by Darshana M. Baruah. She is a Junior Fellow at the New Delhi based think tank, Observer Research Foundation, is working on the South China Sea and has completed her Masters in International Relations from Cardiff University in 2012.Non-alignment has been a distinct characteristic of India’s identity post independence. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) kept New Delhi at the neutral table during the Cold War and helped India voice its own concerns and formulate its own ideas without any association to the great powers. This movement focused on “… the support of self-determination, national independence and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States… non-adherence to multilateral military pacts and the independence of non-aligned countries from great power or block influences and rivalries…”. It did India good allowing New Delhi to establish an identity of its own. The same policy now is holding India back from playing the role it aspires to in the region.
If the 21st century is the Asian Century then the next battleground is Asia’s waters. The maritime domain in Asia is changing rapidly in effect altering the security architecture in place since the end of the Cold War. It is not that India is unaware of the changes around it security environment or isn’t attempting to bring about changes in its policies, but that is allowing the principles of non-alignment hold its vision back. What India needs to accept is that non-alignment is not the same as non-engagement. The world is fast approaching a multi-polar security model in which India can play a significant role. India and the region realises that but the fear of being clubbed into an alliance is slowing New Delhi down.
Take a look at the maritime domain. India has managed to inject a new level of enthusiasm in its engagements with the region. The policy directive under the Modi government is looking beyond its immediate neighbourhood to far-away potentially strategic areas such as the South Pacific Islands. The Indian Navy’s interactions with the navies of the region — old and new — are being appreciated, inciting new hopes that the changing geo-politics in the Indo-Pacific may have finally woken New Delhi from its slumber. These changes were surprising and unexpected but were warmly welcomed. Some changes are couched in details. For instance, the India-US Joint Strategic vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region was suggestive toward India’s willingness to collaborate with other actors while maintaining its own identity. While New Delhi has mostly refrained from making statements on the South China Sea disputes in the past, India not only began to advocate dispute resolution in the region but also acknowledged the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea” in a joint statement with the Philippines. Japan’s continued participation at the India-US bilateral MALABAR exercises is enough to indicate that there has been a shift in New Delhi’s maritime policies. Much to everyone’s surprise, India was considering upgrading the bilateral exercise into a “trilateral India-US-Japan exercise“. However, India stopped short of elevating it to a tri-lateral level exercise perhaps held back by the notion of being represented as a quasi alliance. A third case in point is the recently released Maritime Security Strategy (Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy). The strategy is the first time that the Indian government in an official document has acknowledged the changes in Indo-Pacific affecting India’s maritime environment. It is also the first time, that the Indian Navy has outlined what it means to be a net security provider. All of these developments most certainly indicate toward a shift in India’s thinking and maritime policies.
However, the period of utopia marking perhaps the beginning of a new Indian strategic thought process, is quickly wearing off. Almost two years after the Modi government came into power some of India’s historic baggage is catching up with New Delhi’s footsteps, reducing momentum and questioning promises that shone through in the first year. At the pace that the geo-political changes are occurring, India will have to move beyond symbolic gestures and start engaging at a deeper level.
[…] the [U.S.] Department [of Defense] sees a strategic convergence between India’s “Act East” policy and the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, and we are seeking to reinforce India’s maritime capabilities as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean region and beyond. Given our broad shared interests in maritime security, the Department has developed a three-pronged approach to maritime cooperation with India: maintaining a shared vision on maritime security issues; upgrading the bilateral maritime security partnership; and collaborating to
both build regional partner capacity and improve regional maritime domain awareness. — “The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy: Achieving U.S. National Security Objectives in a Changing Environment“, U.S. Departement of Defense, p. 28.
India has always been conscious of fighting someone else’s battle and has been right in that respect. History is evidence that the alliance system has put the best of nations in the middle of wars they are better off without. This is perhaps one of America’s biggest baggage that India is afraid of being dragged into. True, that stronger collaborations with Washington in the maritime domain could appear as directed against one particular nation. But, would it still stand true when the majority of Indian and American interests are already aligned in the Indian Ocean region?
Washington is the power in the Indian Ocean region — an area of great strategic significance for India’s maritime interest. Today, America stands ready to cooperate with India at a much stronger level promoting New Delhi as the net security provider in the region. If Washington needs India to shoulder some of the responsibilities in the region, then India too needs to establish itself as a credible security provider in the emerging security architecture. Cooperating with some of the big powers in the region can only add to India’s ambition of being a net security provider. True, that there are plenty of issues in Indo-US ties but neither India nor the US should allow one aspect of their relationship to overshadow the potential in another domain. India and the US can be great partners in the maritime domain and it could work effectively in India’s advantage as the security architecture continues to evolve. In fact, India must play its role in steering the discourse toward a structure built upon a multipolar world.
It is not just the US, most nations of the Indo-Pacific — Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Singapore — seek greater engagement with India. New Delhi has options at this point in time and if it plays its cards right, India will emerge as a credible stakeholder in the unfolding geo-politics.
India must now convince itself that its actions will not be perceived as an agreement to an alliance — especially since most nations are conscious of India’s sensitivity surrounding the issue. New Delhi has to shed its non-alignment inhibitions and let its own new ideas and political will take control.
The world stands ready to listen to India — New Delhi has to make up its mind. India has to build on its bilateral relationships and reach new levels of friendship. India cannot hope to function in isolation. There is definitely a start — a beginning that is much appreciated. All New Delhi needs to do now is substantiate its intentions with meaningful actions and sustain the momentum. New Delhi does not need to and will not walk behind or walk into someone else’s expectations. But India has to learn that non-engagement will do more harm than good to New Delhi’s strategic and security interests in the maritime domain.
India and the United States are making progress in talks on the joint development of an aircraft carrier for India, U.S. Navy Admiral John Richardson said on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, potentially the biggest military collaboration between them. The two countries agreed to work together on aircraft carrier technology as well as jet engines during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India last year in a strengthening of ties to balance China’s expanding military power in the region. For its Indigenous Aircraft Carrier 2, INS Vishal, India has sought U.S. assistance, especially state-of-the-art technology to launch aircraft. Richardson said the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) that enabled a navy to fly heavier planes from a carrier was part of the discussions with India. After years of neglect, the Indian government has approved the navy’s plans for a dozen new submarines, six of them nuclear-powered. More than 40 warships are under construction (Sanjeev Miglani, Robert Birsel and Gareth Jones, “U.S. says making progress in aircraft carrier collaboration with India“, Reuters, 03.02.2016).