India’s Precincts and Ambitions in the Indo-Pacific


Amid the pandemic crisis, the Indo-Pacific’s strategic importance increases, countries around the world are developing new policies to strengthen their reach in the region. While there is a long history of international partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, many recent forays in the region are in response to China’s economic, political and military expansion. There was substantial activity on the ‘Indo-Pacific file’, with plans for even more. These activities included: improving maritime domain awareness, including in partnership with the US, Japan and France; using the Indian Navy to develop interoperability through a wide range of joint exercises (including with the US, Japan, Australia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and a range of multinational exercises); creating regional partnerships through port access and/or logistics agreements (including with the US, Oman, Singapore, South Korea and Indonesia); the successful completion of Tiger Triumph, the first India–US air, sea, land exercise; capacity-building with countries in the region (including defence lines of credit for Vietnam, Seychelles, Mauritius and Bangladesh, as well as building naval capabilities with Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Mauritius); and fulfilling the role of net security provider, including with regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (most recently in Yemen in 2018). One participant said that part of India’s positioning was to make partners feel that ‘if they think China is scary, India is reassuring’.

There was a stated desire to expand aspects of the Quad to other like-minded countries (including possibly Indonesia, Vietnam and France), and to put more emphasis on the economic component. Economically, the perception was that there were two supply chains developing in the region, one driven by the US, and the other by China. China had successfully disrupted some of the US linkages, for example in Central Asia and through ASEAN.

Until recently, India had the same issues with internal division, uncertainty and hedging as other countries, exacerbated by the strong influence of foreign arms lobbies. That noticeably changed following the June 2020 border conflict with China. Popular sentiment, already febrile because of an extended lockdown due to COVID-19, turned strongly against China. As seen elsewhere, this amplified the influence of Indian policymakers, especially those in the defence and strategic communities, who wanted to shift away from China. A series of decisive actions took place, including banning Chinese apps on security grounds, restrictions on foreign direct investment, and restrictions on visas for certain Chinese people, and a shift to a more forceful military strategy.

Another constraint observed was that ‘India is too slow’. Even for modest policies related to shipping, for example, decisions need to go through the MEA and then be vetted by national security, before going to the Ministry of Shipping. Participants said that all of the issues that complicated India’s relations with international partners also frustrated India’s internal strategic community. This included an understaffed MEA, a sometimes sclerotic if not outright obstructionist bureaucracy, and a vast array of vested interests both internal and external.

Additionally, Indo-Pacific partnerships in defence and economics became that much more important and urgent. This resulted in increased outreach from New Delhi to Indo-Pacific partners, in particular Quad members.In some cases, it built on already strengthening ties, for example, the June 2020 joint declaration with Australia that the two countries were elevating their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership and India’s invitation to Australia to join it with Japan and the US for the Malabar military exercises. In other cases, the initiatives were new and responding to changing circumstances, such as the supply-chain resilience initiative with Japan and Australia.

It has also resulted in increased activity around the Quad, most visibly with the previously mentioned Quad vaccine diplomacy initiative, and some Indian analysts have even suggested a Quad headquarters be set up on India’s Andaman Island. There have been calls for an India–US ‘alliance’ – though not the sort of alliance ‘recognized by lawyers’ but the sort ‘recognized by generals’. This took a leap forward when, in October 2020, India and the US signed the last of the four foundational defence agreements required by Washington for deep defence integration with New Delhi. India even reached out to the UK, most visibly with an invitation to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to attend India’s 2021 Republic Day ceremonies as chief guest

The tone in India has shifted substantially. However, existing lobbies still have substantial influence over some policymakers. Overt hedging has diminished, however, internal divisions, fuelled at times by outside backers, may still undermine India’s unequivocal strategic realignment.


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