Debotri Dhar | A bolder foreign policy is needed for Indo-Pacific

Delhi navigates Male-Beijing proximity as Indo-Pacific tensions rise, emphasizing regional stability amidst maritime disputes

The Maldives’ diplomatic confrontation with India and Male’s crusade with Beijing. New Delhi’s promotion of the Lakshadweep archipelago, the commissioning of the naval base INS Jatayu to enhance the Indian Navy’s operational reach, and the rescue of pirate-hijacked vessels in the Red Sea and elsewhere. The inauguration of an airstrip and jetty in the Alagela Islands with Mauritius. Beijing’s renewed claims to Indian territories and the hostile positioning of border troops coupled with sunshine diplomacy. This year’s events have again brought the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the broader Indo-Pacific, which links the Indian and Pacific Oceans and houses three of the world’s largest economies, to the forefront of global affairs.

Male’s closeness with Beijing comes as no surprise, given the Maldives’ pro-China President Mohammed Muizzu’s election victory following an “India Out” campaign to remove Indian military forces from the islands. While some voices within India might prefer a more muscular Maldives policy, and Twitter wars notwithstanding, New Delhi’ response to its small neighbour’s demands demonstrates India’s commitment to a peaceful IOR. Indian troops on aviation platforms stationed on the island have been withdrawn, with the third batch leaving this month. Having invested over $100 million dollars in development assistance for the Maldives, including roads, bridges and airports, India did not call off its $500 million grant -- not loan -- for the Greater Male Connectivity Project. After Bhutan and Nepal, the Maldives is the recipient of the third highest Indian foreign aid allocation. Along with disbursing development aid, the Indian Navy’s rescue of Sri Lankan and other vessels hijacked by pirates also emphasises India’s overall position as a key maritime security provider in the region.

The bigger challenge, however, remains, considering the mere 2,142 km of maritime boundary separating India and the Maldives. The recent signing of an MoU between Male and Beijing allowing the latter to reclaim land on an atoll close to India has given rise to speculation that China may be building a military base in the Maldives. According to the official explanations, the land will facilitate the construction of an economic zone, but analysts point to the prior role of the concerned Chinese company in militarising other islands. If so, this would be yet another example of Beijing’s expansionism such as in Ladakh and the South China Sea.

In response to the deployment of 60,000 Chinese troops across the Line of Actual Control, India had to move its own contingent previously deployed on the western borders to the Himalayan frontier.

China has also refused to recognise the British colonial McMahon Line demarcating Tibet and India’s Arunachal Pradesh, and recently reiterated claims over the latter, which it calls Zangnan, and considers as South Tibet, along with renaming 30 more places, including residential areas, mountains, rivers and a lake. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for India to accept Beijing’s position that territorial disputes are only one component of India-China relations and that bilateral trade should be normalised.

New Delhi’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is a part of its larger “Act East Policy”, which was launched at the Asean-India 2014 summit. It includes creative projects such as Sagarmala, to promote infrastructural and port-led development by threading together a “garland of flowers”, such as with the Agalega Island on Mauritius and Assumption Island on Seychelles to improve marine and air transportation facilities. This has been necessitated by Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy to build ports along the Maritime Silk Road as an encirclement trap. An investment in the Lakshadweep archipelago and the commissioning of INS Jatayu is also to be seen in this geostrategic context. Another initiative is Mausam. While discussions of India’s soft power tend to commonly focus on Bollywood, Project Mausam develops more creative and expansive links such as historical and archaeological engagements with ancient trade routes, seasonal patterns of the monsoons, and contextual, textual (including religious) and shared cultural heritage and people-to-people exchanges.

In other words, and as I emphasised to a talented group of Indian scholars during my recent lecture on India’s maritime diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific, India has built key connections between the strategic, material, and cultural, rather than only focusing on military cooperation.

Through the diplomatic framework of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), a primary thrust has been on multilateralism, peaceful resolution of disputes, socio-economic development and environmental sustainability by developing the infrastructure to respond to natural disasters like tsunamis, which assumes importance in maritime contexts with fragile ecosystems and vulnerability to climate change. Successful tourism, too, depends on environmental preservation. Unfortunately, India’s principled efforts are being challenged by Beijing’s militarism.

One solution for India would be to develop a more formal alliance with the United States. However, great powers can be quite transactional and this will come at a cost for India, including trade concessions as well as Washington’s demands that New Delhi vote on American lines at the UN. This will, in turn, jeopardise the principled policy positions and delicate balance that New Delhi has maintained in its relations with the countries in the Middle East. Speaking of the Israel-Palestine issue, for instance, New Delhi recognises Israel’s security needs amidst the challenges of cross-border terrorism that India too has faced, and has condemned Hamas’ attack on civilians. At the same time, it has conscientiously voted for a ceasefire, urged a diplomatic resolution, and sent humanitarian aid, in a war that has taken 35,000 Palestinian lives and whose continuation was enabled by American veto at the UN.

So, unless the Dragon’s military aggressiveness necessitates a policy change, New Delhi’s best bet may be to continue strengthening its security base, including via multi-alignment platforms such as Quad, alongside economic growth and cultivating human well-being through education, gender inclusivity and public health initiatives. New Delhi must also foster deeper ties with islands with substantial diasporic Indian populations such as Fiji and Mauritius, alongside blue economy engagements with Seychelles and other island nations through the Indian Ocean Commission and the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

Like other democracies, India’s democracy too is not perfect, but India is surpassing its role as a traditional provider of security to emerge as a force for the collective good. When external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who commands the respect of many across the political spectrum, was asked by a journalist “whose side” India was on, his bold and principled response was that India was large and strong enough to make independent foreign policy decisions. This is India’s best possible future.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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