Published Twice a Month
June 26, 2019 – July 12, 2019

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Guest Column

Five Myths about India and the Indo-Pacific

By Dhruva Jaishankar

China India Brief 141

India is among a growing number of countries–including Japan, Australia, the United States, France, Indonesia, and now (collectively) the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)–to have officially embraced the terminology of the Indo-Pacific. Essentially, the term recognises the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a single strategic space, emphasises the importance of the maritime domain for commerce and security, and elevates the profile of the Indian Ocean. It reflects a reality in which China is active in and around both bodies of water and where a number of other powers now operate and have strong interests in a wider region. While Chinese officials and analysts have approached the Indo-Pacific concept with a mixture of disdain and concern, India has made an effort to describe it in positive terms: “the Indo-pacific is for something–not against somebody–and that something is peace, security, stability, prosperity and rules”. Nevertheless, India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific has been subject to a considerable degree of confusion, not just around the world but also in India itself. It is important to address several common misperceptions.

First, for India, the Indo-Pacific is not a strategy. “India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. However, the Indo-Pacific does inform India’s regional strategy, known as the ‘Act East’ policy. Its precursor, the ‘Look East’ policy arose in the early 1990s, with a focus on improving economic links–including investment, trade, and institutional cooperation–with Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. But with the rise of China, weaker regional institutions, growing security imperatives, and deeper interconnectedness in the broader region, Look East has evolved naturally into Act East. This evolution represents the geographical broadening of India’s engagement, the widening of its agenda to encompass security (among other issues), and a greater priority and focus on delivery. Essentially, a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific” pithily describes the objectives and scope of India’s Act East Policy.

Second, India did not adopt an Indo-Pacific framework at the behest of the United States or any other country, but rather because it reflected Indian interests. If nothing else, the chronology bears this out. Indian scholars and analysts such as C. Raja Mohan, Shyam Saran, and Gurpreet Khurana deliberated and wrote about the Indo-Pacific at considerable length between 2007 and 2012. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adopted the terminology in a speech in Tokyo in 2013 (around the same time as it was incorporated into Japanese and Australian official parlance). Modi built upon this, including in a major foreign policy address in January 2017. In fact, among the first uses of the term by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was in a bilateral joint statement with India in June 2017, during which the two countries described themselves as “democratic stalwarts” and “responsible stewards” in the Indo-Pacific. It was only later that year that the Trump administration elaborated upon the concept of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ in a speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, an address by Trump in Vietnam, and the National Security Strategy. Rather than an American concept being foisted upon India, the Indo-Pacific is very much a ‘Made in India’ product.

Third, the Indo-Pacific construct is not empty rhetoric on India’s part, but rather has had real policy implications. One is the creation of a new Indo-Pacific division in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, which is meant to encompass and coordinate multilateral policy related to the Indian Ocean, ASEAN, East Asia, and the South Pacific. The more consequential changes have been in terms of defence cooperation, particularly since 2017. New developments include year-round military patrols in the Indian Ocean, improved maritime domain awareness in collaboration with partner countries, increased Indian military training and technical support for Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mauritius, the Maldives, and others, a proliferation of bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral strategic and defence dialogues, breakthrough military exercises with Japan and Australia, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations as far afield as Mozambique, the Philippines, and Fiji. Indian financing for infrastructure projects has also increased considerably in places like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. However, other dimensions of engagement have lagged, including trade policy and air connectivity.

Fourth, the Indo-Pacific does not necessarily cede the continental space, as many have literally interpreted it, just as a continental appellation such as Asia does not exclude the maritime domain. North-south connectivity is just as important for India as east-west. New Delhi’s outreach to Russia (including on Indo-Pacific affairs), its membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, its inclusion of Nepal and Bhutan in a regional institution to promote Bay of Bengal cooperation, and its development of commercial ports at Chabahar in Iran and Sittwe in Myanmar for improved north-south connectivity are all closely intertwined with Indo-Pacific outreach efforts.

Fifth and finally, India sees the basis of a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific” as very much consistent with ASEAN centrality and unity, rather than a divisive construct. Indeed, in 2018, Modi made efforts to reassure Southeast Asian states on that account. Additionally, while the emphasis on inclusivity was meant for Southeast Asia, India does not see a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific as excluding China. After all, China is a major power in the Pacific, it has a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean following the establishment of a support base in Djibouti, and its regional economic profile is increasing rapidly as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (about which India does harbour concerns). China is among the largest economic and trade partners of almost all countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and India too has invested in deepening its economic and social engagement with China. While the Indo-Pacific concept has been driven in large part by the manner of China’s rise and behaviour, its widespread adoption–including by India–is not about containing China. It is about ensuring transparency, the peaceful resolution of disputes, market-driven trade and connectivity, and strong norms and rules, in an effort to minimise security competition and encourage shared prosperity in an increasingly contested region. Should China embrace similar objectives, it would only bode well for the future of the Indo-Pacific.

Dhruva Jaishankar is a Fellow in foreign policy studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. He is also a Non-resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia. His research examines India’s role in the international system and the effects of global developments on India’s politics, economics, and society, with a particular focus on India’s relations with the United States, the Indo-Pacific, and Europe.

The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.

News Reports

Bilateral relations

New Delhi and Beijing cannot let differences turn into disputes: India’s ambassador to China
South China Morning Post, July 5

Ambassador Vikram Misri has called on China to balance its US$60 billion trade deficit with India ‘before the issue becomes politically sensitive’. He also says India will not take sides over its use of US-blacklisted Huawei, as ‘any decision taken over this will only be taken in our national interest’.

China scoffs at military content in Indo-Pacific, urges India to act independently on Huawei
The Times of India, July 1

Even as India and others insist that Indo-Pacific only stands for peace and security, China on Monday (July 1) warned against attempts to sow ‘discord’ in the region.

India Seeks to Buy $2.2 Billion Warships to Meet China Challenge
Bloomberg, July 1

The Narendra Modi government on Monday asked seven shipyards to submit proposals for the construction of six missile warships and other smaller vessels worth 150 billion rupees ($2.2 billion), the Ministry of Defence said in a statement. The tender includes eight fast patrol vessels, 12 hovercrafts and eight missile-cum-ammunition barges.

India, China Agree To Seek Mutually Acceptable Solution To Boundary Issue
NDTV, June 27

India and China have agreed to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the boundary question through negotiations, the government informed Rajya Sabha on Thursday (June 27).

TCS was hacked for its clients by China’s cyber spy campaign: Report
Business Insider India, June 27

The Indian IT giant, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) reportedly has been a victim of ‘Operation Cloud Hopper’, a global cyber espionage campaign attributed to China.

News Reports

China and India in the Region

China, Maldives clash over mounting Chinese debt as India warms up to Male
The Economic Times, July 8

Former Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed has clashed with his country's Chinese envoy over Male's “alarming levels” of Chinese debt, which stands at $3.4 billion, even as India has regained ground in the strategically important Indian Ocean atoll nation with the exit of pro-Beijing former president Abdulla Yameen.

Chinese frigate’s arrival in Colombo under Sri Lanka flag emblematic of Beijing power play in Indian Ocean
South China Morning Post, July 8

The Type 053 frigate, commissioned into the PLA Navy in 1994, was handed over to the Sri Lankan Navy at a Shanghai dockyard last month. The 2,300-tonne warship was expected to join patrol and surveillance missions in deep seas around Sri Lanka.

China takes lead in BCIM with ₹2L cr offer to Bangladesh
The Times of India, July 5

The Chinese offer far exceeds India's assistance packages which are limited to a few million dollars at a time. India, which is opposed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been eager to develop the BCIM corridor.

Myanmar's strategic coastline draws big Asian economies
Nikkei Asian Review, July 3

Asia's biggest economies of China, Japan and India are aggressively backing new port projects in Myanmar, seeking to gain a foothold on the coastline of the geographically prized nation.

At G20 trilateral, China proposes 5G partnership with India, Russia
The Hindu, June 29

The rift between China and the United States over 5G technology exports to India sharpened on Friday (June 28), when Chinese President Xi Jinping pitched for a partnership with New Delhi and Moscow for expanding a joint footprint in cyberspace.

Xi Jinping says China, Russia and India should take ‘global responsibility’ to protect interests
South China Morning Post, June 29

Chinese president also called for the three nations to uphold multilateralism in talks with Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi in Osaka. In a separate meeting with other BRICS leaders, he said Beijing opposed ‘illegal and unilateral sanctions’ and ‘long-arm jurisdiction’.

News Reports

Trade and Economy

China and India hit by double-digit sales skid amid global auto slump
Nikkei Asian Review, July 11

China and India, the world's largest and fourth largest auto markets, both suffered double-digit drops in sales during the previous quarter ended June, putting global sales on track to shrink for the second consecutive year.

India, China bilateral trade declines by 3.59% in first 5 months of this year
Livemint, July 10

India's exports to China declined by 1.62% to reach $7.70 billion while Chinese exports to India decelerated by 4.10% to total $29.17 billion. The trade deficit in 2018, according to Chinese official data, climbed to $57.86 billion from $51.72 billion in 2017.

India mulls exporting tobacco to China: official
Xinhua, July 6

India is mulling exporting tobacco to China after the “Phytosanitary Protocol” for export of tobacco-leaves to China was renewed earlier this year, an Indian official said.

In 2019 budget, Narendra Modi looks to China’s rise to propel India to a US$5 trillion economy
South China Morning Post, July 5

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has sought to replicate China’s economic rise in its latest budget, seeking to reverse weakening growth and investment that threaten to take the shine off a recent landslide election victory.

India plans to reduce dependence on China in making power banks
The Economic Times, July 3

India now plans to reduce this dependence on China in the growing market of power banks and open a first-such design hub here for ‘power bank’ products, thereby reducing the significant foreign exchange outgo India incurs on this.

News Reports

Energy and Environment

China's war on pollution could boost solar power
The Straits Times, July 10

China's efforts to reduce chronic air pollution could increase its ability to generate solar power by up to 13 per cent by allowing more sunlight to reach the earth, according to a study published yesterday.

Trump team weighs giving China a get-out-of-jail free card on Iran
Politico, July 3

The State Department is seriously considering using an Obama-era loophole to allow China to import oil from Iran, violating the Trump administration’s pledge to bring Iranian oil exports to zero.

India is now producing the world’s cheapest solar power
World Economic Forum, June 28

Around the globe, prices are falling and India is now producing the world's cheapest solar power, according to an International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) survey.

US Secretary of State Pompeo promises to ensure oil supplies to India after Iranian crude ban
Livemint, June 27

India, the world’s third-biggest oil importer, bought about 184,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil from the United States. 'We’re doing everything we can to ensure you have adequate crude imports,' says US State department.

India scrambles to look overseas for rare earths used in EVs
Nikkei Asian Review, June 27

Three Indian state-run companies are forming a joint venture to secure minor metals such as lithium and cobalt that could fuel India's plan for mass adoption of electric vehicles by 2030.


Not the US, not China. India holds the cards in the Indo-Pacific
South China Morning Post
, July 12

By Rupakjyoti Borah, Research Fellow, Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo

India has ties with all the major regional players and the heft to alter the balance of power, if it so wished. But a long tradition of ‘strategic autonomy’ is likely to see the status quo maintained, unless Beijing provokes change

Russia-India-China Trilateral Grouping: More than hype?
Observer Research Foundation, July 8

By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Distinguished Fellow & Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative, ORF

United States and India must ensure their current trade and tariff issues do not lead to serious strategic disagreement. The two cannot afford to miss the emerging geopolitical realities driven by China’s growing power

Hasina in balancing act between China, India
Global Times, July 7

By Zhang Xiaoyu, Director of Bengali Studies, Communication University of China

Hasina does not intentionally choose to side with China or India, and has Bangladesh's economic interest at the top of her mind. In keeping with what she has said, Bangladesh wants amicable ties with all neighbors.

AIIB can be a key benchmark for BRI
Global Times, July 7

By Wang Huiyao, President of the Center for China and Globalization

At a time when global cooperation is under fire from waves of populism and a turn toward unilateralism, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has emerged as a beacon of multilateralism. Moving forward, the successful AIIB model can offer a useful reference to augment the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

US-China: G-20, Huawei and India
Observer Research Foundation, July 1

By Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF

The most noted outcome of the G-20 held in Osaka is the US-China ceasefire on trade. But a somewhat less expected outcome was the easing of the American ban on the Chinese telecom major, Huawei.

India must make the most of the US-China trade war to advance its international agenda
Hindustan Times, June 27

By Atman Trivedi, Managing Director, Hills & Company, International Consultants; and Adjunct Fellow at the Pacific Forum.

Compared to the trade war now underway between Washington and Beijing, the skirmish between the United States and India appears small in scale. Yet even this narrow trade tiff should elicit real concern behind Raisina Hill’s closed doors.

Books and Journals

Chinese Journal of International Affairs_300x450

The Role of Ideas in the China–India Water Dispute

The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Volume 12, no. 2 (2019): 263-294

By Selina Ho, Assistant Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy; Neng Qian, Research Fellow, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy; Yan Yifei, PhD candidate, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Both the Chinese and Indian governments have made assiduous efforts to desecuritise their water dispute. This is puzzling, because both countries have securitised most of the disputes between them, including the border dispute, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama issue. The triggers for securitisation exist in the China–India water dispute. Both countries are water-scarce, prone to floods and droughts in their shared river basins, and the water dispute is inextricably linked to their border dispute. Power asymmetries between the two countries also incentivise both sides to securitise their water dispute. China, the upstream riparian and more powerful of the two, could use water as leverage in border negotiations, while India could use securitisation as a tactic to gain attention and offset China's greater aggregate power. The tendency is also for water disputes around the world to be painted as existential threats. Why, then, do China and India desecuritise their water dispute? Furthermore, despite desecuritisation, cooperation between them has remained low, confined to an expert-level mechanism, and memorandums of understandings on sharing hydrological data. This refutes the conventional view that desecuritisation is a normative good that can lead to genuine cooperation. This paper uses the Q methodology, which is a quantitative measure of ideas and perceptions, to address these puzzles. Based on a Q survey of Chinese and Indian experts on the water conflict, we argue that ideas are essential to shaping Chinese and Indian behaviour. Material explanations do not adequately explicate the complexities and nuances of the water dispute because they are too broad and general to be useful. The Q survey revealed in depth the myriad of ideas and debates surrounding the water dispute. These views and beliefs explain why the Chinese and Indian governments desecuritise their water dispute and why, despite desecuritisation, cooperation remains low.


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