The real threat for India is, what if the whole ‘Indo-Pacific’ game slips out of its hands, and into those with different priorities and interests?
Launching ‘Strategies for the Indo-Pacific’ (SIP) has become the ‘little black dress’ in diplomacy these days. Between Audrey Hepburn and Coco Chanel, the LBD made fashion history.
With both Germany and France bringing out their new SIP’s recently, they join the United States (who started the whole ‘Rebalancing to the East’ under US President Barack Obama), Japan, Australia, and less publicly, Britain and India. Others such as Vietnam and Malaysia are adding their might, together with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but cautiously.
Like Chanel’s creation, it is possible that this new focus may make strategic history, but that requires all concerned to actually deliver on the strategy, in the face of competing priorities — mainly the bonanza which is trade with China.
Germany’s new SIP is an interesting balance itself. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated unequivocally that ‘the Indo-Pacific Region is a priority for German policy’, and the text of the paper ticks the boxes of freedom of navigation, the ‘Rules based Order’, ASEAN importance, and all the rest that is now standardised ‘Indo-Pacific’ jargon.
There is, however, an underlying thread of caution. While it proposes to be an observer of the ASEAN Defence Ministers-Plus, which also includes China, it also wants to be part of Delhi’s Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). The text also states that Germany supports neither a unipolar nor a bipolar world, in a seeming reassurance to China.
Berlin has long backed the idea of encouraging a 'responsible' government in China, facing flak for not openly condemning Beijing’s post-COVID-19 attempts at aggressive ‘'influencing' operations, the Huawei 5G issue, and aggressive asset hunting by Chinese firms. Germany accounted for 42 percent of EU trade to China in 2019, an explainer for why it maintains a balancing act despite criticism. However, neither is Angela Merkel’s government one to take threats from China, as Maas warned the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently, in response to Beijing taking umbrage at the visit of a senior Czech official to Taiwan.
France’s policy paper is typically more forthright even as it calls for “Inclusivity”. It states its ‘interests’ without preamble to include about 8,000 stationed troops,1.3 million French citizens, 150,000 expatriates, with the Indo-Pacific constituting 93 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone. An earlier paper from the defence ministry details French military presence and its string of bases, with a special highlighting of its exercises with India and its presence not just in La Reunion, but also in the Combined Joint Task Force in the Arabian Sea.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s position on China is to quietly engage, while looking for alternatives. As analysts point out, Macron is reaching out to Russia, despite stiff opposition from fellow Europeans, to prevent Moscow from falling into Chinese hands. Paris’ objective in the SIP, however, is perplexing. It wants to be a ‘mediating’ force in an inclusive Indo-Pacific’. No wonder then that despite its ban on Huawei, Wang Yi paid fulsome praise to bilateral ties.
China meanwhile is taking note. An article in CGTN notes with trepidation, the ‘return’ of Europe to the Indo-Pacific, even as Beijing woos ASEAN, whose own SIP is a masterpiece of balancing. However, things are changing. Malaysia rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea a few months ago, and Vietnam is charting its own path. Meanwhile, a welter of online meetings included the ASEAN-EU meeting, which while welcoming a $280 bn bilateral trade, omitted naturally to mention that post-lockdown ASEAN is now China's largest trading partner. With every ‘strategy’ noting the ‘centrality’ of ASEAN, that makes things a bit sticky.
For India, there is both an opportunity and a threat in this proliferation of SIPs. Engaging France is not difficult given defence orders, and common interests, including on terrorism. Macron’s reach out to Russia matches with New Delhi’s objectives as well. India’s envoy recently stressed commonalities on the Indo-Pacific -despite Russian public resistance, and an effort is on to bring it into India’s ‘Indian Ocean Initiative’. There is also the new France- Australia- India trilateral ‘to ensure an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region’.
Germany, in its role as President of the European Union, is of little interest. Europe has never been able to fuse a common security policy, and China easily plays one against the other. Germany by itself can cut off vital dual use technology to China if it chooses to. The challenge for New Delhi is to persuade Berlin to make that choice.
India is playing a very delicate game, now playing up Quad — the grouping with the US, Japan and Australia — and at other times reaching out to non-members, and stout opponents alike. The threat is real; which is that the whole ‘Indo-Pacific’ game may slip out of its hands, and into those with different priorities and interests. The ‘little black dress’, after all, eventually went out of Chanel’s hands, and into the streets and supermarkets. That’s the fate of fashion and strategy. Imitations are rife, and it gets difficult to spot the original.Tara Kartha is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal