US is Offering Big Bucks for Indo-Pacific — Will India Accept?

Delhi is free to apply for a slice of 70 trillion dollar as long as it toes the US line on the Indo-Pacific.

4 min read
Donald Trump in India: Sand sculpture of US President Donald Trump with First Lady Melania Trump.

With President Trump now in town together with a barrage of media attention, there is now some sense of what to expect from the visit. Officials have hinted at a reprimand on trade, a call for patching up things with Pakistan even while calling it out on terrorism, and a rap on Delhi’s wrist on the issue of ‘religious freedoms’ with reference to the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act.

None of this is certain, since the POTUS is known to ignore bureaucrats’ advice and chart his own policy when a visit or an issue pleases him. There will also be an announcement of a big defence buy, and more stalling on the 5G license. An issue that however lies at the foundation of the bilateral relationship will claim just a line in the forthcoming Joint Statement. How that line is written will set the stage for not just India US relations, but also Delhi’s relationship with Beijing. The issue at stake is how much India chooses to align with the US on the ‘Indo-Pacific’.

India’s Cautious Outreach to the US

The renaming of the Pacific Command (PACOM) as the “Indo-Pacific command’ is a recent coinage of May 2018. Its geographical ‘Area of Responsibility’, however, has always covered India since the 1940’s, and it hasn’t changed an inch with the new title. What it did change was to give a politico-military colour to India as an important partner in the Command.

To many this appeared as adding to Delhi’s clout. Cautious minds in the earlier governments, however, preferred to keep the US out, with Indian influence preferred through groupings like the IORA ( Indian Ocean Rim Association) where India was a founding member and which excluded both the US or China. The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium—which is also a Delhi led initiative—and bilateral engagement with ASEAN are other such associations.

The Manmohan Singh government did sign on to the ‘New Framework for India US Defence Relations’ in 2005, which included protection of sea lanes and sent a liason officer to PACOM. It however back pedaled in the face of leftist wrath and cold war memories.

PM Modi’s Delicate Act of Balancing the India-US Ties

The Modi government has instead chosen to walk a far more delicate path, welcoming the Indo-Pacific construct even while announcing a raft of initiatives all helmed around ‘inclusivity’ and steadily expanding the Indo Pacific to include almost everyone else. This began with SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) in a 2015 ceremony to gift a ship to Mauritius, and its expanded version at the 2018 Shangrila dialogue which called out cooperation with China, friendship with Russia, and a clear statement that it was no ‘strategy’ directed at anyone.

In 2019, Delhi aligned its vision with ASEAN’s own ‘Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ which stressed that both the Indian Ocean and Pacific were interlinked, a theme which was then picked up by the Ministry in framing the Prime Minister’s speech at the East Asia summit in November 2019.

That speech announced the ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’ for a ‘safe secure and stable maritime domain’ even while sliding out of the China helmed RCEP ( (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), making this a useful and safe play to pacify Beijing.

India’s Balancing Act in Strengthening of the QUAD

Meanwhile, however, Delhi delicately encouraged the QUAD, a grouping of Australia, Japan, the US and India. This was pole balancing with a vengeance. South Block preferred individual country statements on the Quad’s meetings or none at all in the first ever Quad Foreign Ministers at New York in September 2019.

It did not, however, hesitate to sign enthusiastic bilateral agreements on a ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ with each Quad member individually.

Last year, it went one step further by upgrading all four to a similar 2+2 format of Defence and Foreign Ministers’ summits. Despite the aligning of format—and more military exercises—it again sidestepped any commitment that could be seen as ‘anti-China’ in the most recent 2+2 meeting in Washington. While Secretary Pompeo chose to call out China’s ‘unfair and predatory economic activity in the Indo-Pacific’, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh used the ‘inclusivity’ framework of the new Indo-Pacific Initiative as his fall back position. All this hopping around with diverse positions seemed to have its desired effect. Beijing sagely observed that Delhi’s vision of the Indo-Pacific was quite different, with the Global Times lauding India for not wanting to be a ‘side kick’ of the US.

US is Offering Big Bucks, Will India Accept?

But there’s a fresh salvo from Washington just two weeks before the Presidential visit, when a group of US officials chose to give a press briefing on ‘the US vision for the Indo-Pacific’. This referenced a report released months earlier, and therefore seemed intended to bring up issues to the front and centre. The report and the briefing stressed everything that Delhi has been avoiding with its opening sentiment noting “Indo-Pacific nations face unprecedented challenges to their sovereignty, prosperity, and peace..(in) the growing competition between free and repressive visions of the future international order. Authoritarian revisionist powers seek to advance their parochial interests at others’ expense”.

There were 33 references to India in the report, which smartly included Delhi’s position on ‘ASEAN centrality’ and (limited) inclusivity.

The bait? A promised $1.7 trillion of private money in infrastructure investments across the region, with a potential $70 trillion looking for a place to rest. This is Washington’s strike back against the Belt and Road Initiative. And Delhi is free to apply for a slice of that booty as long as it agrees with the statement at the briefing that “there is virtually no daylight” between the two approaches to the Indo-Pacific. Remember, Delhi has not rejected the BRI outright. It has only called for a meaningful dialogue to sort out differences.

India needs to examine that joint statement carefully, for a decision on whether to jump into the Indo-Pacific head first, or continue to lounge about on a beach with no shade. This could actually be seen in the future as the drawing of a line in the sand. It’s time to decide.

(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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