US gameplan in the Pacific

SRINATH RAGHAVAN | Updated on November 17, 2017

Washington intends to appropriate the East Asia Summit as the main forum for regional security issues.

While US carves out its China containment plan, India should be wary of taking sides.

Meeting Premier Wen Jiabao of China on the sidelines of the recent East Asia Summit (EAS), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that India's presence in the disputed South China Sea was entirely commercial. He added that territorial questions should be resolved according to international law.

The Prime Minister's remark should restore much-needed balance to discussions — in India, China and the West — on India's involvement in that area. The dominant narrative has been that the South China Sea is a new zone of Sino-Indian strategic rivalry. An editorial in a Chinese daily went so far as to warn India that “its actions in the South China Sea will push China to the limit.”

In fact, when ONGC Videsh signed production-sharing contracts with Vietnam for two blocks in 2006, the Ministry of External Affairs was unaware of the potentially-sensitive implications of the deal. Only in November 2007, after China lodged a formal protest, did the MEA realise that these two blocks were in disputed territory. New Delhi then took the view that the exploration should continue. After all, China had had a presence for many years in disputed territory that India regarded as its own. So, the assumption that India made a deliberate strategic move in inserting itself into the South China Sea dispute simply does not wash.

During the last year and a half, since the dispute has heated up, China's neighbours in the area have been quietly encouraging India to have a more prominent presence. Vietnam, in particular, has sought to cultivate closer strategic ties with India. There is no reason why India should hold back — as long as these do not enmesh it in their disputes with China. The need for India to tread a cautious line also stems from the larger changes underway in the Asia-Pacific region.


The main driver of these changes is the United States' decision to shift its strategic focus towards Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote recently: “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the centre of the action.” President Barack Obama proclaimed in a speech last week that “in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.” It was a “deliberate and strategic decision”, he said.

This decision has resulted in a series of moves by the US to create a new architecture for Asia in both the economic and security domains. This will be crucial to ensuring that the US remains the premier power even as it undergoes relative decline owing to the rise of China.

On the economic side, the US is promoting a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Signed in 2005 by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, the TPP has drawn the interest of five other countries: Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Japan and Vietnam.

The TPP has an ambitious tripartite agenda. It aims at a regular FTA with provisions for protecting intellectual property; at the creation of investor-friendly regulatory frameworks and policies; and at emerging issues, including measures to ensure that state-owned companies “compete fairly” with private companies and do not put the latter at a disadvantage.

China regards the TPP as an economic grouping directed at it. This is not surprising, given that the TPP is being promoted when American leaders are also rebuking China for practising unfair trade. The US evidently hopes that a successful TPP will eventually compel China to come to terms with it — just as China did with APEC and WTO.

The security side of the architecture is more explicitly aimed at balancing the rise of China. The US has concluded an agreement to station 2,500 troops in Australia. It is looking to reinforce ties with its other formal allies in the region: Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Thailand.

Most importantly, after keeping away for years, the US has formally joined the EAS. Washington intends to recast the EAS as the main forum for regional security and political issues.

It has already shown its willingness to intervene in regional disputes, such as the South China Sea. American leaders have also spoken on the importance of partnership with India in their engagement with the “Indo-Pacific” region.


The US and its allies are wary of using the term “containment” with respect to China. The Chinese, for their part, see this as mere semantics. The real parallel, though, is not with US grand strategy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The present moves resemble more closely the American attempts to build a transatlantic economic, political and security architecture after the fall of the Berlin Wall — an architecture from which Russia was deliberately excluded. Russia's economic free fall during the 1990s ensured that it was in no position to challenge the structures put in place by the US. However, China's geopolitical position in the coming decades will be rather different.

In this emerging scenario, India has to make its moves carefully. The Prime Minister stated at the EAS that India stood for “an open, inclusive and transparent architecture of regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region.” India's security interests will be served neither by a regional architecture that is dominated by China, nor by one that is aimed at China. Besides, India has a considerable distance to go before it becomes a serious player in East Asia. Its economic ties with the region are just beginning to grow.

It is useful to remind ourselves that China's trade with ASEAN is almost five times that of India. India is largely unplugged from the integrated supply and production chains that are central to East Asian economies. Similarly, whilst India does have relative advantage in the maritime domain, it is far from being a maritime power to reckon with. In the near future, the key challenge for India will be to build its capabilities while steering clear of US-China maritime rivalry. New Delhi should ensure that its reach in East Asia does not exceed its grasp.

(The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

Published on November 22, 2011

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