India as a reassuring force within the Indo-Pacific

In Focus
India as a reassuring force within the Indo-Pacific
A new report by Chatham House shows that India is pivotal to strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific and it is in the process of actively assessing its reach, interests and focus.

A new report by UK-based think tank Chatham House evaluates the role of India within the region, in the wake of Britain’s new Integrated Review tilt towards the Indo-Pacific.

In some cases, France is considered a more reliable partner by India when compared to the UK – this is the finding of a new report on the Indo-Pacific region by the London-headquartered Royal Institute of International Affairs, popularly referred to as Chatham House.

The ‘Indo-Pacific Strategies, Perceptions and Partnerships’ analysis, released this month, is based on field research, roundtables and face-to-face interviews in seven countries chosen to provide a variety of perspectives and insights on the Indo-Pacific, particularly regarding policy strategies and objectives.

The research uncovered shared internal divisions within the sample countries in how they perceive and engage with China. In a sense, against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, some of these divisions have since been resolved with countries generally more cautious towards China.

Pivotal to balance

The analysis notes that India is pivotal to strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific and it is in the process of actively assessing its reach, interests and focus.

“India’s strategic community has been disconcerted by increased Chinese maritime activity in the region, which is often seen as dual use, such as Chinese military activity at the ‘commercial’ Gwadar port in Pakistan,” notes the research.

One participant in the research said that part of India’s positioning was to make partners feel that “if they think China is scary, India is reassuring”.

There was a stated desire to expand aspects of the Quad to other like-minded countries, including possibly Indonesia, Vietnam and France, and to put more emphasis on the economic component. Economically, the perception was that there were two supply chains developing in the region, one driven by the US, and the other by China.

The India -France relationship is seen as largely politically risk-free, with no direct tensions, and is projected to grow even deeper, as opposed to the view on India- UK relations.
The India -France relationship is seen as largely politically risk-free, with no direct tensions, and is projected to grow even deeper, as opposed to the view on India- UK relations.

India-UK vs India-France

The analysis found that Indian private and public sector companies had good relations with French counterparts, and France was considered a major actor in the Indo-Pacific. The relationship was seen as largely politically risk-free, with no direct tensions, and was projected to grow even deeper.

“This was in contrast to the near-unanimous agreement among participants that the India-UK strategic relationship would not grow stronger, at least in the short term,” it notes.

Reflecting a common perception, one participant in the research was quoted as saying that “the UK cannot have a successful Indo-Pacific strategy without a flourishing strategic relationship with India. Such a relationship has not yet been built”.

Focal point

The research, authored by Cleo Paskal – Associate Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Programme and the Energy, Environment and Resources Programme of Chatham House, accepts that the Indo-Pacific region is now a significant geopolitical strategic focal point. A wide range of countries are actively adapting their strategic outlooks and formulating specific policies for the Indo-Pacific, “sometimes without fully understanding how these may be perceived by their partners”.

The extensive field research for the Chatham House paper was conducted in the US, the UK, France, India, Tonga, Japan and China.

It finds that one potential partnership framework that has the flexibility to incorporate a range of perspectives, while being effective enough to shape a more secure future, is an Indo-Pacific Charter – modelled on the Atlantic Charter of 1941.

Pandemic effect

The analysis concludes that the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated timelines in regard to China and the Indo-Pacific, which resulted in decreased internal divisions, more certainty and less hedging, creating the possibility of deeper, more effective partnerships.

It finds that the world is potentially entering a new era of alliances and partnerships. For example, at the start of the field research, the UK permitted the use of Huawei equipment in its telecommunications backbone in spite of security concerns and the potential effect on its relationship with the US. By the end of the research phase, London was proposing a D10 alliance of democracies – the G7 members plus India, South Korea and Australia – to create a 5G competitor to Huawei.

“Global strategic focus has shifted to the Indo-Pacific. How the region handles the next few years will determine if it becomes the cradle of crises or solutions,” it concludes.

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