India Wary of US Embrace on “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” Policy

With China’s assertiveness posing a potential threat to the security of its Asian neighbours, open regional trade and a rules-based international order, the US has been pushing for a greater role for India in the vast Indo-Pacific region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.

Indeed, as the world's ninth-largest economy, the country under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is responding, beginning to flex its economic, military and diplomatic clout, seeking a major role in the regional balance of power. Under Modi, India has already demonstrated its credibility as a contributor to the Indo-Pacific balance through joint military exercises, patrolling, port calls, anti-piracy missions and humanitarian missions.

Some critics, however, believe Washington's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy, which is theoretically built around the concept of a coalition of like-minded democracies to defend against China’s threats to the international order, liberal values and free access to the maritime commons and accords India a top spot, is fundamentally flawed.

Given the bellicosity of the Trump administration, the initiative, they add, will likely needlessly provoke China, alarm other Asian nations and drive the region into a tense, zero-sum competition. Such a confrontational posture risks a pointless Cold War with Beijing, they say.

Micheal D. Swaine, for one, points out in an analysis for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that "What Asia needs instead is a far more constructive regional approach grounded in a stable balance of power and in mutual compromise."

Beijing is already smarting at American attempts to paint it as a regional bully out to damage established economic and security architectures. Never mind if Washington's own stance in tackling the geopolitical and geo-economic tussles in Asia stands undermined due to Trump's policy flipflops, his penchant to bruise established global economic/security structures and his simplistic reduction of bilateral relations to the twin binaries of pro or anti-America.

In fact former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called out China as a clear threat engaged in unqualified “predatory” lending and other destructive practices that curtail the freedom and sovereignty of developing nations. Moreover, in responding to such evils, he suggested that the United States, under the free-and-open policy, must offer “alternative financing mechanisms.” Tillerson has now been shown the door and a chaotic State Department is trying to rechart its bearings.

The Trump administration has not only rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership omnibus trade pact, which would have been the world’s biggest such agreement, it has offered no alternative financial apparatus that could expect to have the same transformational regional effect – in addition to threatening a trade war with Beijing. And, given the disarray in US policy, it appears unlikely to. Currently on the outside looking in as the 11 other signatories to the trade pact move forward, the US may be beginning to regret that decision. US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, in a Chile speech in February, said the US would be open to rejoining, only to have the other signatories say privately that they want nothing to do with the US and what could be months or years of renegotiation to meet the Trump administration’s demands.

"This cartoonish depiction ignores the significant scholarly literature and previous US government statements about how Chinese economic assistance actually benefits developing countries in some important ways, or about how Chinese-organized financial institutions—such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—might augment, rather than undermine, similar Western-oriented institutions," Swaine wrote.

Not that India is gung-ho about the US's FOIP in its current model either. Though flattered by the US attention to accord it primacy in its plans for the region, Indian officials feel the FOIP is riddled with ambiguity and the project – though good in intent – lacks coordination at the ground level.

Against India’s ability to play a significant strategic role is the fact that the country’s military is in shambolic condition and likely to stay that way in the near term. As Asia Sentinel reported on March 18, the country’s armed forces “are seriously under-equipped with outdated armaments ranging from guns and tanks to fighter jets, but the government seems to lack both the political will and the financial and bureaucratic capability to remedy the situation.”

For India to play a significant role in the Indo-Pacific strategy, Indian officials feel the US must empower it economically. On the contrary, Washington's moves on the economic bilateral front have acted as proverbial sticks in the spokes of the wheel. From tightening of H-1B visa processes that have had a bruising effect on Indian IT companies to launching a challenge at the World Trade Organization against India’s export subsidy programs and threatening reciprocal duties on Indian exports to the United States to match India’s 50 percent tariff on Harley Davidson motorcycles, Trump – India feels – is playing both Jekyll and Hyde.

In addition, FOIP that claims a role for “competitive diplomacy” and “advancing American influence” will likely result in Indian influence shrinking as the US is not giving it economic leverage, Parikh said.

"If India is to be a match for China – whose economy is more than four times bigger – then the US should facilitate its fast track movement to economic growth. By putting a dampener on economic relations and not paying heed to Indian sensitivities, Trump is hampering – not aiding – India's chances to be a truly influential player in Asia. This defeats the very purpose of FOIP," Parikh concluded.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and senior journalist and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel