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Does India Need a New Indo-Pacific Strategy?

The reception of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic construct adjoining the contiguous waters of the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean has gained traction in recent years with the swing of the geopolitical centre of gravity towards this region. This has also overlapped with the noteworthy rise of China, it's territorial claims in the South China Sea, its belligerence in the East China Sea and its rapid advance into the Indian Ocean through strategic and economic initiatives like the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI).

Throughout history, the maritime domain has played a vital role in creating global and regional powers and affecting the security “Supercomplex” of geographical regions. Pertinent examples corroborate this aspect like the UK Navy being a major factor contributing to “Pax-Britannica” (1815-1914) in 19th century or the U.S. establishing military (naval) bases throughout the Asia-Pacific in order to maintain its ‘Sphere of Influence’ for “Pax Americana” in 20th century. India had been distant from the strategic standing of Indo-Pacific region in the last century (for the most part) and thus, this region has not featured much in India’s security architecture. China’s military and economic expansion (‘String of Pearls’ strategy) in the Indo-Pacific region has forewarned India of the certainty of these fluctuating dynamics. India clearly needs a viable Indo-Pacific strategy to secure its maritime domain for a primary ‘balance of power’ in the region.

With the shocks in international politics by the Afghanistan and Ukraine crises, the paradoxes in our strategic culture are being exposed. Our civilisational history has become so imperious that India has been repeatedly ignoring its geography and therefore overlooking the “geo” comes first being common in both geopolitics and geostrategy. The minds of Indian policymakers are preoccupied with Pakistan and China vis-a-vis ‘continentality’. This has been a distraction because we have not been conscious enough of our 7500 km of coastline engulfing major choke points and lines of commerce. Thus, India needs to look at Indo-Pacific as a more workable opportunity to extend its influence.

Secondly, there is an opportunity for India to discover ‘plug points’ for integration in the supply chains, especially the more ‘organic’ global supply chain – as opposed to China’s state-driven chain – which could also act to strengthen Quad linkages through initiatives like Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF formed in 2022), Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), Blue Dot Network, Asia-Africa growth Corridor, among others. Projected future trends for the Indian economy include further maritime connectivity, a multilateral approach for transition from the existing ‘Brown’ to a ‘Blue’ economy, and prospects and challenges ascending from the maritime impact of ‘Industry 4.0.’ India is not a weighty financial or military player east of the Malacca Straits, but to the west of the straits, its geography makes it the foremost anchor for any stratagem that connects the Pacific with the Indian Ocean. India shares maritime and land borders with four out of the ten ASEAN states. Extending out 2,000 kilometres into the Indian Ocean, India leads the western end of the Malacca Straits; thereby enhancing China’s “Malacca dilemma” while simultaneously creating opportunity for itself.

India's Indo-Pacific strategy has now become, in the main, a subset of its China policy, with significant contradictions. The Indian government denies balancing China, while at the same time, its actions affirm that very interpretation when it seeks to build increasingly close strategic relationships with the United States and its allies, such as Japan and other regional powers in the maritime domain, specifically, the Indo-Pacific. Many scholars interpret this as “hedging” – not only by India, but by other smaller and middle powers in the region to offset the Chinese threat. Rajagopalan (2020) terms such a diplomatic tool as “evasive balancing”, which is neither pure balancing nor pure hedging- but a contradictory mixture of efforts to engage in balancing while trying to reassure the target.

Being extremely cautious of its tedious relationship with China, India has shied away from several military exercises.From the economic standpoint, China is one of India’s largest and most significant trading partners. From a security outlook, the Doklam standoff brought the two countries to confrontation, and with India being the only QUAD state sharing continental borders with China, India was wary of outrightly antagonising China. This is also because China views the idea of Indo-Pacific from a containment logic. It calls out QUAD as an ’Asian NATO’. However, LAC clashes between the two nations in 2020 made India reconsider its China Strategy, consequently allowing Australia to be a part of Malabar military exercises along with Japan and USA and thus acknowledging the need for a cohesive Indo-Pacific strategy. With access to Indonesia’s strategically located deep sea Sabang port, Oman’s Duqm port, Iran’s Chabahar port and INS Vikrant commissioned now, India has been pacing its maritime and naval doctrines to modernise its Navy and is strategically seeking to counter aggressive manoeuvres at the sea.

As Ashley Tellis points out , the re-emergence of China as a global power fundamentally challenges the United States and India in different, but complementary, ways. America’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ involves rebalancing America’s global military weight to Asia, strengthening its traditional alliances in the region and building new partnerships, including with India. Yet, India finds itself hesitant to follow through the logic of “buck-passing by USA” to itself, along with other American allies in Asia. Self-doubt, fears about losing strategic autonomy, apprehensions about being a junior partner and domestic political concerns have significantly limited Delhi’s capacity for strategic cooperation with powers bigger than itself.

Many of the Indo-Pacific regional responses to China’s rise, including India’s, are corroborated by different scholars as diplomatic tools of balancing (covert/internal or visible/external; soft or hard), reassurance strategies, hedging, appeasement, and “bandwagoning” in the balance of power literature. The balancing component of India's China strategy contains both internal and external balancing elements. India’s Indo-Pacific strategy is a subset of this whole. Other than normal economic, security or diplomatic intercourse, India involves itself in external balancing with China through partnerships with the United States, Japan, Australia, France, UAE, Bahrain, ASEAN, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Seychelles, Mauritius, and other African states and SIDS along with multiple military exercises. On the internal balancing side, India is engaged in setting up a new army strike corps facing China, repositioning Indian air power to this border, building up Indian infrastructure along the joint border, and enhancing India's nuclear and space deterrence capabilities. However, the Indian government stresses on an inclusive, all-pervasive definition of Indo-Pacific, not directed against China (thus, reassuring) or any other actor in the maritime domain.

India should analyse whether the aforementioned mix of internal, bilateral and regional responses of India in its China Policy, with Indo-Pacific as a subset, are proving helpful for it, specifically, in dealing with China or not. The members of Indo-Pacific Circle should further delve into question of ‘balancing’ in IR theories to explore the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), the conceptual problems of alliance and alliance/alignment formation. India’s meandering balancing strategies vis-à-vis China with a mix of cooperation and confrontation in the domain of Indo-Pacific become more problematic with rising Chinese aggression. India needs a solid and concrete positioning as well as an assertive posture in the Indo-Pacific.

OORJA TAPAN is a PhD scholar and Junior Research Fellow in Diplomacy and Disarmament Division at Centre for International Politics, Organisation & Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.


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