ONEspare any garden enthusiast and they will tell you that some things are more revealing than others. The same can be said about recent times Indo-Pacific Strategy published by the White House. Its temperate tone indicates a new reality; to like it or not, China is a power to contend with and that neither the United States nor anyone else is likely to accept it. This is a ‘let’s learn to live together’ document, which will annoy China’s observers, although it focuses on the need for everyone to work together, while elevating India as a leading partner in this effort. That’s not a good thing at all. But then, as in life, few things are clearly black and white, especially now.
Politics, politics and more politics
If there is one thing that can be said about the United States, it is that there is a level of apparent transparency in which the White House publishes various political documents in the public sphere, such as Temporary national security strategy or a National defense strategy, which is mandated by Congress before it loosens its budget for budgeting. A new national security strategy (NSS) is under way, as is the defense strategy. But here’s the thing. The Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) is not a congressional claim, but is a purely political paper that follows almost exclusively from the Joe Biden administration’s decision to upgrade the Quad to summit level and give final shape to its policy in a region it recognizes. as vital. To that extent, it is aimed at external audiences, but as it will also flow into the upcoming NSS, it is also addressed to Congress in terms of funding specific programs such as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. Do not think that the whole thing is an exercise in transparency. Like all countries, the United States has every right to say one thing and do another. That is what national security policy is all about. Moreover, this is the unclassified version.
The document follows a double track. On the one hand, it conveys the United States’ will to strengthen itself in the Indo-Pacific region, and on the other hand, it dampens this by noting: “Our goal is not to change China. [People’s Republic of China] but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, to build a balance of influence in the world that is maximally beneficial to the United States, our allies and partners ”. The usual reference to “compete” with China remains – remember even the warlike Donald Trump Used the same language – with the difference that the document at the outset notes China’s coercion against all neighbors including India – a detail that should please Indians annoyed by an apparent indifference from the United States to its lonely struggle in Ladakh.
So what’s the plan? The first priority is, of course, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FoIP), to be implemented with five treaty partners and nine regional partners, all of whom will be encouraged to join forces and build “bridges” to Europe. This is against a China whose only reliable ‘partner’ is Pakistan, which is more of a handicap than anything else. An ‘economic framework’ for shared prosperity is planned in stark contrast to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in a region that has some 31 nations aboard the Chinese megaplan. The regional infrastructure must be led through the G-7, a money game that should please these prosperous economies. Then there is an obligation to work with partners on ‘transnational threats’ such as climate change, which was expected. Keep in mind that energy conversion is now big money, with as much as $ 173 trillion is expected to drive this and requires not only rare earths but also other lesser known elements such as. cobalt used in batteries and the demand for is expected to increase by approx. 70 pct. To get all this, you need others, and that applies just as much to the United States as to India. In particular, there is no reference to terrorism – a major transnational threat to India, which occupied a prominent place in the Quad Joint Declaration. It finds only marginal space in the ‘security’ section of this White House document.
Then the central issue of security, which must be met by ‘Integrated Deterrence’, that is, cyber, space and new technologies, with the central requirement that everyone work together. This includes the goal of “steadily promoting our great defense partnership with India and supporting its role as a network security provider”. That sounds interesting. And hopefully it will mean more than just buying additional US platforms. There is a “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” to be unveiled soon, and a Maritime Security Initiative that is likely to be described in separate policy papers (and budget documents).
The most important aspect that will make Indian security experts cheer is a complete section on India labeled “Support India’s Continued Progress and Leadership”. It places the country largely in “South Asia”, but with “leadership” in the Indian Ocean, and for being “active and connected” with Southeast Asia and a “driving force” in Quad and other regional forums. All bets are on saying that the text was completed during the meeting with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar in Melbourne, as well as the section on Quad, which retains it as a group working on health, environment and the like. It also earmarks the sharing of satellite information into maritime domain “consciousness” – which in simple terms means that any movement in the Indian Ocean area will be closely monitored, which is admirably suited to India, and in some ways is already in progress with a recently appointed Maritime Safety Coordinator. When this ‘consciousness’ is detailed and comprehensive, it moves from ‘information’ to ‘intelligence’. It is not a given, but it is a give and take.
Overall, the strategy takes a cautious middle ground on China for several reasons. First, any major overplay of the ‘threat’ would have frightened some allies or partners. Take, for example, the emphasis on ASEAN unity – and an upcoming summit with the grouping – which paints the stark differences within it on how to deal with China. Thailand, for example, sees China very differently from Vietnam, and the ‘Chinese model’ of strong leadership is not seen as opposed to value systems in some of these capitals. Then there is Japan, which, despite moving quickly towards a more robust defense, is making a delicate balancing act with China. Even treaty partners like Germany have no ‘vital’ interests involved in the China struggle. Also consider European Union ‘strategy’ for the Indo-Pacific – it’s no strategy at all. After all, 18 of them are part of the BRI. Washington is more than aware of the risk-taking situation in most countries in the region.
Then there is the reality that Washington itself is pretty risk-averse, just like much of the post-Covid world. Economies have been hit, and inflation hurts the president, but not his stance on defense. Bidens ‘Build back better‘Bill has not yet been allowed, but US growth is at the heart of even his national security guidance. Not surprisingly, the Indo-Pacific strategy therefore also has a strong underlying thread for what benefits the US economy. True, it also includes cuts to Chinese territorial ambitions. But again, the reality is that the ‘Chinese threat’ is as much internal as it is external, which means ensuring a good trade or protection of technology, even while building the resilience of the supply chain. And which United States Trade Representative notes that Biden’s ‘North Star’ is in the interests of the United States and the United States cannot protect them per se. This is also the reason why most security experts still do not see that Quad can and should not be about safety alone. Its role in Indo-Pacific should be all of the above and more. So the policy document is all about ‘competition’ about technology and territory that is likely to be tough, and about ‘cooperation’, which is mentioned 20 times.
There is gold in the plan; it is also expensive
For India, there is money to be made in cooperation, especially as a cheap alternative supply base along with possible access to technology and consequent employment – keep in mind that unemployment is a huge problem in the ongoing Uttar Pradesh election, and is likely to come to the center further down the line. But moving around the Indo-Pacific, despite an increase in the Indian Navy budget, becomes expensive in other ways. Beijing will certainly be startled, despite all the (relatively) peaceful talk, and will choose to prime Pakistan with more weapons – in addition to frigates and submarines – to keep India entangled in the West, even if it keeps the pressure on the North. China is foolish in the sense of not being able to see such actions pushing India more into the embrace of the United States. So yes, black-and-white elections are not possible unless Beijing decides to reduce its troop build-up and end its warfare. Since it is unlikely, welcome to a gray world.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Their tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)