India is thought to have an important role in the Pacific region given the decline of U.S. influence and the emergence of China.
“The rise of India’s economic and military power opens the possibility that the country could fill the void left by the U.S.,” Dr Sinderpal Singh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore told a conference in Hanoi last week.
But he expressed doubts about India’s ability to meet the expectations of other countries that have the same objectives as he analyzed the strategic differences between India and the U.S. at the “India’s rise and its impact on regional security architecture” conference.
First of all, while the U.S. looks at East Asia and the Indian and Pacific Oceans as major pillars in its strategy, India has a bigger view, asserting that those pillars must include the Indian Ocean and Africa.
This has led to differences between the two, Singh said.
For instance, India believes that Iran plays a key role in ensuring security in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but the U.S. does not agree with that.
Secondly, the U.S. supports India in expanding its influence in East Asia, but India puts East Asia below South Asia in terms of strategic interet, he said.
And last but not least is the difference in their viewpoints about the South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea.
In 2016 India had refused to undertake joint naval patrols with the U.S. in the waters partly because its laws did not dovetail with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Besides, India did not want to be a part of the maritime sovereignty disputes between China and Southeast Asian countries in the East Sea, where China has already spelled out its interests. Since China has already acknowledged India’s interests in the Bay of Bengal, it expects India to do the same in the East Sea.
Singh pointed out that India always wants to maintain an inclusive regional order, and while security in the region is still unclear with the overlap of too many institutions, including the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) Regional Forum, and ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting-Plus, India does not want to alienate China but instead keep the relationship stable.
Professor Gundre Jayachandra Reddy of the Center for Southeast Asian and Pacific Studies at Sri Venkateswara University in India said while projecting influence in the Pacific Ocean would help promote its image and allow it greater initiative, India should become a South Asian power first before trying to become a global power.
In fact, India faces a series of internal problems, he said.
For now, the country is not too different from other developing countries, with a large population and low per capita income.
Despite its economic growth, India’s human development, healthcare and education are still underdeveloped, and its information technology sector does not stand out compared to those of other South Asian peers, he said.
The current trend shows that a country that makes more investment in other countries are the “big guys,” and in this India is clearly one step behind China.
India’s role is not prominent in the international arena because of such problems. So India needs to be prepared to show its important and strategic global role, Reddy said.
The world is changing from being politics-oriented to economy-oriented. If major countries used to show off their power by fighting wars with smaller ones in the past, these days a nation is considered powerful only when it makes big investments in other countries.
Reddy said India has insisted on protecting its maritime freedom and expressed the wish to ensure security and peace in the region and the world.
At the same time the country has never tried to project itself as an emerging power, he added.
Shri Ajaneesh Kumar, deputy general director of the Indian Council of World Affairs, said the Indian navy would play a bigger role in the country’s cooperation with other nations, given that China has increased its maritime influence.
Parvathaneni Harish, India’s Ambassador to Vietnam, said his country attaches great importance to its maritime interests because it has a 7,500-kilometer (4,700 miles) coastline, 1,200 islands and an exclusive maritime economic zone that stretches 2.4 million square kilometers (over 593 million acres).
India’s viewpoint is that all countries are equal in the use of public space at sea or in the air. India promotes freedom of navigation, unhindered trade and peaceful settlement of disputes under international laws.
India does not look at the Indo-Pacific region as a group of countries that are considering ways to suppress or fight each other, said the ambassador.
ASEAN would remain the center of this region in future when countries seek opportunities for cooperation, securing peace and creating a security architecture.
Regional connectivity initiatives, in addition to building infrastructure, also need to build trust based on the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, negotiations, transparency, feasibility, and sustainability.
“Those kinds of connections should boost trade and not encourage competition. It should help every nation become stronger rather than create bigger debts for some countries,” Harish said.
Cu Chi Loi, director of the Institute of American Studies at the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences, said China is now very powerful economically and militarily, and countries in the Asia-Pacific region should be cautious when assessing the China-U.S. relationship to avoid making wrong moves.
“If the Cold War returns, it would be a tragedy for all.”