Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 07, 2020
India’s traditional sphere of influence and the importance of ‘Indo-Pacific’

Even as both Governments are still celebrating the recent India visit of US President Donald Trump, and for right reasons so, the respective strategic communities have been left speculating on the real benefits that could accrue over the medium and long term in due course of time. One thing that has become very clear is that  both nations have learn to treat their strategic and economic relations independent of each other, and it should be a matter of relief for both their policy-makers.

Yet, trade ties and concessions alone do not make the ‘Indo-Pacific’, considering that it is at the centre of bilateral strategic relations. Besides this, there is across the board, bipartisan consensus between both the nations, as has been evident in the past couple of decades now. India took some time to re-adjust to the post-Cold-War realities, and there are many in the country who still swear by Moscow, when it comes to reliability. India can’t be expected to fight another war to test America’s trustworthiness but it is still crucial for India. There is another equally pressing issue where India needs proof – and may have to demand it from the US – if bilateral strategic relations are to mature into what their Governments want and their changing political leaderships readily endorse, with minor variations in the phraseology. The US and the rest of the West, especially the other two members of the Quad, need to treat South Asia and the adjoining Indian Ocean waters as the ‘traditional sphere of Indian influence’, all over again. They need to think and act likewise, too.

Retreat, not remain

The US especially and its existing pacific partner in Japan and emerging ally in Australia cannot be blamed if India took time to rediscover itself, post-Cold War and reposition itself, accordingly. By the time India was there, the other three, the US especially had re-entrenched itself in individual nations of the region, going beyond Pakistan, once its traditional ally. So did Australia, Japan and individual member-nations of the EU and the latter as an organisation.

India was still living in the Cold War past until post-Cold War Russian President Boris Yeltsin went back on the commitment to supply the committed cryogenic engine for the Indian space programme. It was done at the instance of Washington, once the sworn enemy of Moscow. New Delhi then discovered that it was easy to mend fences with an ‘ideological enemy’ from the past than keep pleading with and placating a friend, with offers to purchase a burnt-down aircraft-carrier ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ and pay up more money than otherwise worth, for repair and re-fit.

Where successive Indian Governments have actually failed is in asking the US go move every step back from India’s Indian Ocean neighbourhood for every step New Delhi took towards Washington. In physical terms, friendship cannot be built, if one retreated as the other inched forward, but this was a classic case where it would have worked only the other way around.

What instead has happened is that even as India has walked into the Qua arrangement and the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US with eyes open, the other three are operating in the scenario, possibly in tandem with one another but not necessarily in tune with India,  with respect to political and geo-strategic terms. It is much different from the three of them working towards strengthening their naval presence in the region, with or without India, but New Delhi is the one that feels stronger than the rest that it should be there, and that nothing can be there without its presence and participation.

Neighbourhood First

As it has turned out over the past couple of decades, India has moved closely with the west on strategic matters, especially eyeing the historic adversary in China in mind. The present reality of China and Pakistan forming a military axis are more serious than any time too cannot slip the Indian mind. Some theorists argue that Russia and Iran may at the end of it all be drawn into the scheme. There   point is the ‘isolationist’ approach of the US and its NATO allies as more serious a cause than anything else. For India, this presents a formidable grouping across its land borders. New Delhi is now focussing increasingly on its sea-side, which it has been ignoring since independence for obvious reasons.

In recent years, India has been actively promoting the policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’, PM Modi making a clarion call at his first Inauguration in May 2014. However it was his predecessor Manmohan Singh who gave meaning to the concept of, ‘India being the net-provider of security’ in the region.

Yet, for such concepts to work, India needs to work closely with neighbouring nations. It will be in the interest of the Indo-Pacific grouping that they have all of India’s neighbours on their side.  This includes an ability to render Pakistan ‘neutral’. It is even more so in the case of India’s other neighbours, if the Indo-Pacific grouping were not forced to handle adversity in the Indian Ocean waters abutting India. A reality-check shows that the western allies of India are in a habit of treating political and strategic concerns of India as two separate and parallel concerns, this is evident by the way they handle bilateral trade and military relations with New Delhi. Two immediate concerns demonstrate the Quad/Western ambiguity in the matter.

The first one relates to the western political and institutional posturing vis-a-vis India’s ‘internal affairs’, which now includes Article 370 abrogation and the CAA. Despite President Trump’s expressed ambiguity passing off for support at the joint presser with Prime Minister Modi in Delhi, there are doubts still in the average Indian mind about what the west intends to do at the UNHRC and the UN, in future.

The second issue   is that of human rights concerns in Sri Lanka. The return of the Rajapakas to the helm in neighbouring Sri Lanka has meant that the west is keen to haul up Colombo on ‘war crimes’ probe and other ‘accountability issues’, all over again. The Rajapaksa regimes too has not left the west with any choice but the way the west has handled  human rights violations in occupied Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria over the past couple of decades, there is a lot of consternation, not only in ‘nations like Sri Lanka but also in India.

Leave aside what may be in store for India later on, New Delhi has now been called upon to take a position on the Sri Lanka resolutions 30/1 and 40/1 in the UNHRC. If India sides with the west, if and when it came to that, it is going to be going back on “Neighbourhood First” commitments. If it goes against it, then that would open one more chink in the Indo-Pacific armour. At least the average Indian has not got used to accepting such compartmentalised trade-offs.

Of course, in the case of Sri Lanka and the UNHRC, New Delhi also has the ‘Tamil Nadu’ angle to confront. That cannot be said of other neighbours, where their ‘internal affairs’ could turn the winds at some point in time. In turn they can have consequences for India in bilateral affairs. It could make their non-existing Indo-Pacific relations complex than already, and their need to fall back on China, too, more than already.

Maldives is another example where, India for the first time, followed the western ploy of playing for the day. Going against set norms, India made political statements on the ‘internal affairs’ of Maldives when President Abdulla Yameen was in power (2013-18). While it did suit the political Opposition of the day, it is anybody’s guess how the nation’s foreign policy establishment viewed the Indian ‘intervention’.

In the immediate neighbourhood, India does not have the cushion to change the policy according to immediate priorities in an ever-changing world, as the distant and more powerful US, for instance, can do. Even there, the US cannot do it to immediate neighbours Mexico or Canada. What is thus required is for India to regain acceptance of the neighbourhood being New Delhi’s traditional sphere of influence. And, also for India to re-visit the contours and contents of the much talked-about ‘Neighbourhood Policy’ for the impacted neighbours to understand the constants and variables in such a relation.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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