The Obama-Modi meeting before Indian Republic Day in New Delhi resulted in unprecedented three joint statements, rare in bilateral relations especially between two powerful democracies described as having estranged relations during most of the six and half decades after India gained independence.
This sudden upturn in relations and coordinated strategic thinking resulted in the US-India Joint Strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. The other Joint statements were-Joint Statement during the visit of President of USA to India-Shared effort: progress for all and the third one was India US Declaration of friendship.
These three joint statements revealed the possible strategic games the two world’s largest and oldest democracies are likely to play. However, the first one on the Joint Strategic vision for Asia-pacific and the Indian Ocean region have irked China most, against whom all the strategic observers have unanimous view that the statement was directed against.
“We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. We call on all parties to avoid threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea”. The statement refers indirectly to the China’s aggressive designs and territorial ambitions in the Asia Pacific region by stating that regional prosperity depends on security.
The joint vision statement commits to develop a roadmap to achieve this regional vision by leveraging respective efforts to increase ties among Asian powers, enabling both nations to better respond to diplomatic, economic and security challenges in the region.
This joint strategic roadmap reminds the strategic observers the talk of US-China G-2, which of course was nipped in the bud to jointly manage the geo-political game in South Asia. Similar architecture seems to be evolving between India and USA in the East Asian and South East Asian region where China has been challenging not only the US influence but also the regional East Asian powers.
Hence the 11 page joint statement titled Shared Effort-Progress for All in fourth paragraph refers to the role both US and India could play together. The forth para says-Recognizing the important role that both countries play in promoting peace, stability and security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region, and noting that India’s Act East Policy and the United States rebalance to Asia provide opportunities for India, the United States and other Asia Pacific countries to work closely to strengthen regional ties.
The US already had strategic relations with ASEAN bloc but wants to exploit the recent close proximity India is developing with various ASEAN powers which includes Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia.
India has an abiding strategic and economic interest in preventing the South China Sea from falling into the territorial suzerainty of China, which then would be able to control all the maritime traffic in the area. The US is also worried because of similar reasons. Hence the emerging Group of two i.e. G-2 with common maritime security interests has evoked strong reactions from China which has sermonized India not to fall in the American trap.
Though the Chinese views were made known through its official mouth piece the Global Times, the Chinese Foreign ministry also reacted officially by opposing the mention of South China Sea in the joint India-US statement. The two countries had also expressed concern over freedom of navigation and overhead flights in the maritime area.
Incidentally, the Chinese Foreign ministry found it an opportune moment to politely question Indian External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj on the joint avocations of the two countries on an area of China’s territorial interest.
One Chinese government think tank analyst commented, “the US is trying to entice India into joining South China Sea politics. India should not fall into Washington’s trap.”
The Joint India-US statement also refers specifically to the expansion of the scope and depth of the Malabar maritime engagement, which India and USA had begin way back in 1992 , in the aftermath of the end of cold war and was briefly disrupted after the May 1998 Pokaran nuclear explosions.
But the Americans realized the necessity of enticing the Indians to jointly protect their maritime strategic and economic interests and revived the Defence Policy Dialogue and the Malabar exercise. Japan then also found an excuse to come closer to India and since then the three countries have developed extensive engagement in strategic and military arena. The Indian and Japanese navy would soon initiate their own series of bilateral naval engagements. Similarly the Australians have also vowed to renew the maritime interactions with India in the Indian Ocean.
Thus the four like minded nations are coming together and looks like that the three nation dialogue-India- US and Japan would soon be expanded to invite Australia. Meanwhile the US has succeeded in aligning its rebalancing Asia strategy with the Act East policy under which Indian armed forces have developed extensive engagement with the Vietnamese navy, the principal challenger to China in South China Sea. Vietnamese navy has already accepted Indian offer of acquiring patrol warships which will keep a close eye on the Chinese naval warships and merchant ships deployed by the Chinese navy to threaten the Vietnamese.
The Chinese concerns are genuine-there seems to be revival of the talk of four like minded countries coming together-the quadrilateral grouping which was taking shape between 2007 and 2008 in the form of a quadrilateral security dialogue. During the period Indian Navy had hosted in the Bay of Bengal the five nation Malabar exercise-involving India, USA, Australia, Japan and Singapore. However when the Australian foreign minister talked about this quadrilateral grouping China issued strong demarche to all the five nations and not only India but Australia also developed cold feet.
The quadrilateral idea though remained submerged in the sea, has once again started haunting the Chinese. But more worrisome for them is the declaration by USA and India to align their Asian strategic games called the Rebalancing Asia and Act East. As India gets closer to the ASEAN countries with more and more engagement in the defence arena and closer economic and diplomatic engagements, China finds India as the spoiler in its ambitious game in the East Asia.
This strategic and defence engagement between India and US would be powered by revival of nuclear cooperation agreement of 2008, which if actually taken to the ground level, would tie the two nations inseparably for decades to come. This would be propelled by the ten year extension of Defence Framework Agreement to 2025 and the decision to move forward the Defence Technology Trade Initiative would further bring the two nations closer in the years to come with latest technology, not to the liking of China, which would like Indian armed forces to remain backward in the face of increasing Chinese assertions on the 4000 kms long Line Of Actual Control besides the huge Indian Ocean.
With the Modi government at the helm, a new realism seems to be creeping into Indian strategic thinking and planning on how to manage its overall strategic environment. This requires a very careful assessment and New Delhi must play the new strategic games with USA to counter the rival forces with great caution.