A new Indo-Pacific alliance takes shape

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Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
THE recent meetings in the Philippines of East Asian countries as well as some major powers are important in that they were the venue for what is clearly a new Indo-Pacific alliance. The Indo-Pacific has been defined by this columnist to refer to the entire body of water which comprises both Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean, and this will by far be most important arena of geopolitical activity in 21st century. There are potentially two possible combinations that would reach the hyper-power level. These are a Russia-India-China alliance or in Asia, a US-India-Japan-Vietnam-Australia-Indonesia-South Korea partnership.
The repeated spikes in border tensions between China and India caused by the lack of an agreed Line of Actual Control defining the boundary between the two countries has gravely affected the ties between them. Just a month ago, the two sides came close to armed conflict at Doklam. Given such a situation, as also the ever more comprehensive relationship between Islamabad and Beijing, it is unlikely that a Russia-India-China alliance would take off. Apart from the extremely slow progress in border talks between China and India, the other reason why such an alliance is unlikely lies in the fact that both Russia and China would like India to return to Nehruvian policy of “non-alignment”.
Although such a term implies equidistance between two sides, in reality “non-alignment” in practice meant a tilt towards Moscow and away from Washington. These days, when Beijing talks about the desirability of India remaining fixed to a “non-aligned” policy, what is meant in practice is that Delhi should continue to keep its distance from Washington, the way it was throughout the Cold War between the USSR and the US. This is no longer possible or desirable, as India and the US have been coming closer, beginning with the second term of President George W Bush and accelerating in the final two years of the Barack Obama administration, when Ashton Carter was Secretary of Defence and worked hard at drawing India into a military partnership with the US.
The Trump administration has carried forward this legacy, and the obvious chemistry between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi is assisting a process of congruence between the strategic objectives of the two largest democracies on the planet. The just-concluded Manila meetings were marked by a warming of relations between the Philippines and the US (contrary to the chill that developed under the preachy and largely Clinton-dominated Obama administration, Aware of the military importance of the Philippines, the Trump administration has lavished considerable effort on winning back President Duterte, and appears to have succeeded. However, the most important takeaway from the East Asia Summit has been the open coming together of India, Austrialia, Japan and US in a Quadrilateral Alliance.
This had first made its appearance during the 2010 tsunami which devastated much of Asia, causing in its wake the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. The four countries had coordinated their rescue responses, and seemed prepared to continue the collaboration, but backed off because of a negative reaction from China, who regarded the tsunami coalition as being the initial phase of an Asian NATO. While Japan and the US were unconcerned about Beijing’s attitude in the matter, both Delhi as well as Canberra developed cold feet and hastily backtracked. Some time ago, wary of China’s reaction, India vetoed the inclusion of Australia in naval exercises involving Japan, India and the US. This was despite the desire of Tokyo and Washington to admit Canberra into the club.
However, the recent Doklam standoff between the two armies has hardened attitudes in Delhi towards Beijing, and among the consequences is the Modi government’s acceptance of the Quadrilateral Alliance (India, US, Japan, Australia). In the future, it is likely that Vietnam and Indonesia will join the group, and possibly the Philippines as well, thereby necessitating a change in nomenclature. Already, the militaries of these countries have been liasing with each other on an accedubledlerating basis, and exercises are becoming the norm. While the militaries are coming closer in a manner disagreeable to Beijing, at the same time commercial links with China are growing. Under Prime Minister Modi, China’s trade surplus with India has more than doubled ( to $ 51 billion) during the three years of the Narendra Modi government.
The Prime Minister has also relaxed visa procedures for Chinese nationals, giving them the e-visa facility, and has liberalised the protocol for Chinese investment in India. It is noteworthy that throughout the 73 days of high tension between India and China caused by the Doklam standoff, no Chinese company operating in India was in any way inconvenienced. It had been suggested by some quarters that they should be subjected to investigations and worse, but no such action was taken. Of course, had there been an actual conflict, the situation would have been different. Hopefully, Delhi and Beijing will have the wisdom and maturity to ensure that such a situation never takes place. The two countries have much to lose in a conflict and nothing to gain. Although, some see the Quadrilateral Alliance as directed against China, the reality is that the primary focus of the four navies will be to ensure safety and security of the maritime sea lanes traversing between West and SE and East Asia.
In particular, pirates are a menace that need to be extinguished so that the safety of shipping is ensured in the waters of the Indian Ocean especially. While the Clinton establishment in Washington (with Hillary Clinton correctly regarded as the Empress of the Beltway) has been ensuring a flood of negative reportage about President Trump, in reality the 45th US President has been very successful in much of his diplomacy, the only derailment being the initial (and essential for US interests) effort to establish a cooperative relationship with Moscow. While Richard Nixon transformed relations between China and the US, it is likely that the Trump presidency will ensure a partnership between India and the US on a scale and depth never imagined since the early 1940s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to establish an alliance with India but was stopped from doing so by Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the UK, which at the time was master of India and loath to let go the “Jewel in the Crown”.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.
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