Modi’s much-hyped US visit has shifted no sand in the Indo-Pacific alliance
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
July 3, 2023
Many see Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States as significant amid global economic and geopolitical headwinds. Once denied a US visa over human rights concerns, Modi is now viewed by Washington as a critical partner, and India as a counterforce against China’s rising assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
Over the visit, India and the United States concluded discussions on a wide range of issues from defence and emerging technology to collaboration on space exploration. The accords recognise India’s role as an important US partner and support the strengthening of India’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. But while Washington has long seen India as a strategic partner to offset China’s regional aspirations, New Delhi has never been totally at ease with the label. Yet, without India’s full engagement, the US’ Indo-Pacific policy, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or any other grouping of nations hoping to check China would be nothing more than a talking point.
Given the impossibility of coercing China into demilitarising the South China Sea, the US has intensified its safeguarding of the freedom of navigation in two crucial maritime areas: the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. This elucidates the US characterisation of India as a genuine strategic partner. The US has long urged India to assume its responsibilities as the Indian Ocean’s maritime and naval centre. But in addition to the US and China, Russia has emerged as a noteworthy if discreet contributor to the Indo-Pacific.
In aspiring towards a military presence in the Pacific, Russia has positioned itself as a provider of weapons and energy to smaller nations in the Indo-Pacific, including Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. These countries, concerned about being entangled in the US-China rivalry, seek alternatives. Russia is also India’s primary arms supplier, which means the Indian armed forces are dependent on Moscow for military equipment spare parts.
For India, Russia is an established strategic partner. No wonder India, which has the G20 presidency this year, while acknowledging the geopolitical tensions around Ukraine, has implored nations to avoid letting divisive topics hinder agreement on less controversial issues.
India is the world’s largest buyer of Russian weaponry, accounting for around 20 per cent of Russia’s order book. From 2018-2022, Russia was India’s biggest source of weapons, contributing 45 per cent of India’s arms imports. France was the second-largest supplier with 29 per cent, the US was third with just 11 per cent. Hence, even if the Pentagon seeks to reduce India’s reliance on Russian arms, this is not happening any time soon and thus affects India’s stance on issues like the Ukraine war.
The same asymmetry exists on the economic front. Last year, India-China trade reached an all-time high of US$135.98 billion, according to Chinese customs data. According to India’s commerce ministry, however, which marks the financial year as starting from April 1, the US was India’s largest trading partner in 2022-2023 with US$128.55 billion worth of trade, and China was in second place. But whichever the figure, it is dwarfed by the value of US-China trade, which grew 2.5 per cent last year to reach a record US$690.6 billion.
In other words, geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific is being eclipsed by the underlying geoeconomics, with no shift in sight despite US sanctions, trade wars and the strategy of de-risking from China. During Modi’s visit, several House Democrats decided to stage a boycott of his speech to Congress to show their opposition to the Indian government’s poor track record on human rights, especially regarding India’s Muslim minority.
Four lawmakers issued a statement, calling Modi addressing a joint session of Congress a “shameful” display and arguing that in allowing it, “Congress undermines its ability to be a credible advocate for the rights of religious minorities and journalists around the world”. Imagine the reaction from China if the same treatment were meted out to President Xi Jinping.
India has long maintained its strategic autonomy, making judgments that best serve its national interests, and is likely to hew to that blueprint even as it enters yet another “quasi-alliance” with the US – both sides hailed the US-India Comprehensive Global and Strategic Partnership at the conclusion of Modi’s trip. Maintaining autonomy will allow India to show its credentials as an alternative power to China in Asia, avoid being characterised as deputy sheriff to the US, and pursue its aspiration of becoming an independent Asian power.
India remains in a security quandary, given China’s development, Russia’s strategic convergence with China and the US’ conceptually ambiguous Indo-Pacific geopolitical stance. In addressing this predicament, India has moved from non-alignment to strategic autonomy, but this also raises questions about its strategic trajectory. These revolve around whether India will establish a formal alliance with the US, sustain its engagement with China, uphold long-standing ties with Russia, or intensify the implementation of its “Act East” policy.
From suspicion to antagonism, past complaints to future prospects, it has taken the US and India three-quarters of a century just to establish an economic-strategic relationship. Modi’s trip to the US was little more than an engagement aimed at devising strategies to counter an assertive China and expanding the US-India partnership’s role in promoting stability in the region.
The meeting, held with the professed intention of cooperation, connectivity and a strategic partnership, appeared to offer little more than Washington’s desire to protect its Indo-Pacific interests by building deeper connections with New Delhi. For all the hype and hope over Modi’s visit, no sand has shifted for the much-touted Indo-Pacific alliance, nor will it any time soon.