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  • Looking West, Acting East:India's Indo-Pacific Strategy
  • Rohan Mukherjee (bio)

Ever since the Indo-Pacific re-emerged as a viable strategic concept in 2017 and Asia's four democratic major powers — the United States, Japan, Australia and India — reconvened their quadrilateral security dialogue (the Quad), Southeast Asian countries have been wary of ASEAN losing its centrality in the regional political and economic order.1 The conceptual linkage of the two oceans and consequent expansion of geopolitical space was bound to have this effect to some extent. Moreover, the combination of four democratic major powers in a region largely home to single-party governments and authoritarian regimes raised the spectre of goals beyond the containment of China, or at least the containment of China through the creation of democratic transitions on its periphery — this was an argument the original boosters of the Quad in Washington had made in 2007.2 Finally, the overlaying of the Quad on the Indo-Pacific concept gave rise to fears of a return to Cold War–style containment, this time of China, and major-power politics rearing its ugly head yet again in Southeast Asia.3

Although these concerns are real and require a response from ASEAN, Southeast Asian countries can expect to find support from an unexpected quarter: India. When the Quad was originally proposed in 2007, diplomatic protest from China had caused India and Australia to roll back their commitments, and the initiative went into stasis after George W. Bush and Shinzo Abe subsequently left office. A decade later, as the Quad returns, Australia's and China's positions have changed but India's remains the same. Canberra is now an enthusiastic supporter [End Page 43] — arguably because of China's growing attempts to influence Australian civil society and government — and Beijing is less concerned as its own power has grown by leaps and bounds in the intervening decade. New Delhi, however, is and always has been keen to create significant distance between the concept of the Indo-Pacific and the institutional arrangement that is the Quad.

It was telling, for example, that India's official statement following the Quad's landmark Manila meeting in November 2017 diverged significantly from the statements of the other three powers in choosing to omit any mention of freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and maritime security (though these are causes that India has supported in bilateral and trilateral statements).4 When Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2018, he firmly emphasized the importance of the Indo-Pacific being an inclusive region: "India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be."5 The writing on the wall was clear for observers across the region. "In short", noted one Japanese scholar, "Modi's references to inclusiveness mean the inclusion of China."6 Indeed, India's addition of the term "inclusive" to the Japanese formulation of "free and open Indo-Pacific" is now accepted by both Washington and Tokyo — if nothing else, signalling India's pivotal role in the region.7

India's Indo-Pacific Strategy

How is it that a democratic major power engaged in a longstanding border dispute with China, competing with China for geopolitical influence in Asia, and assiduously courted by Western powers as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism would choose a China-friendly interpretation of the Indo-Pacific? The reasoning behind India's inclusive approach to the Indo-Pacific can be deduced from India's grand strategy, or the logic by which India seeks to create security for itself.

Broadly speaking, India has three grand-strategic objectives. The first is domestic, to ensure that the Indian economy continues to grow in a manner that improves the lives of the 224 million Indians currently living in poverty.8 Achieving this goal will require vast sums of development finance channelled towards building and maintaining economic and social infrastructure, as well as a major improvement in state capacity in the long...


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