abide by China’s new rules.

Also read: CJ Werleman, a bigot-turned-crusader against Islamophobia who’s taking on the Indian state

India’s muddled Indo-Pacific strategy

The Indo-Pacific region is conceptualised around the idea of “a maritime super-region with its geographical centre in Southeast Asia”. There are two fundamental principles driving the notion of the Indo-Pacific. First, ensure that this region continues to abide by the international laws of freedom of navigation and equal access to all powers in the region. Second, restrict China from establishing a regional hegemony.

Although both these principles are perfectly aligned with India’s national interests, New Delhi has failed to come up with a coherent Indo-Pacific strategy of its own. And there are quite a few reasons for that.

With the establishment of the Indo-Pacific division, there are now six divisions in the MEA managing this broader area: Indian Ocean Region, East Asia, ASEAN Multilateral, India-ASEAN Summit Secretariat, Southern Division, and the Indo-Pacific. One is bound to wonder how is MEA supposed to come up with a concerted Indo-Pacific strategy when the jurisdiction for the entire region is spread out among various MEA divisions.

Further, India wants to stop Indo-Pacific from turning into a Chinese sphere of influence, but it doesn’t have sufficient resources to do so. Neither does India have adequate economic resources to provide credible alternatives to China’s BRI nor does it have sufficient diplomatic capacity to meaningfully engage with all stakeholders at the same time.

As a consequence, as India faces an increasingly assertive China and a genuinely reluctant US, it has been forced to adopt a strategy of hedging. Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale had remarked that India is no longer a non-aligned country, rather it aligns with different countries based on specific issues.

Unfortunately, that is just another way to define non-alignment. India is currently trying to hedge its bets in every possible direction. The problem is that India lacks the economic and diplomatic resources to manage such a wide-hedging strategy. But more importantly, such a strategy has left India with no coherent overarching foreign policy goal and strategy.

One only needs to look at what has happened with the India-Australia-Japan-US quadrilateral. Post-Doklam standoff, Delhi has dramatically scaled down its enthusiasm towards the quad. Aiming for amenable ties with China is understandable, but one needs to ask, to what end?

In other words, India is striving for better ties with China at the cost of forging an Asia-wide alliance that can offer a counter-balance to Beijing’s growing influence in the region. Meanwhile, China continues to establish its sphere of influence from East Asia to East Africa.

A farsighted Indo-Pacific strategy would entail continued engagement with China while simultaneously developing strong economic and security alliances in East and South East Asia and across the Indian Ocean region. However, Indian foreign policy is far from being realist and has failed to devise methods to secure strategic alliances with smaller regional powers.

As a result, the Indo-Pacific landscape continues to be divided and features rampant forum shopping, which increases uncertainty and destabilises the system.

As countries seek membership in several overlapping and often ideologically contradictory institutions, one really doesn’t know what an Indo-Pacific strategy stands for or aims to achieve.

On the flipside, this lack of coherence has been exploited by China to successfully push its own Indo-Pacific goals.

Also read: Russia confers highest civilian honour on PM Modi, diplomats & experts question timing


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  1. BRI is even good for Europe. But India is led by nitwits. That’s been the case since its creation;but the downward slide has gotten worse as population has ballooned while leadership quality has declined. Everyone want to do superficial things to get great results. Sorry! The results will be pitiful as they have been.

  2. The writer himself has provided answers to his questions that (1) India don’t have economic leverage and (2) lack of diplomatic capacity, as the reasons for the present situation….. For this (1) India need heavy industrialization continuously for next 15-20 years for its growth and (2) training methods may be improved to its bureacracy according to changed international atmosphere…

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