The favourable triple alignment of Geo-Economic, geopolitical and maritime–geostrategic means and ends that the United States enjoyed during the Cold War in the Asia Pacific no longer holds in the 21st-century Indo-Pacific order

by Sourabh Gupta

US Navy-underwritten sea lines of communication (SLOC) once linked Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to Middle Eastern resource flows along the Indian Ocean and to final markets across the Western Pacific. Today, the SLOC’s chief Geo-Economic beneficiary is Beijing. When China becomes the final consumption market for the region’s production shared goods, the raison d’etre that has sustained the US Seventh Fleet’s forward-deployed posture will substantially dissipate.

During the Cold War, the US hub-and-spokes security system reinforced Geo-Economic relationships in the Pacific Rim. With the south westwards shift in the Indo-Pacific region’s centre of gravity, that security system — characterised by forward basing and defence guarantees — is becoming less purpose-fit by the day.

Attempts to conflate — and exploit — Beijing’s excessive claims in the South China Sea as a denial of navigation in order to hardwire a refashioned pan-regional maritime-geostrategic architecture (like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) will find limited takers in an emerging regional polity that is both philosophically averse to close-ended arrangements and is coalescing loosely around an inclusive model of cooperative security.

America’s new best friend, India, cannot be Washington’s Indo-Pacific saviour.

This is because New Delhi has no fundamental quarrel with the geopolitical and Geo-Economic shift currently underway in the Indo-Pacific. It seeks an Asia-first, ASEAN-centred, inclusive regional architecture that is principally focused on the economy, infrastructure and connectivity. It is only to the extent that China poses a revisionist threat to the Indo-Pacific’s maritime-geostrategic lifelines that New Delhi is amenable to deepening its tri-services ties with the United States, and secondarily with its Quad naval partners.

But even here, the hurdles to cooperation are not inconsequential. This is because New Delhi does not envisage the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean as a single maritime domain or its interests engaged uniformly therein.

The overriding purpose of India’s embrace of the US Indo-Pacific strategy is to develop ingrained habits of interoperable cooperation and thereby dissuade Beijing from mounting a naval challenge in its Indian Ocean backyard. This interest in keeping China out of the Indian Ocean as a dominant naval power dovetails neatly with US (and Australian) strategic interests.

By the same token, there is no appetite in New Delhi to graft the country onto — let alone be integrated into — the Asia Pacific strategies of its US and Quad partners. It shares no interest in following a perceived US strategy that is designed to contain China in the Western Pacific by fostering contingency-relevant maritime ties with US-friendly, littoral partner states.

It is instructive that many of the key tasks and cooperative activities that the Indian Navy conducts in the Indian Ocean have no counterpart in the Pacific. These range from institutionalised intelligence sharing to joint hydrographic surveys to cooperatively managed ‘soft basing’ rights. This differentiation extends within Maritime Southeast Asia too; west of Malacca, the range and depth of tasks that the Indian Navy engages in qualitatively exceeds that to its east. This gap will only grow as New Delhi stitches together a panoply of maritime exercise formats, coordinated patrols, arms transfers and port access and logistics support arrangements with Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar in the Eastern Indian Ocean.

This ‘two ocean’ differentiation is amplified by New Delhi’s contrasting approaches to China’s ‘Near Seas’ (Yellow Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea) and China’s ‘Far Seas’ (Pacific and Indian Ocean). Within the latter, the Indian Navy has been forthright in conducting maritime exercises in variable geometric formats. It has not hesitated to engage in coordinated (or even joint) endeavours — be it patrols, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance or basing rights. It has not shrunk from being joined with — albeit not within — extra-regional alliance partners, both bilaterally and in variable formats. Someday, the Quad may even constitute a soft, blue-water balancing option in the face of Beijing’s modernising ‘Far Seas’ capabilities.

Within the ‘Near Seas’, on the other hand, New Delhi has been markedly circumspect in its profile and posture. It has by and large made its presence felt in an independent capacity and sustained a toned-down set of operational tasks with the rare sub-regional bilateral partner. It has cooperated with ASEAN partner states with a view to regionally build up minimum, internal self-balancing capabilities rather than overtly challenge China. And it has steered clear of all variable geometric as well as ‘minilateral’ endeavours that might impinge on China’s ‘core’ interests.

Specifically with regard to the South China Sea, New Delhi has not sold offensive weapons systems to a littoral state, has not deployed its vessels to defend its economic interests, has neither sought nor taken part in basing arrangements and has never conducted a joint or coordinated patrol — let alone one to challenge excessive claims. Until 2018, India hadn’t engaged in a naval exercise with a claimant state (it has since conducted two with the Vietnam People’s Navy). New Delhi has also ceased to be detained by the South China Sea Arbitration Award in its bilateral and multilateral communications.

India is integral to the US Indo-Pacific strategy’s calculations. But as its activities in Indo-Pacific waters testify, New Delhi should not be counted on as Washington’s silver bullet.

Sourabh Gupta is Resident Senior Fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies, Washington DC