World Economic Forum
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In the 2040s, India is expected to surpass the United States (in PPP terms) and become the world’s second largest economy, behind China. Alongside this Indian emergence, the international order is undergoing significant change as well, with power increasingly diffused among states as a new, multipolar geostrategic landscape begins to emerge with fresh layers of complexities.
These developments have the potential to position India as the world’s most influential democracy in the second half of the 21st century, giving it the ability to shape the Indo-Pacific region and the dynamically evolving global order.
From the Indo-Pacific region to the world
At the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a speech in which he argued that the “destiny of the world will be deeply influenced by the course of developments in the Indo-Pacific region”. This bold claim has come within the context of both growing economic opportunity and expanding strategic challenges for the region.
Sheer numbers alone elevate the importance of the Indo-Pacific and its influence across the world. It is now home to more than 65% of the world’s population who collectively produce more than 60% of global GDP. Over half the world’s trade passes through this region, and it hosts the fastest-growing armada of naval fleets along with seven nuclear powers. This region will also have a disproportionately high contribution to global growth in the decades ahead and will therefore ink the pen that scripts the new terms of trade, financial flows and investments, growth, humanitarian assistance, and peace and security.
Even as this redistribution of wealth and power propels this region to the global high table, a position it long enjoyed up to the 15th century, the multiplicity of old and emerging actors, and their varied interests within the region and beyond are spurring greater unpredictability and new anxieties. There are simply no reliable 20th-century templates to manage such a simultaneous rise of multiple actors and interests in a region. China, which was the first mover, now finds itself having to deal with the pushback to its own expansive plans, as well as with propositions from other initiatives such as the “Quad” (comprising of India, the US, Japan and Australia) that seek to steer the region’s future. There is little doubt that new pathways to a new order need to be discovered soon.
Modi’s speech at Shangri-La signalled New Delhi’s acceptance of this reality, and its willingness to embrace greater responsibility in anchoring a “rules-based democratic order” in the region. Indeed, as a rising economic power with favourable demographic conditions – in 2020, the average age in India will be 29 years old (compared to 37 in China) – India is well positioned to shape the future of the Indo-Pacific.
India’s vision for the region
India’s geostrategic vision for the Indo-Pacific is unique. It rejects pitting China against the Quadrilateral Initiative in a zero-sum competition “between free and repressive visions of world order”, as the American vision postulates. It also rejects the Chinese proposition, which creates perverse dependencies through economic statecraft and military coercion in a manner better suited to the Cold War era.
Instead, India is positioning itself to take a different path – one that does not see the world in binaries, bifurcated between partners and allies on one side, and competitors and adversaries on the other. India offers an opportunity for engagement and dialogue to all states, big and small, democratic and authoritarian, advanced or developing.
The new vision moves away from conceptions of non-alignment or strategic autonomy, tools of foreign policy that may have outlived their corresponding geopolitical utility. When Prime Minister Modi stated that “the Indo-Pacific region is not a limited club of members”, he signalled New Delhi’s intention to lead a new configuration of states, guided by communities that yearn for development, markets that require connectivity and nations that seek security.
The strategy calls for India to lead by example and show that as its capabilities rise over the coming decades, it will not abandon certain norms that reflect uniquely Asian democratic tendencies, open and transparent economic governance, and non-interventionist security paradigms.
Four steps for India to take
To put in place a vision that shapes the region and attracts others, India needs to script its own expectations from four key relationships.
First, New Delhi should define its ‘China policy’. It needs to determine what it is looking for from Beijing and make clear what it will refuse to put on the negotiating table. At Shangri-La, Modi made clear that no nation can unilaterally “shape and secure” an Indo-Pacific order. Delhi must be prepared to enforce this statement of fact as a baseline norm. An Asian ethic cannot be scripted by China alone, whether it is on infrastructure connectivity or managing security disputes. The economic prosperity of the region will be implicated by the strength of the India-China partnership.
Second, New Delhi should develop a clear policy toward the US. Thus far, New Delhi has essentially muddled through, deferring to Washington regarding policy in the region. India must answer whether it is ready, willing and able to play a larger role in defining a vision for the concert of democracies in the region and beyond. If, as Prime Modi recently indicated, the answer to all these is “yes”, New Delhi needs to put forth a more confident proposition for Washington to support. Is it now time to hand the baton over to India?
Third, New Delhi must rethink its engagement with its neighbours, particularly around two existing regional architectures. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an eight-member union meant to advance economic and regional integration, is in tatters. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a seven-member organization meant to promote economic cooperation and trade, has turned into a forum for talk rather than action. Unless India presents a clear, enticing proposition to its neighbours, it will be hard-pressed to shepherd a new strategic vision in the larger region.
Finally, Delhi must engage more vigorously with the global institutional framework. At the World Economic Forum in January, Modi warned of a “gap between the old systems of [international] institutions and the needs of many developing countries”, echoing Delhi’s age-old grievance with the Atlantic institutions and a new sense that India must help close this ‘gap’. India’s pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific will be bolstered through its co-ownership of the institutions created by the developed world and in making them work in coherence with the new institutions such as the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, in which India has significant stakes.
India’s Indo-Pacific vision exemplifies its ambition of being a “leading power”. Even so, it is merely the beginning of a decadal journey, which will see India shoulder the expectations that befit the world’s largest democratic economy. To do this, Delhi must constantly reassess the dimensions of change underway, visualize the possibilities that are on offer, anticipate the attendant risks and author the new order arising out of Asia.
Author: Samir Saran, President of Observer Research Foundation.
“Indo-Pacific” is in the news. The US has renamed its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command, the shared regional vision outlined by India and Indonesia has emphasised its centrality, and the region’s political importance to India was at the core of the expansive foreign policy speech delivered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Singapore. All of these are a response to the spectacular rise of China. If this points to a future concert of powers in the region to balance Beijing’s power play, it will be an important yet insufficient measure in reaction to the Chinese project that connects Asia and Europe.
Covering 35% of the earth’s surface, Eurasia is home to five billion people living in over 90 different countries and producing nearly 70% of global GDP. For millennia conquest, trade and migration have organically bound Asia and Europe – the ebb and flow of great civilisations across this vast landmass spawned myriad political and economic dynamics of global history.
Only in the recent past, in historical terms, have these been interrupted. The Industrial Revolution in Europe and the subsequent colonisation of Asia and Africa created an artificial divide, concentrating on economic and military power in ‘the West’.
Asia’s contemporary economic ascendance allows people, goods, innovation and finance to flow relatively freely across Eurasia again. But the re-emergence of the supercontinent is not frictionless. New integrative geo-economic forces bring with them new political tensions.
As history repeats and Eurasia coheres, the outlines of a new world order will be defined by who manages it and how it is managed. It is in this supercontinent that the future of democracy, of free markets and global security arrangements, will be decided. And there are three key factors influencing this.
The first, to borrow a phrase from Robert Kaplan, is the revenge of geography. As much as Eurasian integration is organic, its current ‘avatar’ is decidedly Chinese. Having assessed that the divide between Europe and Asia was an artificial, modern and ‘Western’ construct, China is doing what no other power had the appetite for: conceive of, define and then manage Eurasia.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s choice of instrument, is creating sprawling networks of connectivity projects – each designed to embed dependency on China’s economy into this geography. Simultaneously, BRI dilutes the importance of the landmass’s sub-regions, thereby upsetting the settled balance of power arrangements.
India and the European Union (EU), for example, are struggling to curb China’s creeping influence on their sub-regional political, economic and security conversations. A “free and open” Indo-Pacific vision, and nascent coalitions like the Quadrilateral initiative seek to balance China’s rise on the maritime front. The oceans, however, are but one of China’s platforms – and a purely maritime response is inadequate.
China is relentless in pursuing this project: building infrastructure, facilitating trade, and creating alternative global institutions. Surreptitiously, China also exports its political model: “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” – a unique blend of state capitalism and authoritarianism. Unless liberal democracies propose an alternative in Eurasia that effectively addresses the infrastructure needs of countries in Asia and Africa, China’s proposition will succeed.
Here lies the second factor: the revenge of democracy. Whether it is the US, EU or India, democracies are more polarised than ever before. The Pew Global Attitude Survey consistently records that trust in democratic governments is at an all-time low. More than ever it appears that liberal democracies are bogged down by domestic crises, leaving them little energy for strategic planning. At a juncture when China’s timelines are decadal, democracies are struggling to look past their next election.
And the final factor, demography, is a double-edged sword for the entire region –, especially for China. For many Eurasian countries, BRI’s economic benefits are obvious. However, in an era when nationalism is the defining mood of politics, China’s presence can be unwelcome. China’s labour exports create tensions with younger host country populations who must now compete for employment opportunities. There is the risk that BRI will merely create infrastructure networks for extreme and radicalised organisations in unstable countries.
At home, demographic pressures might force Beijing to reconsider its ability to deliver. As younger Chinese move up the income ladder, their expectations from their government will increase. Simultaneously, the preponderance of single young men in urban regions and ageing rural populations makes Chinese society susceptible to violence and unrest. What will these demographic pressures portend for the project of Eurasian integration? Will the Chinese state have the political capital to recklessly buy influence across the world? Will demographic complexities allow others to cobble together a viable counter to the Beijing consensus?
Sitting in New Delhi, it cannot be more obvious that India’s development and security is inextricably tied to Eurasia. India sits at the crossroads of continental Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific – the two regions that will define this century. The US has expended blood and treasure over the past nine decades to maintain its privileged position in these two regions. Russia, the original Eurasian superpower, is reduced to a glorified policeman, or more charitably, a crafty risk management consultant for Chinese expansionism. And EU can either choose to be an actor or be acted upon, one slice at a time.
It is critical that all of them, and more particularly India and the US, imagine an arrangement beyond the Indo-Pacific, into the heart of Eurasia. China’s continental-sized poser requires a supercontinental answer. It is for the liberal world to stand up and be counted, or step aside and let Pax Sinica unfold.
Author: Samir Saran, President of Observer Research Foundation.
Over the years, India earned the epithet of a reluctant power in Asia — exuberant in its aspirations, yet guarded in its strategy. However, as the challenges in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond continue to evolve, India is today gearing up to embrace a larger role in the far wider theatre of the Indo-Pacific.
Forming the core of the ongoing global economic and strategic transitions are a rising and assertive China, an eastward shifting economic locus, and the faltering of Western-led multilateral institutions. These converge with domestic development and national security objectives to demand that India strive to expand its presence, reach, and voice both on land and in the sea in its extended neighbourhood. Today, New Delhi is actively seeking to create opportunities for mutual development in the Indo-Pacific, in the Arabian Sea and in Africa even as it engages like-minded nations in the pursuit and preservation of a rules-based order that promotes transparency, respect for sovereignty and international law, stability, and free and fair trade. In both these endeavours, the United States is an appropriate and willing partner. As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated in his address to the US Congress in 2016, “[a] strong India-US partnership can anchor peace, prosperity, and stability from Asia to Africa and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.”
The US has been a principal architect and the traditional guarantor of a liberal economic and maritime order in the Indo-Pacific. While the commentariat in the US and India might express apprehension at the idea of US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy, this moment must be seen as an opportunity to rebalance the Indo-US relationship to reflect a real convergence of strategic interests, as opposed to an abstract engagement based on values alone and one that has disregarded the core interests of both countries.
Even as the phrase ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ replaces ‘Pivot to Asia’, it is clear that the US will continue to play an important role in the region.
The US is acutely aware that disengagement is not an option when the contests of the region are, in fact, irrevocably moving both westwards and eastwards, and ever closer to its own spheres of influence. Thus, maintaining an influential presence and assets in the region effectively responds to its agenda. The US continues to retain an unequivocally large military presence in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, Washington appears intent on finding ways to address shortfalls in its defence budget. The most recent defence bill specifically authorises the establishment of the new Indo-Pacific Stability Initiative to increase US military presence and enhance its readiness in the Western Pacific. As it remains an invested actor across the Middle East and in Afghanistan, and as it confronts an unrelenting North Korea, it must seek to empower regional like-minded nations such as India, which it recognises as having an “indispensable role in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies a few days before his visit to India in the fall of 2017 is a testament to the continuity of the relationship: “The increasing convergence of US and Indian interests and values offers the Indo-Pacific the best opportunity to defend the rules-based global system that has benefited so much of humanity over the past several decades.” In a way, the title of his speech, “Defining Our Relationship with India for the Next Century”, should set the tone for the Indo-US relationship; and this new direction must not be influenced even by changes in leadership in the two capitals. It must first be imagined and then crafted as a multi–decade relationship that engages with the disruptions that abound in a multipolar world. This 21st century partnership must take into account each country’s economic trajectory, political values and strategic posture. The Indo-Pacific region will be the theatre in which this partnership will truly be realised. Both President Trump and Prime Minister Modi seem cognizant of this reality, and are intent on creating a new blueprint for this long-term engagement.
The terms of this bilateral cannot be limited to maintaining the regional balance of power. Rather, both countries, in concert with other likeminded powers, have a stake in enabling and incubating a peaceful, prosperous, and free Indo-Pacific. As these countries align in their desire to see a new regional architecture emerge, the following present themselves as the most crucial domains where a strengthened India-US The New India-US relationship can have deep and influential impact in a region that matters to the whole world:
Defence trade and technology
India’s designation as a ‘major defense partner’ of the US, and the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative provide a bilateral platform for defence trade and technology sharing with greater ambitions and at a faster pace. The ‘Make in India’ initiative strengthens scope for coproduction and co-development. The new appetite for business reforms is catalysing the largest volumes of foreign direct investment ever received by the country.
As India undertakes broader defence transformation initiatives, US defence companies can collaborate with New Delhi in its USD 150 billion military modernisation project. They can do this by jointly identifying the gaps and working together to equip Indian forces in the short run. This must be followed by cooperation on advanced technologies to help build up the country’s defence manufacturing base in the longer term.
Continuous progress on these fronts will enhance Indian capabilities, enable greater readiness of Indian forces, and level the playing field. Specifically, priority military hardware, technologies and areas for joint production need to be identified. Pending sales, such as that of the Guardian RPVs, need to be expedited, along with the micro unmanned aerial vehicle project. Further, the matter of quality and subsequent liability of equipment made in India through joint Indian-US ventures needs immediate attention. Additionally, the hesitation of US companies in sharing proprietary and sensitive technology is a concern that will need to be taken up on a case-by-case basis.
Maritime freedom and security
There is a rare moment of clarity in US and Indian policy circles on the importance of each other in this region. This is important if the countries are to act as “anchor of stability” in the Indo-Pacific.
It is time to begin conversations on new arenas of military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and strategic planning, to include advanced platforms like fifth-generation fighters, nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers. Already, the two countries share a maritime security dialogue, which was instituted in 2016, as well as working groups on aircraft carrier technology and jet engine technology. They should be strengthened further and complemented by new working groups.
The annual Malabar exercise, which now formally includes a third partner, Japan, is another key feature of military cooperation, improving coordination and interoperability. Adding to these efforts are the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, which will create maritime logistic links, and a white shipping agreement which promotes regional maritime domain awareness.
India-US maritime security cooperation is critical because it supports efforts that prioritise joint stewardship for ensuring freedom of navigation and unimpeded trade across a maritime common that is a major conduit for commercial and energy supplies, and is rich in natural resources, ecosystems, and biodiversity. Moreover, the Indian Ocean Region is extremely vulnerable to extreme weather events that are likely to increase significantly in the coming years. To address these developments, the US and India can cooperate to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in the region.
Further, the two sides are committed to resisting the aggression that China has displayed in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. Indo-US cooperation in the Indo-Pacific must also serve to affirm the principles of freedom of navigation and peaceful settlement of maritime disputes.
An expanded bilateral maritime partnership that involves transfer of technology to build India’s capacity in the Indian Ocean Region will help create a more stable and balanced security architecture there. This same partnership should explore new forms and formats of joint exercises and naval drills, such as anti-submarine warfare and maritime domain awareness missions, and encourage support for Indian leadership as “force for stability” in the IOR.
India and the US must also collaborate to promote a market-driven blue economy as a framework for growth and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific — home to bountiful hydrocarbon, mineral, and food resources, as well as burgeoning coastal populations.
India and the US can further elevate cooperation in marine research and development to create common knowledge hubs and share best practices. They can collaborate to develop mechanisms and foster norms that ensure respect for international law. The US can support regional collaboration in the Indo-Pacific to explore new and environmentally conscious investment opportunities in maritime economic activities and industries, such as food production and coastal tourism. Direct investments in Indian efforts, such as in identified coastal economic zones and the Sagarmala initiative, and participation in regional groupings like the Indian Ocean Rim Association, are two ways in which it can do so.
Effectively, the US can support India in creating a resilient regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific that places an emphasis on stability, economic freedom, growth and maritime security.
Today, states in the Indo-Pacific are in dire need of funds and expertise to improve infrastructure development and regional connectivity. Beijing has introduced its own project — the Belt and Road Initiative — through which it is investing in infrastructure initiatives across Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. While connectivity is undoubtedly the primary aim of the project, it is increasingly clear that China seeks to expand its political and military influence in the region under the aegis of the BRI. To prevent the emergence of an Asian order inimical to the rules-based order, states must work together to forge a more inclusive approach towards an emerging regional architecture. This framework must be willing to accommodate everyone, including China, in connectivity projects from Ankara to Saigon, or the sea lanes seeking to link ASEAN with Africa.
For this to occur, pragmatic, democratic, and normative powers need to first create a political narrative within which Asia’s connectivity will take place. This narrative must underscore the importance of good governance, transparency, rule of law, and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. This can then be posited against strictly bilateral projects such as the BRI, which burden participating countries with debt and environmentally unsound projects. This alternative proposition to China’s BRI can then become the blueprint for connectivity and integration from Palo Alto to Taipei, Bengaluru to Nairobi, and Tel Aviv to Addis Ababa. The possibilities are endless and straddle hard infrastructure, digital connectivity, knowledge clusters, and value chains in
the Indo-Pacific space.
The India-US partnership has an important role to play in this respect. The American vision of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor supplements India’s Act East policy, and India-US cooperation in physical and soft infrastructure can link cross-border transport corridors; help create regional energy connections; and facilitate people-to-people interactions. Further, India and the US can cooperate as “global partners”, with US investment in Indian projects in Africa. Accordingly, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor proposed by Japan and India can provide a common platform to all three states. Further, the US can nurture burgeoning regional partnerships between Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, as these countries work towards building a consultative and collective Asian framework.
Digital connectivity, trade, and technology
Digital connectivity merits particular attention. After all, in the next decade, the largest cohort of internet users will emerge from the Indo-Pacific region. China is working aggressively to ensure that digital platforms in the region will be influenced by its own model for cyberspace premised on sovereignty. A major part of China’s BRI is the new “information silk road”, which facilitates investments by Chinese companies in South Asia’s internet architecture.
Accordingly, the US and India must cooperate to ensure that digital platforms, trade, connectivity and norms are shaped according to the democratic and open nature of the internet. To do so, they must create a framework that responds to developing-country imperatives such as affordable access, local content generation and cybersecurity. Already, Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Digital India’ programme provides a model for other states in the region to use internet-enabled technology to spur economic growth. India’s Aadhaar initiative, a unique digital identity programme, has already generated significant interest amongst South Asian states. American companies have increasingly sought to adopt standards and technologies to leverage this platform and build new markets in India. For example, WhatsApp has integrated with India’s unified payments interface to provide digital payments. Examples of other development initiatives are also abundant. Elsewhere, the Google RailTel initiative aims to provide WiFi at 400 railway stations across India by 2018.
India-US bilateral cooperation in using the digital as a tool for economic development and empowerment can be the template to connect the three billion emerging users in other developing countries in the Indo-Pacific and across Africa. As digital norms are institutionalised — whether pertinent to data flows and e-commerce, or related to critical infrastructure, defence, and public services — there is a real opportunity for India and the US to build and subsequently provide a model working relationship for the digital economy. Effectively, the US and India can propose a set of ‘Digital Norms for the Indo-Pacific’ that can be operationalised under their various dialogues and mechanisms for cooperation in the region.