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Business News/ Opinion / Building capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region
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Building capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region

The Quad, while not being given a military dimension yet, will be the most important grouping in the Indo-Pacific

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Donald Trump, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and other world leaders at an Asean summit dinner in Manila, on 13 November 2017. Photo: PTIPremium
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Donald Trump, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and other world leaders at an Asean summit dinner in Manila, on 13 November 2017. Photo: PTI

The Wuhan summit and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore laying down India’s vision in the Indo-Pacific region indicate that India is going to bide its time and avoid direct confrontation with China but will be proactive in building various capabilities.

Perhaps Modi disappointed those who might have wanted him to blow the war conch against China by announcing militarization of the Quad or calling for a strategy to contain it. However, he reiterated India’s stand on need for open and secure seas and skies, freedom of navigation and a rules-based order which is under threat from China. India not taking military action in the Maldives despite a strong case to do so because of Chinese threats and playing down China’s buildup in Doklam in Bhutan after the disengagement last year is indicative that India does not want to get into a confrontation with China right now, though it may risk ceding strategic space to it.

However, this does not mean India is going to give China a free pass. There will be red lines of India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while avoiding a direct confrontation. India appears to have set a long-term plan during which it will build its capabilities—economic and military strength, network of military facilities and agreements to access military facilities in countries across the Indo-Pacific, expanding economic and military ties.

India is targeting a sustained 7.5-8% economic growth and aims to be a $5 trillion economy by 2025. It plans to spend over $250 billion in military modernization over the next decade. India is developing robust military partnerships across the Indo-Pacific, from getting access to military facilities to bilateral, trilateral and multilateral military exercises to training and capacity building of the militaries of friendly countries. India has secured access to Duqm port in Oman for military use and develop the Agalega Island in Mauritius. The Indian Navy has secured a logistics facility in Singapore that will allow it to refuel and rearm and has similar facilities in Vietnam. India’s recent logistics agreement with France, just like the one with the US, allows it to access France’s military bases across the Indo-Pacific. India and Indonesia are considering the development of a port at Sabang close to the Malacca Strait after the Indonesian minister for maritime affairs offered the port to India for military use. China was quick to warn India against militarization of the port.

Additionally, India has been conducting a number of bilateral and multilateral military exercises. The Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan are the largest and the most complex series of naval exercises that India engages in, developing interoperability with two of the most powerful navies in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad, while not being given a military dimension yet, will be the most important grouping in the Indo-Pacific. It will have to set an economic programme to help smaller countries of the region. India will continue to expand its military exercises and develop bilateral and multilateral groups as Modi said at Shangri La.

Central to Modi’s speech was the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) unity, which he said was essential for a stable future for the region and that Asean lies at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific. India’s stress on the centrality and unity of Asean for securing the region and maintaining a rules-based order is important. China has always sought to divide Asean in its dealings on competing territorial claims. China has opposed Asean negotiating with it as a bloc, preferring to deal with its individual countries bilaterally. This has allowed it to coerce nations to acquiesce to its demands. Cambodia blocked the mention of the international court’s verdict against China in favour of the Philippines on its claims in the South China Sea (SCS) in the Asean statement and the mention of militarization of the SCS while the Philippines adopted a conciliatory approach to China despite winning its case in the international court.

A united Asean backed by major powers will be able to counter an expansionist China. It can ask for joint exploration and utilization of the natural resources, and a freeze on making artificial islands and their militarization. It will be a counter to China’s own use of legal warfare as part of its three-warfare strategy on the legal, media and psychological fronts. India backing a united Asean in its dealing with China furthers its own interests in the region, which has abundant natural resources, without getting into a direct conflict with Beijing.

China, which is looking to expand its footprint in the Indian Ocean, will be forced to focus more on South China Sea. Smaller countries are susceptible to China if larger countries like India avoid confrontation. This can be offset if countries like India, the US and Japan work together to build infrastructure and provide development assistance to these countries to prevent them from falling under Chinese influence. Groups like Asean will have to collectively approach China. Standing up to it and physically stopping illegal Chinese construction will gain international attention and the sympathy and backing of major powers.

China’s aggression and debt trap diplomacy, which impinge sovereignty, is going to test Indian diplomacy. The various consultation groups will help India develop common strategies to keep the seas open and secure and preserve a rules-based order. With joint military exercises, India will develop interoperability and standard operating procedures, which will help in any joint military operation or even possibly a military alliance in the future.

Yusuf Unjhawala is the editor of Defence Forum India and a commentator on defence and strategic affairs. Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com.

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Published: 19 Jun 2018, 03:56 AM IST
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