India was adorned as a “pivot,” in the Indo Pacific at the 19th Shangri La Dialogue an event held in Singapore from 10 to 12 June by the IISS London in collaboration with the Government of Singapore.
Ironically while the Indian Defence Minister Mr Rajnath Singh was in the neighbourhood on a visit to Vietnam, he or other senior representatives of the country were not present at the event.
Defence Ministers of countries in the Indo or as China deems to call the region Asia Pacific were present including the U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe who delivered keynote addresses in their respective sessions.
Reasons for absence of a senior representative from India at the annual event held by the IISS at Singapore are not clear for now. Despite the absence it was clear that India is the all important pivot in the Indo Pacific.
While main features of the event included the Keynote address by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the US-China defence minister’s speeches and their bilateral which as the United States Department of Defence emphasised was at the request of Beijing were also equally significant.
From the Indian perspective some substantial vectors over significance of the country to the Indo Pacific emerged.
U.S. Emphasis on India
The emphasis on the role of India primarily came from the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. Outlining the main features of the U.S. Indo Pacific Strategy (IPS) Austin stated how the Pentagon is working with, “treaty allies Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and the Philippines,” and also with “the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue [QUAD] group alongside India, Japan and Australia”. India amongst the QUAD is the only state that is not a treaty ally of the United States.
Austin outlined the United States strategy of deterrence which he said includes, “stealth aircraft, unmanned platform and long range precision fires,” while adding that the U.S. was developing high energy lasers to counter missiles, integrated sensors which can operate in multiple domains as cyber, electronic warfare and radar communications.
The objective is to create an integrated deterrence with the partners.
In this he specifically mentions India stating, "We believe that [India's] growing military capability and technological prowess can be a stabilizing force in the region," he said.
Taking the emphasis on India further Austin highlighted number of joint exercises cum operational events that were conducted with the Indian Armed Forces such as what he called the joint operations by the Indian Navy and the Air Force when the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group, “rotated through the Indian Ocean”.
These exercises included, “integrated airpower and anti-submarine warfare”.
In what he called new ways for friends to operate and “new constellations,” Austin highlighted Exercise La Perouse which included the Indian Navy apart from the Australian, French and the Japanese.
Another theme was the expanded platform of dialogues that were being held by QUAD members apart from the 2+2 which is an annual feature between India and the United States.
Austin mentioned that a similar format has now been launched by the three other QUAD members – New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra.
Concerns of Threat from China
Finally with reference to threats from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the U.S. partners Austin mentioned the standoff with India in Eastern Ladakh as follows, “And further to the west we see Beijing continue to harden its position along the border that it shares with India”.
In the same vein, General Charles A Flynn, Commanding General, United States Army Pacific, who was recently in New Delhi, highlighted the China threat. Flynn said in an interaction with journalists in response to a question, “The [Chinese] activity level is eye-opening. Some of the infrastructure being created in the PLA’s Western Theatre Command is alarming. One has to ask the question ‘why’, and get a response as to what are their intentions.”
India however downplayed the statement by General Flynn and Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs indicated that India and China had through constant communication reduced differences and were working on a settlement.
China's Foreign Ministry interlocutor spoke in a some what similar vein but blamed the US for adding fuel to fire.
Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Zhao Lijian said in response to a question on the statement by the US Army Pacific Commanding General, “This border issue is between China and India (and) the two sides have the will and capability to properly resolve the issue through talks.”
Zhao blamed the US General saying, “Some US officials are trying to add fuel to the fire and pointing fingers. This is a despicable act. We hope they will do more to contribute to regional peace and stability.”
How India Becomes a Pivot State
Tim Sweijs, Willem Theo Oosterveld, Emily Knowles and Menno Schellekens in a Paper for the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies in 2014 have outlined characteristics of a Pivot State as one that, “possess military, economic or ideational strategic assets that are coveted by great powers”.
Indeed, the United States, [as well as Russia, China and Europe] are today “covet,” India primarily in the sphere of the Indo Pacific but more specifically in the Indian Ocean.
Pivot states, the authors say are, “caught in the middle of overlapping spheres of influence of --great powers as measured by associations that consist of ties that bind (military and economic agreements and cultural affinities) and relationships that flow (arms and commodities trade and discourse)”.
Importantly, “A change in a pivot state’s association has important repercussions for regional and global security”.
Indeed, the United States is attempting a change in India’s association by a closer knit with New Delhi in multiple ways – strategic partnership – bilateral and multilateral, economy and trade, which has risen to new highs and apart from other vectors defence and military engagement.
India remains a pivot state and not a strategic ally of the United States given continuing ties with Russia which are historical as well as military and with other partners including in some ways China.
India’s understanding of limits to U.S support is another factor for opting to be a pivot state outlined as below.
Limits to U.S Support
Clearly while Secretary Austin outlined measures being taken to strengthen deterrence as a function of strengthening allies and partners as India, there are limits to what U.S. can do which also became apparent by the pointed question that was asked by Dr Jeffrey Ordaniel, Assistant Professor, International Security Studies, Tokyo International. University; Director, Maritime Security, Pacific Forum.
Dr Jeffrey outlined how every time China expanded control over the artificial islands in the South China Sea, the United States had indicated that there would be consequences, however Beijing went ahead and even militarised these now while no firm action has been taken by the Pentagon. He wanted to know, what is different, “in the Biden administration’s approach to the South China Sea because it seems that the current policy is not working or at least not changing the behaviour of China”.
Importantly the US Secretary of Defence continued to emphasise on unity of allies and partners as the main focus not outlining any hard line actions.
He said, “And those consequences are a much more united region. A region that is focused ever so much more on a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. So I think there have been consequences.”
Conclusion – India’s Contours as a Pivot State
Writing in 2014, authors of the Paper by Hague Centre for Strategic Studies explain India’s non alignment and pivotal status thus, “While overtly, its relations with Russia remain very cordial; with China very tense; and those with the US and the EU rather lukewarm; in reality it maintains solid ties with all four”.
Today eight years later, India’s ties with the US and EU have strengthened with Russia remains constant while with China weakened yet in the economic field India China trade continues to grow despite the standoff in Eastern Ladakh over the past two years.
The Paper presumes that in the years to come India will graduate to be a great power and create its own pivots possibly a reflection of New Delhi’s “Neighbourhood First,” “Act East policy,” and so on.