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US Strategic Policy for Indo Pacific Region (14 January 2021)

US Strategic Policy for Indo Pacific Region (14 January 2021)

Context:

With just a week to go before its end, the Trump administration has declassified a sensitive document on the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific from 2018. The 10-page document, declassified in part by US National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, outlines objectives and strategies with regard to China, North Korea, India and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Framed more than two years before the India-China military standoff along the Line of Actual Control, the strategy makes more than 20 mentions of India – seeing it as pre-eminent in South Asia… taking on the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security.

Background:

Last year, India and China were engaged in their deadliest border dispute in decades along the Line of Actual Control, killing 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers.

Just last week U.S. Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster had said that the U.S. cooperated with India to counter China’s “aggressive” actions along the LAC, but did not provide details of this cooperation.

Summary of the Debate

Purpose behind declassifying the document at this time:

  • There are many experts in USA who feel that perhaps, it was to divert attention from the attack on Capitol but this was not so because the decision to declassify was taken well before the attack on the US Capitol took place.
  • The declassification is an obvious attempt for policy, continuity. This is in light of concerns that a Biden administration may not be so committed to challenging China’s bid for dominance or to the idea of Indo-Pacific.
  • To communicate to the USA allies and partners, the enduring commitment of the United States to keeping the Indo-Pacific region free and open long into the future

Key Points of the document:

Objectives towards India:

  • To build a stronger foundation for defence cooperation, expand defence trade and ability to transfer defence technology to enhance India’s status as a Major Defence Partner.
  • To increase cooperation on shared regional security concerns and encourage India’s engagement beyond the Indian Ocean Region.
  • This declassified document sees India as a net provider of security.

Objectives on China:

  • China is the primary state actor of concern outlined in the document.
  • As per the Framework, Beijing is increasingly pressuring Indo-Pacific nations to subordinate their freedom and sovereignty to a "common destiny" envisioned by the Chinese Communist Party.
  • Stopping China from establishing “illiberal spheres of influence”.

Act-East policy:

  • To support India’s “Act East” policy and “its aspiration to be a leading global power.
  • The US objective is to convince the Kim regime that the only path to its survival is to relinquish its nuclear weapons.
  • China aims to dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships across the region.
  • Chinese military, economic and diplomatic influence will continue to increase in the short term.
  • China will exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.

Security Issues and Strategic Challenges in the Indo-Pacific:

  • The reason why Indo-Pacific is now like the fulcrum for geopolitical contestation is because of the phenomenal rise of China and until 20 years ago, it was not seen as so important, even until the Obama administration and even for a while under Trump.
  • India is facing brunt of the Chinese rise, whether it’s border, whether it’s trade, whether it’s neighbourhood, it’s undermining democracies, it’s undermining regimes very openly.
  • There was a division of attention, the USA was often distracted by Russia, by the middle east and in many ways, it allowed China to quietly build muscle and to strengthen muscle without any kind of pressure or any kind of check on its rise.
  • There are some signals that Biden administration may not be as aggressive in pushing back against China as Trump was at least in the last final two years of his term.
  • The USA is concerned about the China’s expansionism both in the territorial sense and in the economic one and India have also the reasons to be concerned about the same fact.
  • The problem during Trump was that they had the vision but they were very haphazard and because Trump had other agendas or populist agendas, he cannot bring everybody together under one platform, for example, Japan and South Korea almost broke away their intelligence sharing, joint defense, etc.
  • Trump was more like unilateral pressure on China. He was not so good at forming alliances or broadcast coalitions.

Impact of India Quad cooperation on India-Russia relationship:

  • Russia has vehemently attacking the concept of Indo-Pacific, last year when the Russian Foreign Minister was in Delhi, he was almost ridiculing the concept of the Indo-Pacific and arguable for Asia-Pacific.
  • India explaining to Russia that when we had the concept of the Asia-Pacific starting with the APEC in the early 1990s, Asia-Pacific stopped at Thailand. Countries west of Thailand were not part of it and therefore, India was out of it.
  • Russia ‘s unfortunate problem is that Russia economically and demographically is losing out.
  • Russian military demands is very good, Russian technology and some of the sectors remains very good but the non-oil, non-mineral economy is shrinking at a very fast rate, their population is shrinking at a fast rate. So, Russia sees this window of opportunity in the world is reducing.
  • Russia has tied up with China very emphatically to loans, to pipelines, selling of gas.
  • For India, the Asia-Pacific is definitely the dead concept. Indo-Pacific makes it clear that India is very much part of not the problem, the solution and therefore, the rise of India in the Indo-Pacific is something that has to be understood in a context of maintaining stability in the region and reducing tensions.
  • India still wants to have good relations with Russia for example, India is going ahead with SS 400.

Way Forward:

  • India and US should be natural allies because both have democracies, both are secular, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic.
  • It is important to keep the focus on China and to engage with the Americans to work together in third countries for infrastructure, building connectivity corridors.
  • Indo-Pacific should not be only military construct, India and US have to do civilian things together.
  • Whether this counter intelligence, cyber security, whether it’s dealing with the new forms biogenetics and all the forms of cutting-edge technologies, India’s capacities has to be strengthened in the larger interest of maintaining rule-based order.

Important points made by the Guests

Shakti Sinha, Director, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of International Studies, Vadodara 

  • India can only do more diplomatically, militarily and intelligence if it works with other partners and this document makes it very clear that the USA has to work to strengthen Indian capabilities on all these three International fronts diplomatic, military and intelligence.
  • Chinese counter buildup is also tremendous, the kind of anti-ship missiles they have developed, the kind of thrust they are making on Taiwan, across the South China Sea, their coast guard, their navy.
  • Chinese also tried to wade into India’s backyard in a big way in the last decade or so.
  • In the name of belt and road initiative, they have encroached, they have got close relationship with many of India’s traditional neighbours like in Sri Lanka and in Maldives in the past.
  • Chinese do not believe that their overcapacity, in terms of industrial production and the surplus they have accumulate, they did not believe that they can be used domestically, they need access to more and more territory.
  • China’s debt trap, the way they are grabbing a strategic land all over.

Prabhu Dayal, Former Ambassador 

  • There is a great deal significance which is attached to India in this particular document.
  • This document has provided the critical template for formulating US policy since 2018 when Donald Trump signed it.
  • It outlines the strategy to counter Beijing’s increasing influence in the Indo-Pacific. Plans to deal with North Korea as well as importance of strengthening India as a military counterbalance to China.
  • When India became independent in 1947, the cold war was already on and India chose to be independent, a non-aligned country. That was misunderstood by Americans who viewed matters in a different perspective. In their view, either you were with them or you were against them.
  • Unfortunately, a military dictatorship like Pakistan headed by Generals Ayub Khan became allies of USA while India was forced to go into a closer relationship with the Soviet Union.

Dr. Sreeram Chaulia, Foreign Affairs Expert

  • It’s a transition period and the outgoing administration wants the same level of pressure that they had applied on china or even more than that to carry on in the new incoming Biden administration.
  • Trump administration had National security Strategy that they issued early in the administration in 2017 and this seems to be a subset of that for this region because their National security Strategy encompasses different regions of the world.
  • Releasing it is to ensure that the US knows and does not forget who the real challenge is. It is not Russia, it in not even North Korea although North Korea is the subset of Chines problem, it is China.
  • Now as of 2020, the US Indo-Pacific command for example, around 60 percent of all the US navy ships are in this region, 55 percent of the US military is positioned here, two-thirds of the marines are in the Indo-Pacific.

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