Assessing Indo-Pacific in 2021: Indian Perspective
Amruta Karambelkar, Research Associate, VIF

The year 2020 was a landmark event in and for the Indo-Pacific. The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed the regional perception of China. Until then the challenge from China was known but it had yet to manifest itself in its entirety. The major events during 2020 in the Indo-Pacific – which are essentially China- centric-that impacted India and are going to continue to impact in 2021 are listed below: -

Multi-pronged Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic:

China has been the source of various other influenza outbreaks in the past also. The origins of the virus in Wuhan, and the way China handled the outbreak is very alarming. There was secrecy around it and the Chinese State did not disseminate vital information to the rest of the world. The aftermath of the pandemic is for everyone to see and one does not know when the world will be out of the woods. This event is a glimpse of state of affairs if and when China becomes the lone global superpower and what values it represents. Some thought that the viral pandemic was deliberate and see COVID-19 as biological warfarei. Generally, experts have disagreements on the origin of the virus, if it was leaked from the Wuhan lab- whether accidentally or otherwiseii. These questions remain unanswered. Whatever maybe the truth, the threat of biological warfare is real. China has not been transparent about it; it has taken well over a year for China to facilitate WHO investigation. The WHO team that recently sought investigation was denied entry into Chinaiii. So, it appears that China does not want to be helpful for the world to understand the cause of this pandemic. Other countries had sought genome of the SARS-COV-2 to understand the virus, its impact and to develop vaccines, but China was reluctant about sharing this information as well. China delayed releasing the genome, and by that time foreign labs had succeeded in decoding it. This caused delay in pandemic management and vaccine development.

This event has rightly raised eyebrows about the Chinese Communist Party. Its intentions seem dubious, and it is hardly ‘win-win cooperation’. Yet the Indo-Pacific leadership has not been able to assess China’s conduct fully. One reason could be that the pandemic is still there hence the national priorities are different. But eventually if certain countries, notably the QUAD and its partners are not able to use this to strengthen themselves against China, then it would be a grave disappointment. Nonetheless, the developing world has seen the actual essence of Peoples’ Republic of China and some resistance is seen in Sri Lanka, Myanmariv and Cambodiav.

National responses in handling the pandemic were varied. The developing world has performed much better than the West in controlling the pandemic, largely due to culture of obedience to the state. Individualism of the Western societies came in way of strict enforcement of COVID protocols, the death rates were higher as well. Whereas India, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam have managed the pandemic very well. Some societies have proved more resilient than others. In India’s case, the country swiftly adapted to the new normal and its domestic industries were able to not only produce the PPT kits but also export it.

Efforts at vaccine development were underway across the world and it is triumph of science and human endeavour. So far, vaccines from the US, UK, India, China and Russia are ready to be administered. Along with ‘vaccine diplomacy’, ‘vaccine nationalism’ has also come to the fore. Supply of vaccines is expected to yield diplomatic dividends. The political economy of pharmaceutical industries is also seen. For India this is a moment of shine since its vaccines are said to be far cheaper and its formulation and storage conditions are suitable for tropical climate. India showcased its vaccine development programme in Hyderabad to several diplomats. If Indian vaccines can meet the demands of its neighbours and within the Indo-Pacific, it will be a great diplomatic and economic gain for the country.

A far-reaching impact of the pandemic could be that across the world there would be more awareness about living standards, access to healthcare, digital connectivity, social security and also climate change. Citizens would demand a lot more from their governments, and consumers more from the producers. In democracies citizens may demand prioritised allocation for healthcare, education and social security which would put military expenditure lower in order.

India-China LAC Standoff and Regional Military Implications

The most landmark episode in India-China bilateral relations would be the clash at Galwan valley and in Chushul sector in Ladakh. The standoff continues till date. India’s outlook towards China until the June 20 clash, was of patience because ‘not a single bullet was fired’ in the past five decades. As long as the border was peaceful, India continued to engage with China positively; though the bilateral relations were hardly warm since the Doklam incident- they were rather tense already. Chinese aggression (right amidst the pandemic) has jolted the Indian leadership. The erstwhile approach towards China changed in 2020 and it is likely to continue. The natural consequence of the standoff has been that Indian military preparedness and capabilities will be reviewed.

The dynamics between the two militaries have changed for the good. The working relationship that both the armies enjoyed until now, PLA has ended it. For the Indian Armed Forces, China has become another Pakistan in functional and psychological terms. The threat of two-front war situation has got real. This episode is going to have far-reaching effects on the Indian armed forces. The first and foremost would be to assess gaps in analysis of acquired intelligence which could be seen as failure. Second, the infrastructure development started late, it only began after 2014 so a lot of catching up is required to be done. Third, the modernisation and reorganisation of forces will be expedited. Some operational and conceptual re-thinking is likely, be it about armoured warfare or the lessons from the Nagarro-Karabakh conflict about technological asymmetry and the use of drones. In this light India’s foreign policy and its defence diplomacy will be shaped accordingly. The implications are more likely to be domestic in terms of reforms, some of which has already begun in the defence sector. But decision makers in India have to improve the system to analyse China- its motives and its actions.

India-China border clash has also impacted the region. India’s immediate neighbourhood-Bhutan and Nepal will be impacted. In fact, China also intruded into Nepalese territory during this time. Continental dimension of regional security would continue to remain important.

Galwan incident seems to have repercussion at a larger level. The QUAD group was elevated to the Foreign Ministers’ level. Exercise Malabar 2020 saw Australian Navy participate. The erstwhile caution about Chinese sensitivities was done away with. These developments are also result of soured Australia-China relations, and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and around the Senkaku in 2020. In October. Xi Jinping was reported to have told his troops to ‘prepare for war’ & ‘maintain a state of high alert’.vi On 5th of January X Jinping asked his troops for ‘full-combat readiness’ and to be ready for war ‘at any second’ citing ‘China is indeed facing a great risk of war’ and expecting PLA for ‘excellent performances to mark the 100th anniversary of the Party on 1 July 2021.vii One does not know for sure whether this is applicable in the context of Taiwan or India.

QUAD Elevation and Exercise Malabar

On the much-desired lines, the QUAD dialogue was elevated to foreign ministerial level where foreign ministers of the four countries met in person in Tokyo in 2020. Earlier it was preferred to keep QUAD low-key, so as to not upset China too much because Australia, Japan had deep economic ties and India too had a working relation with China. However, the origins of the virus, China’s conduct and its territorial aggression in the Himalayas and in the East Sea meant that threshold had breached. The pandemic also highlighted the depths of Chinese economic inroads and political influence internationally and also in institutions such as the WHO. The need for a counter-force is felt; which only the QUAD can provide. The inclusion of Australia in the 2020 edition of the Exercise Malabar was also to demonstrate military capabilities of the QUAD.

The QUAD ministers upheld ASEAN centrality in their statements; this was significant because ASEAN members have been wary of the QUAD because from their perspective it would undermine their role in shaping regional balance of power. Further, QUAD members recognised the threat of the digital domain, cyber-security and critical technologies- indicating a comprehensive approach to the China-challenge, and designed the narrative to make it more acceptable to QUAD-pessimists.

These two events have sent the message to China that it cannot continue its modus operandi, and that a coalition of like-minded countries exists to challenge it if required. China has been uncomfortable with QUAD and did its best; first to trivialise it, and later to describe it as an Asian-NATO. The rest of the Indo-Pacific was lukewarm to QUAD from the beginning. Even now there’s no clear evidence of overt support, but it is reasonable to predict that it has tacit support. That is because Indo-Pacific today has binary goals of security and economics-one expected of the US and other being led by China. Chinese investments and no-strings attached approach suits smaller nations, but these countries have also begun to read the fine print and have become cautious. A balancing act from the US and others to China is to their strategic advantage.

This dual-expectation will drive regional geopolitics for the foreseeable future. At present, roughly two coalitions are visible; one led by US i.e. US, India, Japan, Australia, UK, France, South Korea, New Zealand and Canada; and another with China, Russia joined by Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. This is not a Cold-War type division (as yet) because of nuances- US allies and partners have economic interest in China, and the sail is not smooth in the other grouping as well.

China is the biggest trading partner and investor for many countries in the Indo-Pacific. It is a herculean task to displace China from that position, notwithstanding the reticence to do so from many counties, even from US allies such as Japan. QUAD was led by President Trump; it is yet unknown if president-elect Biden will continue the same approach. Unless that is clear, hedging will continue across the Indo-Pacific, including by the other three QUAD partners.

US Presidential Elections

The most significant variable in regional geo-politics is the direction of the US leadership. The outcome of this election was highly anticipated; perhaps never before was a US election so important for Indo-Pacific. The general thinking in the region was that Biden might resume US leadership role in the world, be less brazen about China, may re-join the TPP or such economic agreement; and be more invested in the region.
On the flipside, the democrats’ value-laden policy on human rights and freedom would not be welcomed in many countries in the Indo-Pacific. Trump’s economic hard-talk, his disconnect with the ASEAN states was disliked although his tough approach towards China was appreciated, albeit not acknowledged publicly.

So far, Biden’s statements do not inspire confidence, it has kept the region on tenterhooks. Biden chose to use the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ (which China prefers) than the ‘Indo-Pacific’. His choice of Secretary of Defense is also curious. Critics argue that Gen. Mattis is not a China hand, that one may have expected at this crucial time. Biden has announced that his topmost priority would be climate change. This is a repetition of the Obama presidency where US had chosen to cooperate with China over climate change, overlooking its aggression in the South China Sea. In December Biden was quoted as follows:-

"As we compete with China to hold China's government accountable for its trade abuses, technology, human rights and other fronts, our position would be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies that make common cause with us in defence of our shared interests and our shared values."viii

Pandemic has wrecked economies in the developing world; a set-back for growth and developmental goals. Amidst this if the US under Biden pressurises countries for higher compliance on emissions and sustainability, it will be problematic. A normative foreign policy under Biden may sway several smaller countries under the Chinese wing.

The latest developments in the US related to presidential transition have grabbed global attention and many have raised doubts about political stability in the US. Whilst these events are unlikely to amplify once Biden settles down, but rest of the world may not take sermons from the US about democracy.

From an Indo-Pacific perspective the important questions are whether the US remain more focused domestically or will the new administration be a zealous, human rights- democracy activist; say under ‘war against fascism’? A possibility of the new US leadership using Big Tech as a tool for its democracy promotion needs to be factored.

Geo-economics

During the lockdowns and the economic slowdown countries realised how deeply it were dependent on China for raw materials, components and for manufacturing even basic items. Countries of Southeast Asia and, Australia have been trying to diversify its trade for a few years now. US-China trade war continues, US has imposed further restrictions on economic activities over China. That process may accelerate more. India too, as mentioned earlier has launched ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ to reduce its dependence on China, to stimulate domestic manufacturing capacity and, to attract foreign manufacturing into India. India’s aim is to serve as an alternative to China as the global manufacturing base. Japan had announced incentives for its companies to move manufacturing out of China. Along with Australia and India, Japan launched the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative with the aim of building alternatives to China-led supply chains.

Economic growth and revival is going to be the top priority in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, any stern or radical action against China is unlikely. Whether countries like it or not, they need China for economic recovery. It is true that India, Australia and Japan announced the Supply-Chain Resilience Initiative, but nothing has moved on that. Likewise, the US-led Blue Dot Network, aimed to compete with the BRI, has not taken off. These two initiatives need to set rolling if countries are serious about challenging China. It goes without saying that creating alternatives to Chinese supply-chains is an arduous task. There is no country that doesn’t have deep economic linkages with China in one form or the other. And that is the source of Chinese economic strength and concomitant political power.

Impact on India

Besides the aforesaid events that affect the Indian security and economy, the pandemic has also served as an opportunity for India. Its vaccines, its ability to respond to needs of the other countries is a moment of pride. The Indian economy has also begun to revive, slowly albeit better than the forecast of the early 2020. Fortunately, the death rate and overall infection rate has remained much lower than predicted. This is a never-before moment for India to undertake radical structural reforms in the economy, bureaucracy, judiciary and polity if it has to take China by the horns. That awareness is seen in the national leadership. India-China relations are unlikely to improve.

This is also a moment for India to reclaim leadership/ role in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean. As mentioned earlier, Galwan also impacts Nepal and Bhutan. Sri Lanka’s new dispensation has also emphasised on its relations with New Delhi. Towards the end of 2020, Indian leadership made high-profile visits to countries in the Indian Ocean region and in West Asia. It is fairly clear that the bulk of Indian attention will be the Indian Ocean Region, and to some extent, continental Indo-Pacific.

India’s policy of strategic autonomy has stood the test of the time. The international diplomatic manoeuvres in the past one year were anticipated yet it isn’t cast in stone. One still does not know Biden’s approach to China or whether he will adopt the Indo-Pacific construct. Likewise, the endurance of Australia’s resolve against China amidst punitive measures needs to be seen. Japan also cannot wish away its deep economic ties with China. EU and China have already signed an investment agreement. Strategic autonomy gives New Delhi elbow-room. It is even more relevant when there’s uncertainty about Biden’s priorities and its impact across the Indo-Pacific.

India’s relations with Russia have been steadfast. Europe and the US still see Russia with hostility. India and Russia still have common interests over Iran and, Russia-China relations also have its limitations. India, Japan and Russia can work together in Russian Far East. India has launched the draft of its Arctic Policy which would be another avenue for bilateral cooperation. In the Indian Ocean region, India and France partnership will play out. A post-Brexit UK would be keen to cooperate with India in the Indian Ocean.

Geo-politics in the Indo-Pacific towards the end of the 2020 was shifting focus more on the Pacific. There have been military manoeuvres in the Pacific Ocean, and in the South and East China Sea. France, UK and Canada have shown Indo-Pacific inclination but their focus is more on the Pacific. If this can compel China to focus more in the Pacific and takes burden off the LAC, it will be favourable to India. The developments in the Western Indian Ocean are of greater significance to India in the immediate future. A China-Russia-Pakistan-Iran-Turkey coalition is likely to be challenging to India. Closer partnership with US and its allies will have its set of implications for New Delhi but those are inevitable in the light of threat from China.

The positive phenomena in the Indo-Pacific is that no country- not even the US allies want to make an either-or choice between the US or China. At some degree, each country wants to remain autonomous strategically. This is a moment for India to carve a place of a third alternative for itself. This is not expected immediately but in the long term. India’s best bet would be like-minded middle powers in this goal.

Finally, all plans for defence modernisation and foreign policy engagement are determinant on the state of the domestic economy and those challenges cannot be ignored. India is in a complex situation where it cannot overlook building military capabilities even as healthcare and education are critical priorities. The two-front challenge has struck India at the worst-possible time.

Endnotes:
  1. Steven Mosher, Don’t buy China’s Story: The Coronavirus may have leaked from a lab, New York Post, 22 February 2020 https://nypost.com/2020/02/22/dont-buy-chinas-story-the-coronavirus-may-have-leaked-from-a-lab/and Lawrence Sellin, Evidence indicates COVID-19 was artificially adapted to infect humans, WION 18 May 2020 https://www.wionews.com/opinions-blogs/evidence-indicates-covid-19-was-artificially-adapted-to-infect-humans-299220 and ''Coronavirus may have origins in China''s biological warfarelab in Wuhan'', Outlook https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/coronavirus-may-have-origins-in-chinas-biological-warfarelab-in-wuhan/1717828
  2. Emily Makowski, Theory that Coronavirus Escaped from a Lab lacks Evidence, The Scientist, 5 March 2020 Theory that Coronavirus Escaped from a Lab Lacks Evidence. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/theory-that-coronavirus-escaped-from-a-lab-lacks-evidence-67229
  3. Covid: WHO team investigating virus origins denied entry to China, BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55555466
  4. China’s BRI Dream Could Turn Nightmare As Myanmar Puts ‘Roadblocks’ Before Key Infra Projects, Eurasian Times 9 January 2021 https://eurasiantimes.com/chinas-bri-dream-could-turn-nightmare-as-myanmar-puts-roadblocks-before-key-infra-projects/
  5. Cambodia not a dustbin to China, says PM Hun Sen, ANI 18 December 2020
    https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/cambodia-not-a-dustbin-to-china-says-pm-hun-sen20201218110526/
  6. Chinese President Xi Jinping tells troops to focus on 'preparing for war', CNN 14 October 2020 https://edition.cnn.com/2020/10/14/asia/xi-jinping-taiwan-us-esper-intl-hnk/index.html
  7. Liu Zhen, Xi Jinping orders China’s military to be ready for war ‘at any second’ SCMP 5 January 2021https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3116436/xi-jinping-orders-chinas-military-be-ready-war-any-second
  8. Joe Biden sets tone for US-China ties, says coalition needed to confront Beijing The Economic Times 29 December 2020.
    https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/joe-biden-sets-tone-for-us-china-ties-says-coalition-needed-to-confront-beijing/articleshow/80003228.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

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