Wealth, welfare and win must guide India-US Indo-Pacific partnership 

New Delhi Feb 22, 2020, 11.32 AM(IST) Written By: Jagannath P. Panda

File photo: Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and US President Donald Trump (L). Photograph:( AFP )

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The defence of the rules-based order in Indo-Pacific is a gigantic task as it will be heavily dependent on a futuristic robust India-US Indo-Pacific partnership.

Much of the global attention is centred on the United States President Donald Trump’s maiden visit to India from 24-25 February. With a commitment to promote “Major Defense Partnership”, the India-US relations is being envisioned with the changing course of Indo-Pacific narrative. Centred around the “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific construct, both sides aim to advance their partnership to defend a rules-based order that stands increasingly tested at present ahead of China’s assertive rise.

The defence of the rules-based order in Indo-Pacific is a gigantic task as it will be heavily dependent on a futuristic robust India-US Indo-Pacific partnership. A relationship that is often perceived as the custodian guardian of the free or democratic world, India and the US would require a concrete action plan to follow it through. The quest for wealth, welfare and win – the three key W’s - should be their guiding light. More specifically, attention will be diverted to ensuring energy, civil nuclear cooperation, intellectual property rights, homeland security and science and space technology. Creating a wealth of strategic infrastructure, defending democratic regimes that would promote the welfare for a free-thinking world, and the win-win strategy to defend their respective national security interests through a stronger defence partnership would be key to India-US Indo-Pacific partnership.

This trip by the US President is principally significant because it is almost the end of Trump’s term as the President of the US and while he has visited most of its allies in Asia, India has been conspicuously absent from that list. Trade has also remained an obstacle in their relations, with the recent removal of India from the US’s special trade status under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), to which India retaliated by imposing tariffs on many American exports. An array of such trade differences – ranging from tariff barriers, agricultural, medical trading and e-commerce – have dimmed whatever possibilities there were for a trade deal. While these issues are not unmanageable, it requires quite some strategic long-term rationalization.

Once an isolated economy, China at present has emerged to be the most integrated economy in the world. Beijing emerging as a neo-imperialist power is no more a remote possibility, considering the multibillion-dollar investments in transportation, port building and infrastructure building that Xi Jinping’s China has been making voraciously. Each of the these invites merits of discussion between India and the US, given their respective strategic interest that have been at stake with China’s rising profile in Indo-Pacific.

The expansion of Chinese foreign trade across the Indo-Pacific is one important chapter that India-US partnership needs to take cognizance of. Under the flagship Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI), Chinese capital and enterprises have influenced the democratic regimes in Indo-Pacific through attractive financial packages and investments. Such a development that is increasingly testing the free world thinking in Indo-Pacific must encourage India and the US to have an envisioned cooperation that will promote economic partnership with pro-democratic regimes in the region.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) has pursued a concentrated effort to launch a number of initiatives. Indeed, the last few years have witnessed Trump’s Indo-Pacific outlook getting enhanced through both government and private wide initiatives – such as the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP), the Infrastructure Transaction and Assistant Network (ITAN) and the Asia Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy (AsiaEdge), ARIA, Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative and the Blue-Dot Network. The USTDA seems pretty active in taking initiatives that tend to challenge the BRI.

Guised as policies shaped solely with the outlook of fulfilling the region’s demand for quality infrastructure, these American official policies are the defining focus of the US official clap-back to the Chinese initiatives in the region. More importantly, the USTDA, as the official arm of the America’s infrastructure development programs in Indo-Pacific, exhibits a leadership foresight. Such leadership foresight comes as the first line of defense against competition from rival economies in the region such as China. However, to what extent can New Delhi collaborate and extract benefits from such initiatives requires deeper planning. This actually becomes more pertinent when we observe the strong reservations the Indian government has been holding against the BRI for the longest time. More importantly with opportunities aplenty, New Delhi must decide if such a cooperation with the US is better forged bilaterally, or multilaterally with other like-minded countries.

From India’s point of view, these official American initiatives should not constrain but unlock new opportunities to pursue its strategic interests in the region. The Blue Dot Network (BDN) that has arrived more from the conglomeration of both private-public investment cooperation should equally open the scope of cooperation for India. As a multi-stake holder initiative, the Blue Dot Network brings together the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) in a public-private partnership model.

Since economic pursuit seems to be the make or break factor in India-US ties, holding more concrete meetings between political representatives should accord priority to address the ever-enlarging disputes on economic domain between the two sides. India could easily initiate this step, and it could be symbolic too – a counter to Trump calling India the “tariff king” and accusing it of always dragging its feet when it comes to trade deals.

An action plan that aims to promote quality infrastructure and connectivity in Indo-Pacific should encourage a concrete discussion between India and the US during Trump’s visit. Many might see India’s partaking in the Blue-Dot Network as an overture equivalent to accepting or partaking in America’s alliance network. Such a decision should not however override India’s national security interests, which stand challenged by China’s revisionist initiatives in the region, be it from port building networks to maritime bases. Therefore, a soft partaking for India with the Blue-Dot Network should be explored during Trump’s visit to India.

Not to overlook, the Blue-Dot Network echoes the strategic intent that the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the United States) process would like to promote in the region. As a business extension, it replicates Barack Obama’s vision that the US promoted through the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy. India was emerging as a key partner for the US in the ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, even though New Delhi was never considered to be a part of the TPP framework of economic partnership. However, now, the post TPP and the post Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) period has built an appropriate strategic context for the US and India to have a renewed concrete bilateral understanding on these issues. India can take its time; it neither has to formally join the Blue-Dot Network nor has to endorse it, as it might be detrimental to its foreign policy strategy of strategic autonomy and non-alignment.

As their pledge for partnership in the Indo-Pacific has increased post the two-plus-two ministerial summits, both India and the US need a more concentrated engagement through a focused action plan in the field of connectivity, infrastructure and maritime security. President Trump’s visit to India must encourage New Delhi to engage in a concrete discussion and planning on how to offer a strategic direction to such an envisioned Partnership that will increasingly influence the future trajectory of Indo-Pacific.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)  

Jagannath P. Panda

Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the Series Editor for ‘Routledge Studies on Think Asia’.