India is swiftly intensifying its diplomatic initiatives towards the Asia-Pacific region. It has established substantial engagements with the Southeast Asian and Pacific island nations through a series of diplomatic maneuvers camouflaged as a “balancing role”, as described in the Hindustan Times on 8th August. The rationale underlying India’s “Act East” policy is centered on constraining China’s influence within this geographic area. This approach is synergistically reinforced by the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, which affords India a security provider status within the region. Most interestingly, India’s assertion of its predominant role is extending beyond the confines of the Indian Ocean region and manifesting within the Pacific realm as well.
India is undergoing a strategic shift from its longstanding policy of non-alignment by aligning more closely with the United States in efforts to manage China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific. Both China and India hold positions as prominent economies within the region. This trend coincides with the recent publication of a report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), revealing projections of a 4.6 percent growth in the Asia-Pacific for the year 2023. This growth is chiefly attributed to the promising economic prospects of China and India. The report also underscores that the region’s economic expansion is anticipated to contribute to approximately 70 percent of global economic growth. Considering the strained nature of the Asia-Pacific region, India is trying to build strategic influence to compete with China on both the political and the economic fronts.
This is evident through New Dehli’s endorsement of the Philippines, the claimant challenging China in the South China Sea dispute. Last month, Philippines Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo met with his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar in New Delhi. India recognized the legitimacy of the 2016 arbitration ruling by the permanent court of arbitration in favor of Philippines sovereignty claim in the South China Sea dispute. India also offered its defense equipment with concessional price to the Philippines.
Additionally, India’s provision of a naval vessel to Vietnam, another claimant in the same territorial disagreement, as well as gifting a warship to Myanmar, signifies a pattern of actions aimed at bolstering its strategic presence. There is speculation that India may soon sell BrahMos cruise missile (co-produced by Russia and India) to Vietnam, which can create complications for the Chinese military presence in the South China Sea.
Moreover, New Delhi’s involvement in military exercises by sending two aircraft to Australia and the deployment of two warships for a diplomatic visit to Papua New Guinea further underscore its consistent engagement in measures that have the potential to impact regional stability. These endeavors collectively depict a proactive approach by India in playing a consequential role that influences security dynamics in the region.
It is more concerning that India is spoiling the security environment of the Asia-Pacific region by fanning internal disputes in the region. China is keenly observing the ill intentions of India and its efforts to mobilize the ASEAN and South Pacific countries against China. Zhao Gancheng, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute told the Global Times that if China had not cooperated with the South Pacific countries and ASEAN for regional development, the US and India would not have shown such an intense interest in the region. India’s Act East policy reinforced its ambition to further integrate into the Asia-Pacific region.
India is a central part of the Quad, is likely to join AUKUS in the near future, and is the dominant actor in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Recently, Indian naval ships and aircraft participated on the eastern coast of Australia in MALABAR 23 exercise from 11th to 21st August 2023, and in AUSINDEX 23 from 22nd to 24th August 2023. Concurrently, the Indian Kalvari class submarine “Vagir” reached the western coast of Australia on 20th August for the first time in order to build strong naval cooperation with the Australian Navy. It portends drastic repercussions for the security of the Asia-Pacific region.
Australia has been negatively encouraged by the western allies and India. The joint naval drills on 21st August, 2023 conducted by Australia and the Philippines in the South China Sea could be perceived by China as a challenge to its sovereignty. In response, China might choose to bolster its military presence or conduct its own exercises in the region. This action has the potential to heighten tensions and inadvertently result in incidents, given the close proximity of naval and air forces from various countries.
India runs the risk of triggering the creation of distinct geopolitical camps if it continues to take an antagonistic stance against China within the given geographical area. A trajectory like this could lead to an increase in tension and the development of an “in-group versus out-group” mentality. The development of such a combative environment has the potential to adversely affect the course of peace and prosperity. Furthermore, it is possible that states may divert resources and attention away from initiatives such as economic growth, collaborative projects, and regional stability in the event that they start paying more attention to geopolitical rivalries and disputes.