Many observers tend to assume that India will play a large and growing part as a great power in a wider ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategic system, that it will use its growing power to balance and limit China’s regional weight. But some caution is called for — although this outcome is possible, it is far from inevitable.
Prime Minister Modi has encouraged leaders in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra to believe that he shares and wants to help promote their vision of Asia’s strategic trajectory. But it is equally probable that India will play little role in the power politics of East Asia. And if it does, it will pursue Indian interests, which may differ substantially from America’s, Japan’s or Australia’s.
There is little doubt that India will acquire the strategic weight to function as a great power in an Indo-Pacific strategic system alongside China, America and Japan. Demographics alone assures its place among the world’s big three economies. India will also remain the preeminent great power in the sub-continental strategic system of which it is the natural centre. But will it function as a great power in a broader strategic system that also encompasses East Asia?
Those who assert the existence of a functioning ‘Indo-Pacific’ region think so. But promoting the region as a policy concept risks assuming what needs to be proved. If India does play a big role in the Western Pacific then that region and the Indian Ocean will indeed function as a single Indo-Pacific strategic system. But if India stands aloof from East Asian power politics, and China does not challenge India west of Sumatra, then these two regions could continue, as they long have, to function as separate strategic systems.
To believe that India simply has no choice but to engage strategically with China because they are such close neighbours is a misreading of the map. They share a long land border, but it is remote and utterly impassable to large land forces. The two relate primarily as maritime powers — and as such they are quite a long way from one another. Each side has choices about how far they intrude into one another’s strategic space. China can choose whether to contest the Indian Ocean, and India can choose whether to contest the Western Pacific.
Each would respond very negatively if the other made such a choice. If either does so then they will become strategic rivals, shaping strategic affairs in both regions profoundly. But the arguments against this are great. Both stand to lose much more than gain. Why then would China challenge India west of Sumatra, or India challenge China to its east?
The US-led order has certainly served India’s interests, and it has every reason to prefer that it be sustained. But India could probably live with an East Asia in which China wielded much more power — even hegemony — as long as it did not try to extend its authority west of Sumatra.
Where India chooses to accept or oppose China’s growing power and influence will be shaped by the costs and risks of opposing China and by anxieties about Beijing’s increasing strength and reach. Delhi has immense stakes of its own in good relations with China. It will not sacrifice them simply to serve Washington’s objective of preserving the old US-led status quo in East Asia.
It is often said that China has no choice but to stake a strong strategic presence the Indian Ocean because it depends so heavily on sea-borne trade across it. But what is the evidence that China must defend its sea-borne trade in the Indian Ocean?
Strategic policymakers and commentators routinely exaggerate threats to maritime trade. Non-state threats are easily managed and economically trivial. Threats from other states almost never happen. No major power has mounted a sustained and economically significant campaign to interdict the maritime trade of another major power since the 18th century — except in a general war. Everyone is equally vulnerable to attacks on trade, and everyone’s economy suffers if anyone’s trade is attacked.
This doesn’t mean such attacks could never happen. It means they would be the result — not the cause — of strategic rivalry. China doesn’t need to challenge India in the Indian Ocean to protect its trade.
The nature of contemporary maritime operations also makes intruding into one another’s sphere of influence hard. Power projection by sea is becoming extremely difficult. The carriers and ships needed for maritime power projection are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a whole range of systems able to find and sink them.
The impressive Chinese ‘anti-access and area denial’ forces that are limiting US strategic power in the Western Pacific could easily prevent India’s navy projecting power east of Sumatra. These same capabilities will also help India prevent China projecting power by sea. This preponderance of maritime defence over offence will tend to keep each power out of the other’s maritime approaches. Their respective nuclear forces will also reinforce a cautious assessment of the costs and benefits of rivalry.
If, despite the lack of motive or means, India did choose to become a major player in a wider Indo-Pacific strategic system, it is far from clear that it would use its power to support Washington’s, Tokyo’s or Canberra’s interests. The four might be united in trying to prevent Chinese hegemony, but they may have different ideas about their desired alternative. India’s aims are much broader than simply promoting US primacy. History shows that a shared desire to resist a potential hegemon is no guarantee of long-term strategic alignment among great powers.