The “war on terror”, launched two decades ago, epitomised the peak of America’s unipolar moment. The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe. The near-universal commitment to this war, within the P-5 and outside, was a demonstration of America’s real power. That was a different time and a different world.
Since then, the US has been implicated in the global financial crisis of 2008. Its flawed domestic landscape and divided democracy have been a public spectacle for global audiences since 2016, from the swearing-in of President Donald Trump to that of President Joe Biden. Both individuals were and are legitimate leaders for only half their nation. America’s botched and self-serving response to the Covid-19 pandemic only hastened the decline of its ethical and moral positioning. Hot on the trail of these events, the hasty and bungled exit from Afghanistan is not just a political event, but part of a continuum, one that points to the momentous unravelling of Pax Americana.
The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe.
It is not the US’s material power alone that has suffered; the institutions undergirding the liberal order are on shaky ground as well. The partisanship of its media and academia are visible to all. It is a nation where trolling as a way of life has replaced a broad national consensus. Morally tinged lectures about the international liberal order are likely to fall on deaf ears for those who witnessed the West’s callous indifference to billions in the developing world still in need of vaccines, or towards the thousands of Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to fight America’s war.
Those watching from capitals in Asia, gearing up for a new era of conflict and competition in the Indo-Pacific, will be even more sceptical. Some among them will be the first victims of the Taliban’s willingness to shelter and nurture terrorist groups. More importantly, the fall of Kabul will serve as a dire reminder of the fate that may befall them if they get mired in great power competition.
For instance, if one lived in Japan, going nuclear may be a sensible option. If you were a resident of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) country, your neighbourhood bully would seem a more predictable and acceptable proposition. No spin can change this. America today is less attractive to many. This is a heavily mediated exit from a partnership and the damage is far greater than any of its other follies.
As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology.
One could even argue that the US’s Indo-Pacific project has already faced its first significant setback. The idea that the US will now focus on China with greater intensity is naïve and suggests a poor understanding of politics. Land frontiers still matter and the US has ceded South and South-West Asia to Beijing. Chinese State media have lampooned and mocked the US’s withdrawal all week.
What role China will eventually play in Afghanistan is uncertain, but it has plans to fill the void that exists. The Chinese model is different and is based on the extraction of value from resources in the host country and providing lucre to the rulers who facilitate this. Tribes and feudal societies tend to work with this model better than the alternatives that seek to turn them into liberal nations and free markets. In the short term at least, China could well emerge as a powerful shaper of the economic and military arrangements in Af-Pak and West Asia.
This episode will have repercussions for the Quad, an ostensibly “counter-China” alliance in the Indo-Pacific. It is time to face up to some home truths.
First, for too long, policymakers in DC have relied on maps that mark the East Indian Ocean as the Indo-Pacific boundary. India’s perspective on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and West Asia has been dismissed time and again. This must change, or India will work with other arrangements to manage the threats that abound. The US must realise that dealing with the influence of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a core Indo-Pacific challenge. Ceding these to China defeats the Western Pacific project as well.
Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted.
Second, even as DC learns to re-imagine the expanse of the Indo-Pacific, it must internalise that Europe and Asia are merging through the efforts of Beijing. As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology. The US cannot afford to ignore this region if it is to remain relevant at the end of the 2020s.
Third, India will continue to assess the US as its most important partner. A declining superpower is easier to do business with. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) sanctions and sermons on “values” could be shrugged off more quickly. Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted. Its reliability and trustworthiness will be measured as per its capacity to contain China’s rise without disrupting the determination of states in the region to seek growth and development on their own terms. A transactional America will now encounter transactional friends.
This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.
This commentary originally appeared in Journal of Governance Security & Development.
The rise of the European Union (EU) witnessed continental Europe’s gradual disengagement from the non-Atlantic world. A post-colonial ‘Little England’ struggled to maintain its relevance even while retreating from lands across oceans and seas. Pax Britannica, once global, ceded place to a trans-Atlantic compact in which Britain was one of many voices, often drowned out by the voices of others.
The Maastricht Treaty ensured Britain was just another member-state of the EU whose sovereignty, to some extent, rested not in London but Brussels. Brexit was aimed at reclaiming that bartered sovereignty and regaining the power—within and beyond Europe—Britain had surrendered between 1946 and 2016; it took four years to formalise the separation, and for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to re-hoist the banner of ‘Global Britain’. This coincides with the ongoing post-pandemic rearrangement of the international order, Britain’s stewardship of the G7 and the COP26, and its enduring role as the premier financial centre of the world through all the trials and tribulations.
Admittedly, Mr Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ faces challenges because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ too faces challenges. If the former’s ‘Global Britain’—leaving the “safe harbour of the EU … at a time of heightened global risk”—is set to sail into previously avoided turbulent seas, so is Mr Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ negotiating a new passage.
For both Britain and India, it is not about changing partners and allies but stating new purpose and intent in a profoundly changed world where pre-pandemic truisms and certitudes have been rendered meaningless. It is about rationalising international engagement. Furthermore, it is about seizing the moment to emerge as a major player in crafting the new order necessitated, in large measure, by a declining America and a rising China. Britain and India must define their role in refashioning the global landscape in which a new continent, Eurasia, and a new water body, the Indo-Pacific, dominate. India has made its move; Britain, too, must.
The Strategic Rise of the Indo-Pacific
The possible blueprint for a future whose geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic landscape is not dominated by the Middle Kingdom is obvious to all, even to those in Europe discomfited by Beijing’s seemingly inexorable continued rise and yet who are unwilling to stand up and be counted. The prospects for a future unburdened by one overwhelming power would appear brighter if nations were to forge partnerships—bilateral, minilateral, plurilateral—within and across geographies. This is already happening: The Indo-Pacific theatre offers the best and, perhaps, most dramatic example.
The political churn in the Indo-Pacific region began even before the pandemic. It gathered speed and gained purpose after the virus disrupted what were perceived to be settled global arrangements and brought to the fore the unfillable cracks that had, till then, been papered over. This churn has thrown up an indisputable fact: India is pivotal to the Indo-Pacific geography and, along with partners, will be defining the future Quad-centric ecosystem. This need not mean adding more members to the Quad comprising the US, Australia, India and Japan. As in the case of building resilient supply chains, it may only amount to specific conversations and initiatives with specific outreach partners. On issues such as climate finance, the UK is a natural Quad cousin.
Having set sail from the ‘safe harbour’ of the EU, Britain must now navigate its way to this geography where it is neither a stranger nor an intruder. Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India.
Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India
Now is the time for the UK to leverage those partnerships and demonstrate that it did not meander its way out of the EU maze directionless, but did so with firm purpose. The forces that shaped Brexit are a powerful wind in Britain’s sails, no longer constrained by either Brussels or Berlin. Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ can and must disprove those who believe it has set itself adrift with neither shore in sight nor destination in mind, by navigating towards the Indo-Pacific region, which accounts for 50 percent of global economic growth—a share that can only increase in the coming times.
Refashioning and Reviving Existing Partnerships
Besides the Quad, Britain and others have a useful and dynamic collective that could be refashioned—the Commonwealth. It is time to reimagine this grouping and give it purpose and new energy. One possibility would be to create a group of eight within the Commonwealth comprising Britain, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Singapore. These eight countries have an influence on and are implicated by the developments in the Indo-Pacific. These countries are crucial for the SDG and Climate agenda, and all of these nations are regional trade hubs and technology centers. These eight can put together a vision for growth, sustainability, technology, and global norms and rules for our future and give teeth to a grouping that has been adrift and make it contemporaneous. Global Britain needs new clubs, but, first, it must explore the opportunities that reside in old partnerships.
Indeed, this provides the perfect fit for the central core strengths of ‘Global Britain’ and the legacies of Great Britain: From finance to the green economy, from technology to knowledge, from education to creative urban design—London leads the race by miles. The British economy is structured in such a manner that other economies stand to benefit from it; there is a mutuality of commercial interest and commonality of political purpose. Unlike the EU, ‘Global Britain’ does not need to offshore its economy.
The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year. Britain has the capability to finance a rising nation’s transition to a green future; India and South Asia have the capacity to absorb green investments by Britain as it prepares to transit from the old to the new. Climate partnerships will prove to be the most resilient partnerships of the future, and Britain must know this and act accordingly. The City of London is a natural fit for this endeavour, but it is by no means the only candidate. An enlightened approach, including technology and access to it, can work to mutual and planetary benefit. It is for Britain to demonstrate that its approach is strategic rather than tactical. Released earlier this year, the ‘UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ is an excellent document. It needs to be put into action quickly.
The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year
‘Global Britain’ should not mean Britain’s World. It should rather signify Britain with the world. Through effective engagement, backed by its very own Indo-Pacific strategy based on the twin principles of prosperity and security, it can help reinforce a “sustainable rules-based order in the region that is resilient but adaptable to the great power realities of the 21stcentury”. In all this, the centrality of India is beyond debate or doubt, which only serves to underscore that Britain should naturally invest in and with India. Yet, Britain comes into the contemporary Indo-Pacific as a latecomer, its historical role notwithstanding. It has to add value to the Quad template and India’s own evangelising of the Indo-Pacific; it cannot presume to be a leader by default or based on the past.
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.