AUKUS, Indo-Pacific and India

With the AUKUS, Quad and continual usage of the term Indo-Pacific to refer to the strategic environs of Asia, it is beyond doubt that the United States of America is pursuing geographic containment of People’s Republic of China. The strategy in large measure is similar to the containment policy vis-à-vis the USSR during the Cold War. China has reciprocated with increased naval and air activity across the Taiwan Straits, in the South China Sea, in the Indian Ocean region and in Africa. It has direct ramifications for India’s geopolitics.

The ongoing border standoff with India since May 2020 is one of the important tools by China to assert its authority in the South Asian region. Chinese designs of a free-flowing global infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) facilitating its trade networks, however, reached a dead end at India’s borders.

India plays a significant role in South Asian affairs due to its geography and the historical and cultural ties with most of the countries in South Asia. Furthermore, for strategic minds in Washington, India plays a dual role; a) a counterweight to China in the larger Asian calculations and b) the continental containment of China depends on the Indian subcontinent.

The AUKUS, a tripartite alliance of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia based on naval technology transfer and sale of advanced submarines to Australia by the former countries has raised concerns in Beijing.

The French with a significant presence in the Indian Ocean, however, have not taken kindly to the AUKUS. Australia had already signed an agreement with France for advanced submarines, which was scrapped in favour of the UK. Several commentators have suggested that the AUKUS is an alliance of Anglophone states. Reverberations of the AUKUS have been felt in the G7 and led to exchange of harsh words between the leaders of France and the UK.

The AUKUS combined with US allies and friends in South Korea, Japan, and Philippines is a very potent encirclement strategy to deter the Chinese. Secretary Blinken’s visit to Indonesia and Malaysia this week indicates towards a US strategy to influence and create linkages in the ASEAN to regain the lost economic ground in the region.

India, on the other hand, is a collaborator with French in terms of naval exercises in the Indian Ocean region. Delhi has also been a traditional buyer of French weapon systems and arms. The much-publicized recent sale and delivery of the combat aircraft Rafale is a case in point.

The AUKUS deal therefore provides an opportunity for India to adopt a more autonomous stance in the Indian Ocean Region. Such autonomy may be countenanced with the European Union’s announcement of Indo-Pacific strategy.

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For India, its participation in the QUAD allows for its interactions with the United States, Australia and Japan in the region. The advantage of such multilateral groupings is that India avoids direct confrontation with the Chinese in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region and remains an important player in the US containment designs in the maritime domain.

India’s protracted and continuing border standoff resulting from Chinese incursions in Ladakh during May 2020 has caused anxieties in New Delhi as well as in Beijing. The standoff has improved India’s stock in the international community as the Indian armed forces backed by the Indian government have faced the Chinese with a steely resolve.

The hard border with China and India’s decision to not join the BRI and the standoff are perhaps linked, but this has resulted in denial of a strategic route into the Indian Ocean for the Chinese. This leads to perhaps the only blockade for the Chinese BRI and the huge infrastructure projects which it runs on the Eurasian landmass. For the US, therefore, India translates into a partner which can challenge China on land and can restrict its geostrategic reach into the maritime domain.

US faces challenges in the Indian subcontinent as it grapples with the Taliban in Afghanistan and a Pakistan clearly disposed towards the Chinese. In this situation, it is not an exaggeration to call China, Pakistan, and the Taliban as staunch allies.

India, therefore, will play a substantial role in the Indian Ocean region, in the global geopolitical architecture. India’s role will be enhanced in the subcontinent, but only with the multilateral networks it will adapt to. All these efforts have been directed towards to curtail unprecedented Chinese belligerence and diplomatic aggression.  

Conspiracy theorists point to Chinese role in the death of high-ranking army officials in Taiwan (October 2020) and India (December 2021) in helicopter crashes. Whether true or not, the Chinese with their secretive and covert disposition are certainly capable of such sabotage. In the Indian case, an investigation committee has been set up to locate and unearth the causes of the crash which killed Chief of the Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat on December 8. 

In conclusion, it is only wise to say that the Chinese with their negative intent and actions have caused this string of alignments in the region and now are certainly feeling the pressure through increased US activity in the Indo-Pacific region through QUAD and now the AUKUS. India stands to benefit with increased strategic approach combined with the economic gains it has made over the last two decades.

Biden And India: The Way Forward in Asia

The United States of America (US) will inaugurate Joseph R Biden as the President from January 20, 2021. New Delhi and many governments around the world have begun to speculate the kind of relationships the Biden Administration will establish with them. In the context of India, the relationship has seen upswing since the Indo-US Nuclear Deal under the Bush II Administration. It achieved new heights and rhetoric with public display of bonhomie between President Trump and PM Narendra Modi. It will, however, be a grave mistake to disregard it as only rhetoric and on the other hand consider the same in euphoric terms. That moment also had tremendous difficulties with Trump at the helm.

During the Biden Presidency, the scepticism around Trump’s commissions and omissions will no longer be there as Biden is a politician with an outstanding track record and experience at both domestic and international levels. As a Vice-President in the two Obama Administrations (2009-2016) he was responsible for some key decisions regarding policy towards South Asia.

China figures prominently in the United States calculus for the region. The Biden administration is very likely to carry forward the “Rebalance to Asia and Pacific” and “Indo-Pacific” idea, with the Quad as its initial operational strategy against the Chinese Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). Furthermore, India has resisted China’s attempts to bully countries in the South Asian region.

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In terms of geopolitics, therefore, US will maintain India as its major ally in the region. The signing of Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), COMCASA and BECA during the Trump presidency has strengthened the partnership has been raised to strategic level by Washington. It finally seems that the US has decided that along with its long-standing major allies in East Asia, India is a key actor to balance China.

Joe Biden has been critical of Pakistan’s approach to its neighbourhood in the west in Afghanistan and its support to the insurgent groups operating from Pakistani territory. During the first Obama administration as Vice-President, Joe Biden was part of the decision making which led to the Abbotabad strike for Osama Bin Laden’s execution.

Due to Pakistan’s support to terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and India, Biden’s efforts led to suggestion of a number of stringent conditions incorporated in the Enhanced partnership with Pakistan Act, 2008. The conditions related Pakistan’s support to Al Qaeda, non-interference of the Army in judicial and political processes and the funds ($ 7.5 Billion) were not to be used by the Army. These caveats ultimately led to a major blowback by the military in Pakistan and created a rift between the two countries.

Trump Presidency’s overt show for India and Indians in the US was closely scrutinized because of its frequent calls for limiting immigration in various categories, especially H1B visas. Indian immigrants and people of Indian descent have been at the forefront of the development of American technology industry and innovation. This contribution was frequently invoked against Trump’s calls for indigenization of major industries and limiting migration and citizenship visas.

Biden on the other hand has promised to expand high-skilled visas positively impacting mobility of Indian tech graduates. It is expected that the new administration may revoke the suspension of work permits of spouses of H1B visa holders imposed by Trump. This also has positive implications for Indians employed in the United States.

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An election promise by Joe Biden about higher taxation for the corporates in the US may be beneficial for India as this can drive out investments to overseas destinations. India with its reduced tax rates can be one such attractive destination for such investors and the growing international partnership between the two countries provides the right environment. India on its part has to create conditions favourable for investors with reduced red tape and bureaucratic impediments.

US Foreign Institution Investors (FII) account for more than 30% of total FIIs in India making them the most important actors in the Indian financial set up since 2000. Similar speculations have been made for the enhancement of trade by a number of economic pundits because the Trumpian ideas of protectionism for the US may be abandoned. Trump Administration removed India from the Generalised List of Preferences in June 2019. India can expect a review of the list under the Democrats administration.

Biden’s larger outlook for South Asia and his experience combined with Antony Bliken’s knowledge of the region may lead to enhanced partnership with India. On the other hand, it must be taken into account that Americans have a penchant for realism and it still is the most important theoretical strand guiding US foreign policy.

New Delhi without being euphoric about the unprecedented engagement with and attention from the mighty US may do well to remember that India has a strategic location vis-à-vis China in Asia and the Indo-Pacific and the US needs a strong ally in the region to counter/contain the Chinese. That this realism is the original and real driver of the United States’ approach towards India since the beginning of the millennium.