Blinkers Off: Reimagining India's Role Within The Quad

Blinkers Off: Reimagining India's Role Within The Quad

by Gaurie Dwivedi - Tuesday, December 21, 2021 07:55 PM IST
Blinkers Off: Reimagining India's Role Within The QuadCover of the book.
  • What India must do henceforth to stonewall rising Chinese muscle, and in the process, rediscover its identity as a major regional powerhouse.

Blinkers Off: How Will the World Counter China. Gaurie Dwivedi. Pentagon Press. 2021. Rs. 677. Pages 277.

For the Quad to succeed in its second innings, there has to be greater convergence among the member-nations to check China’s rising influence, not just in the South China Sea (SCS), but also in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The Quad must supplement New Delhi’s response to China’s growing clout in its bastion.

India must make amends to its neglect and apathy, which allowed it to loosen its presence in this region. For India, the post-pandemic-altered geo-political climate is a wake-up call for the ramifications of ceding space in its own backyard.

Far from building on its historic relations, New Delhi witnessed several of its neighbours charmed by Beijing’s cheque book.

Beijing resorted to its age-old military and strategic doctrine of Wei qi to encircle India. Unlike the traditional Western game of chess, the Chinese technique of Wei qi relies on strategic encirclement of the opponent by building leverage.

Since accumulating relative advantage takes time, Wei qi emphasizes patience. Wei qi, which means ‘a game of surrounding pieces’, is a board game where both players seek to surround the other to build a relative position of strength.

This is in sharp contrast to Western philosophy encapsulated in the game of chess, which is a winner-takes-it-all game. After deploying Wei qi, over time, Beijing succeeded in limiting India’s influence in countries which have had deep socio-cultural ties with it.

New Delhi must alter its present policy to reclaim its place in this region, both with its neighbours on land and with the IOR littorals.

The Asia-Pacific is now termed as the Indo-Pacific due to the widespread recognition of the role India must play in it. But to actualise this and regain its dominance, New Delhi needs a multi-pronged strategy.

New Delhi needs to first start by rebuilding its partnerships with the littorals. In his book The India Way, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has written about New Delhi’s altered maritime strategy, with the IOR forming a crucial aspect. To actualise this, India will have to enhance engagements with its island neighbours.

New Delhi has deep historical and cultural ties with the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka; and has for long been their natural ally.

This equity must be harnessed and traditional social links with these countries must be strengthened. After years of relentless efforts by Beijing to buy influence in the IOR, New Delhi will now have to adopt bold diplomacy to reclaim lost ground.

But first, it needs to learn lessons from the Beijing-backed ‘India Out’ campaign by opposition parties in the Maldives which maligned New Delhi.

The campaign succeeded due to India’s inability to counter such narratives early on, deepening its trust deficit with Male. Since then, India’s relations with the Maldives have improved, especially after Mohd. Ibrahim Solih came to power.

To gain more clout in Male’s politics, India must leverage its historical ties and engage more. Deeper defence and security ties is a starting point, where offers to train Maldivian defence personnel could create much needed confidence.

Former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s October 2020 visit to the small nation saw Male commit itself towards a free and open Indo-Pacific. This should lead to a broad convergence on security interests between New Delhi, Male and Washington.

Male’s distrust of Chinese funds after rising indebtedness can be India’s gateway to building deeper economic engagement and containing Chinese clout.

In Seychelles, after its proposal to jointly develop the Assumption Island fell apart despite years of negotiations, India must display patience and willingness to accommodate the views of its smaller partner.

Abandoning the project at this juncture should be the last option, lest it allows Beijing yet another diplomatic and economic opportunity.

New Delhi’s biggest differentiator to China’s BRI-led diplomacy should be the willingness to engage with small countries as equal partners. India can position itself as a more ‘humane’ partner by providing solutions and aid/grant to all the island nations to address their biggest concern of ecological and environmental damage.

In Mauritius, which declared an emergency in August 2020 as tourism earnings dried up, New Delhi can double its investments and aid which will generate immense goodwill.

India’s outreach coincides with the realisation by these small island-nations about their geostrategic importance, maritime value and enhanced role in the power play between India and China.

To maximise their gains, the IOR littorals will even play India and China against each other as they jostle for more influence.

While China will entice them with more funds, India must step up its communication strategy to highlight the pitfalls of accepting them. New Delhi should offer attractive grants and assistance, which will be in stark contrast to China’s high-interest loans.

Till it becomes a $ 5 trillion economy, New Delhi lacks the economic heft to match Beijing’s large loan book.

To counter this handicap, India must partner with Japan and the USA to provide more assistance to the IOR littorals. Tokyo has been the biggest provider of long-term infrastructure loans in Asia, dwarfing the BRI.

New Delhi must identify common areas to work with Japan in increasing development assistance to countries in the IOR.

India’s counter to China’s debt trap model should be to create sustainable and economically viable infrastructure that boosts the local economy of recipient nations.

This is a message that New Delhi needs to communicate strongly to Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Comoros and Madagascar.

New Delhi’s diplomatic options will be tested most in Sri Lanka with the return of the Rajapaksa brothers in August 2020, due to their proximity to China and Xi Jinping.

Despite China’s large influence, with a significant maritime presence, a USA-India-Sri Lanka naval exercise could provide an opportunity for New Delhi to start a comprehensive dialogue process around security and naval architecture.

The USA has a significant facility south of Sri Lanka, in Diego Garcia, and has for long sought logistics support from Colombo. Given Rajapaksa’s clear preference for Chinese currency, it is unlikely Colombo will agree to Washington’s demand, but a New Delhi-brokered discussion on non-military engagements could provide a small but meaningful opening.

India’s decisive pivot for the IOR revolves around its roadmap for the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands. The northern-most point of the Andaman Islands is just 40 kilometres from Myanmar and the southern-most point of the Nicobar Islands is just 160 kilometres from Indonesia.

India’s projection of power into the Western Pacific could begin from the A&N islands, which house its first joint military command.

Due to their geo-strategic location, the A&N islands provide India an ideal location and opportunity to become a bigger stakeholder in the IOR and SCS.

They can be the gateway to a larger Indian presence in the region, possibly all the way till the Western Pacific. At present, though, the A&N islands are geared only towards reconnaissance, to boost capabilities and exploit the islands’ full potential, active engagement and collaboration with other navies, co-opting the US Navy is needed.

The altered stance would be an important message for Beijing, which has all along assumed India to be a passive participant in the region. So far, New Delhi had been reluctant to strengthen its presence in the IOR by forging partnerships with other large navies primarily due to its disparity with China.

But in the wake of Beijing’s regular military exercises with its allies, and efforts to enter into India’s EEZ, New Delhi’s military and foreign policy must change.

Regular military drills with Pakistan, trilateral exercises with Iran and Russia in the Persian Gulf and military gaming exercises with South Africa and Russia in the Western IOR, all point towards the future direction of China’s maritime strategy.

It is to continue its efforts to encircle India. China had set its sights on the IOR in 2013, and India needs to now respond very proactively.

In fact, India should have started preparations for such an eventuality after December 2019, when a Chinese research vessel entered its EEZ. Research vessels are primarily used in secret military data collection and collect information that impacts the movement and efficacy of submarines.

New Delhi must know that its neighbour does not suffer from any ambivalence that has plagued its security establishment for too long.

The A&N islands’ strategic location allows India to utilise these as an advance post to alert about any enemy vessel and must be now fully exploited.

Despite the A&N islands’ proximity to the Straits of Malacca, New Delhi has always held back from upgrading its presence for apprehensions that this would be construed as attempting to block a crucial choke point.

But it is precisely because of their strategic location that the A&N islands can act as a stabilizing factor against China’s maritime aggression. India can deepen its presence and capabilities in the A&N islands by collaborating with France and the USA.

France, which has the second largest EEZ in the world, operates a large facility in the IOR on the French Reunion Island. Indo-French military and security ties have been upgraded under PM Modi’s tenure and New Delhi must build on this by creating advanced capabilities in the A&N.

New Delhi’s weakest link in its neighbourhood is its relations with Myanmar, which provides a crucial link between India and South East Asia. India shares a 1,600-km long land boundary with Myanmar and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal.

New Delhi’s neighbour decidedly shifted in favour of Beijing after the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) became a key component of the BRI.

The corridor will provide Beijing access to the Indian Ocean, shorten the distance for its oil imports from the Middle East and improve connectivity to its southern regions.

Put together, the 1,700-km long CMEC and the 3,000-km long CPEC will undermine Indian presence in the IOR and the larger Indo-Pacific region. Under these circumstances, India needs to reach out to Myanmar and also double down on the BIMSTEC, which is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

Five of the seven members of the BIMSTEC are RIM nations of the Bay of Bengal and India must have a clear policy for these geo-strategic countries.

Post the bloody coup by the military junta in February of 2021, Myanmar has become extremely volatile, with a growing number of attacks on Chinese factories indicating resentment against Beijing’s clout in the country.

India’s deft handling of such volatile situations could lead to diplomatic gains.

India’s vaccine aid will be its biggest differentiator against China’s clout. In the early weeks of the pandemic’s outbreak in 2020, China had launched its ‘mask diplomacy’ which was counter-productive.

In contrast, India’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’, under which it sent nearly 500 million doses of Covid vaccine free of cost to more than 92 countries, has earned it enormous goodwill.

New Delhi stood out as a reliable and benevolent regional power that helped the world in its greatest hour of crisis. This was in stark contrast to China, an economic powerhouse, which furthered its interests even during a pandemic.

New Delhi must build on its smart ‘vaccine diplomacy’ for tangible gains in responding to Chinese presence in its neighbourhood. Over time, vaccine diplomacy can be converted into a ‘medical diplomacy’ for regularly providing medical aid.

Excerpted with permission from 'Blinkers Off: Reimagining India's Role Within The Quad' by Gaurie Dwivedi.

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