Indian foreign policy is in a sweet spot these days. Wooed by major powers of all hues, it can afford to work with everyone, even if at times the pulls and pressures seem contradictory.
This was reflected at the G20 where New Delhi managed to pull off two seemingly contradictory trilaterals. Modi met with United States President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Japan, America and India, christened JAI) to underscore India’s firm commitment to make the Indo-Pacific a region for shared economic growth, prosperity and security.
The Indo-Pacific construct is now at the centre of strategic jockeying in the region and the three nations have been trying to define the exact scope of their engagement. Modi had explained India’s stand on the strategic Indo-Pacific region in his keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore in June.
“India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate,” he had said. But China’s rapid rise and the challenge it is posing to geopolitical stability is at the heart of the evolution of the Indo-Pacific and the trilateral in Argentina reinforced the desire of the three states to take it forward. Hours after the ‘JAI’ trilateral, Modi joined Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin for another trilateral – the ‘RIC’ - the second among the three countries after a gap of 12 years. The underlying rationale for this trilateral was quite different as the three nations discussed enhancing mutual cooperation at international forums. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, “They agreed on the importance of reform and strengthening of multilateral institutions that had benefitted the world, including the United Nations, WTO and well-established as well as new global financial institutions.”
While China is the one driving ‘JAI,’ it is the Trump Administration’s challenge to the global economic order that is largely behind India’s outreach to China and Russia. The fact that New Delhi managed to pull this off is a tribute to Modi’s astute investment in managing major power relations over the last few years. This is a period of fluid partnerships and Indian diplomacy will have to be nimble enough if her interests are to be preserved. Modi’s engagements at the G-20 underline that New Delhi is capable of managing this fluidity. India’s defence diplomacy is also being shaped by this reality.
By the end of this year, India would have held military exercises with all P5 countries - US, Russia, China, France and the UK. So on one hand, there is the proposed military exercise with Russia and China, on the other 'Cope India’ between the Indian and US air forces has been restarted after a gap of nine years, showcasing “US and India’s efforts and commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”India and Russia conducted Indo-Russia Joint Military Exercise-Indra 2018 in Madhya Pradesh last week while Indo-UK Konkan naval exercise is currently underway, off Goa, which is focusing on Anti-Air warfare, Anti-Surface Warfare, Anti-Submarine Warfare, Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) and Seamanship Evolutions.
The Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) is in India for a bilateral air exercise “SHINYUU Maitri-18” with the Indian Air Force (IAF). Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman is visiting the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii to chart the course for the first ever India-US tri-service military exercise off the Bay of Bengal in May-June, 2019. At the same time, the armies of India and China will be resuming their annual bilateral military exercise ‘Hand in Hand’ in December.
India’s defence diplomacy has become truly ‘multivector’ and it is aimed at enhancing her strategic partnerships. It is a sign of India’s growing global profile that most powers want to engage with India on military and defence issues. The more partnerships India has, the better leverage it will have within diplomacy. But it is also important to recognise the challenges that come with this. Ultimately, India will have to enhance military interoperability with like-minded countries and that’s unlikely to happen if New Delhi will continue to keep its eggs in multiple baskets. It is good to be in a position where everyone wants to befriend us, but Indian policymakers should be aware of the fundamental challenge: which of these countries would come for help in face of an existential challenge?
Harsh V. Pant is professor of International Relations, Defence Studies Department & the India Institute at King's College, London. He is a Visiting Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in US India Policy Studies, CSIS, DC.
It is a sign of India’s growing global profile that most powers want to engage with India on military and defence issues.