May 01, 2022

US Strategy in Indo-Pacific

R Arun Kumar

DAYS before the Ukrainian war commenced, the US announced its new Indo-Pacific Strategy (February 2022). This document is not only about China, but is also about India. Viewed along with the recently concluded US-India 2+2 ministerial talks (11 April), it becomes clear that the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US and its various defence deals with India binds both the countries inseparably together.

The latest US Indo-Pacific strategy recognises the present international reality, where the US, in spite of its desire, can no more boast of its earlier strength. Grudgingly the US is forced to accept the fact that it needs to depend on its allies to implement this strategy. “The essential feature of this approach is that it cannot be accomplished alone: changing strategic circumstances and historic challenges require unprecedented cooperation with those who share in this vision….We will support and empower allies and partners as they take on regional leadership roles themselves, and we will work in flexible groupings that pool our collective strength to face up to the defining issues of our time, particularly through the Quad….We will harness this opportunity to align our approaches and will implement our initiatives in coordination to multiply our effectiveness”.

The US recognises the vision announced by the European Union (September 2021). It is not such a difficult proposition as the EU vision too conveniently dovetails with the broad US perspective. The EU document is driven by France, Germany and Netherlands, who led it by announcing their own interests. The French also have some of their naval fleet stationed in this region. The US is using this interest shown by the EU to slowly bring in NATO to the region. The US document recognises all these developments. “Allies and partners outside of the region are increasingly committing new attention to the Indo-Pacific, particularly the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)”.

The US considers the region important as it expects to drive as much as two-thirds of global economic growth in the coming years. Two-way trade between the United States and the region totaled $1.75 trillion in 2020 and this region sustains three million jobs in the US. The EU notes that this region is home to 60 per cent of the world’s population producing 60 per cent of global GDP. And by 2030, 90 per cent of the 2.4 billion new members of the middle class will live here. 40 per cent of EU’s foreign trade passes through the South China Sea. Both the US and the EU are united to exploit the enormous economic potential of this region.

However, there is a catch for both of them. This region is also home to China, the world’s second largest economy and one of the fastest growing economies. Importantly, China is a socialist country. Both the US and the EU recognise China as not only an economic competitor, but also an ideological adversary. Hence, they want to concentrate all their energies to ensure that such an important region remains under their influence.

In order to ensure this, the US had made a small, but significant change in the definition of what constitutes Indo-Pacific, by redrawing the geographical area. The National Security Strategy document of the US (2017) defined the region as from the “West coast of India to Western shores of the United States”. This included Iran, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. The present document excludes these regions and defines the region as “stretching from our (US) Pacific coastline to the Indian Ocean”. This is intended to give more emphasis to the US efforts to ‘contain and isolate’ China.

The US is not shy in openly stating what it intends to do: “American interests can only be advanced if we firmly anchor the United States in the Indo-Pacific….This intensifying American focus is due in part to the fact that the Indo-Pacific faces mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC (People’s Republic of China). The PRC….seeks to become the world’s most influential power….Our objective is not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favourable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share”.

The interests and values that the US shares are clear. In the name of democracy and human rights, the US had intervened all over the world. It uses its economic and military might to create unrest, orchestrate coups and ensure a regime change. In this very Indo-Pacific region, few decades ago, the CIA backed the massacre of communists in Indonesia and put in place a military dictatorship.

Though the US declared that its ‘objective is not to change the PRC’, it is clear from the statements of various US officials and also the actions of agencies like the USAID that it is attempting the very same. According to the US Department of State, the Communist Party of China ‘poses the central threat of our times’. David R. Stilwell, assistant secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs stated: “The Chinese Communist Party poses a real risk to our basic way of life – prosperity, security, and liberty all. Our task is to recognise it, alert others, and together take the steps needed to defend our freedoms”  (October 30, 2020). Both in Hong Kong and Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the USAID is actively engaged to create unrest and disturbances.

In order to further this anti-China agenda, the US is roping India into its orbit. The strategy document states: “We will continue to build a strategic partnership in which the United States and India work together….deepen our economic and technology cooperation; and contribute to a free and open Indo-Pacific. We recognise that India is a like-minded partner and leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean….a driving force of the Quad.”

Dovetailing to this strategic perspective, US is leading efforts to ensure that India remains firmly in its embrace. The recently concluded ministerial level 2+2 talks intends to carry this forward. The joint statement issued after the meeting details how deep we have pushed ourselves into the pockets of the US, compromising our defence and sovereignty. “The ministers also discussed additional training opportunities for our respective militaries, and the United States welcomed enhanced Indian participation in advanced courses across these emerging domains”. Not only is our military training with the US, but also the government agreed to ‘exchange (military) information in real time across domains’ with the US and station ‘liaison officers in each other’s military organisations’. This means that the US military officers will now station along with their counterparts in our country.

Further, to enhance defense industrial cooperation, “both sides agreed to explore possibilities of utilising the Indian shipyards for repair and maintenance of ships of the US Maritime Sealift Command (MSC) to support mid-voyage repair of US Naval ships”. Noting the “Indian military’s expanding operational reach and emerging opportunities for cooperation in the Indian Ocean and the wider region”, the statement mentioned that the ministers “welcomed regular bilateral logistics operations such as replenishments at sea, air-to-air and ground-refueling and committed to increasing such cooperation, including through the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA)”.

The ministerial meeting also discussed about further increasing defence trade between the two countries, thus reducing India’s dependence on Russia for its security. Privatisation of defence industry in India is intended to push such a trade. It is in this background we have to view the recent announcement of the Indian government that it is not going ahead with the purchase of Russian helicopters.

It is clear that the US is moving with a long-term strategic perspective in order to hegemonise the entire world. The Indo-Pacific strategy is a part of this global order that it wants to establish. It is not only intended to contain and isolate China. The US is clear that in order to achieve this objective, India has to be completely at its call. The direction is laid out in the strategic document and the follow-up actions are seen in the ministerial meetings and other dealings between the two governments.

Opposition to US presence in Indo-Pacific and its involvement in this region is not only essential to safeguard peace in the region, but is also necessary to protect our sovereignty and independence.