“Looking at London, talking to Tokyo,” used to be a childhood favourite metaphor for the squint-eyed. Never would one have thought that it might become an excellent figure of speech to describe new-age foreign policy with some modifications. “Looking at Beijing, Talking in Tokyo and Listening to Washington” may well be the thing for India to say as it joins the newborn Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) as an early member.
As yet, IPEF is a paper tiger aiming to contain the Chinese Dragon whose expanding footprint across the deep blue ocean and beyond is kindling a 21st-century superpower rivalry. India and 12 other countries led decidedly by the US are forming the IPEF, which aims to strengthen economic relations to “enhance resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness, economic growth, fairness, and competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific region”.
US Has Made Its Intentions Amply Clear
Nothing has been left to the imagination as to the intent of the grouping announced ahead of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, US) summit: its claws may be economic, but the IPEF is essentially a special purpose vehicle (SPV) that would use trade means to serve the geopolitical intent of Uncle Sam. But details matter, and what we need to watch out for in the coming days is what it entails for India. Will it lead to easier visas for Indians to Australia and the US? Or trade tariffs that boost preferential trade between partners? Or India being viewed as a manufacturing base and preferred investment destination for the US and Japan for it to rival China as a global supplier of cheaper goods?
Each of these looks distinctly possible, but we must look at the geopolitical intent. Japan has the money, the US has technological prowess, and Australia has the location, but it is India that has the men. No, one is not talking about blue-collar workers or software geeks, but soldiers. What the IPEF could potentially mean for India is a long-cherished dream of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, also known as the high table of global diplomacy – or it could mean the collateral risk of being a body shop for military intervention. New Delhi has to watch its step where trade sweeteners may potentially hide military pills.
US President Joe Biden hid nothing as he suggested that China might do to Taiwan what Vladimir Putin’s Russia is doing to Ukraine – claiming a sovereign territory as its own. Beijing is fuming at this, but its missiles pointing to Taipei are as real as its footprints in Doklam, where India and Beijing had military skirmishes last year.
Remember the US Abandonment of Afghanistan?
Maybe we are letting our imagination run riot, but it is wise to be prepared for the eventuality of an American bald eagle asking an Indian elephant to wrestle with a Chinese dragon while flying above at a safe distance. Remember Afghanistan? The West just upped and left the field to the Taliban.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked some practical stuff with Japanese officials and investors in Tokyo as he spoke of India being a new global manufacturing hub and mentioned “resilient supply chains”, a code word for “make us an alternative to China”.
Not only is a growing China getting expensive for Western markets, but the post-COVID (Shanghai lockdown) world also means there is a strong case for a ‘Plan B’ for the globalisers of manufacturing. That makes economic sense for India, and if the new forum helps build a strong case for ‘Make in India’, it is a win-win situation for the Quad-fathered IPEF.
But it is not even early days yet. The IPEF, as we speak, is just a dreamy idea. We need to ask what this means for the rules-based World Trade Organisation (WTO) regime.
Two years ago, India opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a large trading agreement between 16 countries that include members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Australia, China, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand. The planned IPEF may be seen as Washington’s way of countering that by inviting India into a new club. We need to see what this means for Japan and Australia/New Zealand, which are in the RCEP group.
The 13 initial partner countries of the IPEF are the four Quad members joined by New Zealand, South Korea and seven ASEAN countries. The official spiel is that these countries collectively represent 40 per cent of the world’s GDP. Reading between the lines, there is a case for coordination at the WTO between these countries. But we are looking at intersecting Venn diagrams of economic cooperation, whose details look vague if not murky.
A Tricky Road
China’s communist-party backed Global Times has made it clear that Beijing does not want “discord and confrontation” in the Pacific as it picks holes in the US-led ‘Indo-Pacific’ vs China-led ‘Asia-Pacific’ descriptors. It suggests that the IPEF may be an “economic NATO” along the lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO, which clubs Western countries under a security umbrella.
It pays to remember that India is also a member of the eight-nation Eurasian group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), aimed at strengthening security in Central Asia and beyond, and that China is a part of the SCO.
India may be a rival for China in the economic sphere and a partner for the US in the geopolitics of the Pacific, but if it is about the Taliban or Islamist extremism in Central Asia, it begins to look like a ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ situation.
Energy, trade and transport are among the SCO's cherished aims, and in that, there are questions on what it means for IPEF and India.
Diplomatic Squint or Myopia?
However, India has steered clear of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which involves infrastructure investment in 70 countries, signalling that security cooperation in the Asian region is fine but it is in no mood to accept Beijing’s economic hegemony, or anything that looks like it.
“Connect Central Asia” is one of India’s diplomatic aims, and so is “Look East”. It’s worth asking, as IPEF is born, whether we are heading for a diplomatic squint that might look like myopia to some.
Rajnikanth hits in Japan are as real as the popularity of Raj Kapoor movies in the former Soviet Union. Things have, however, become complicated for India after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year – not least because the United Nations seems to have lost its teeth or diplomatic morality. As a liberal democracy with a reasonable and increasingly outward-looking economy, it makes sense to be a partner of the West. But practical security issues are a different kettle of fish – be it Russian defence supplies or Islamist extremism.
India has to read the fine print of its IPEF engagement going forward and make sure that it doesn’t get diplomatically squeezed between the East and the West.
It is indeed challenging when you are wooing the Atlantic and engaging the Pacific while being rooted in the Indian Ocean. In mounting a springboard, India needs to make sure that it swims well where sharks roam.
(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)