October 24, 2019

Acting East: India in the Indo-Pacific

The following report was originally published by Brookings India on October 24, 2019. The Executive Summary is below and the full text can be downloaded here

Executive Summary
India’s “Act East” Policy evolved from its prior “Look East” Policy during the 2000s in response to China’s rise and assertiveness, the inadequacies of the post-Cold War security order, and India’s growing capabilities. The Act East Policy differs from the Look East Policy in three ways: it has moved beyond primarily economic objectives to encompass security and other realms, its focus has widened from Southeast and Northeast Asia to the entirety of the Indo-Pacific, and the urgency and priority of its efforts have been elevated. The objective of the Act East Policy is to preserve a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. It increasingly involves four elements: securing the Indian Ocean, integrating with Southeast Asia, deepening strategic partnerships with other balancing powers (the United States, Japan, Australia, France, Russia, and others), and managing differences with China. While considerable progress has been made in each of these areas, and India can build upon an often-overlooked history of leadership in Asia, New Delhi will need to do much more to ensure that its stated objective of a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific” is met. This will require steps to improve naval acquisitions, defense exports, overseas project implementation, air connectivity, regional trade, and investment screening.

October 3, 2019

On climate, connectivity, maritime security, India is reshaping the world order

The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on October 3, 2019.

Currently, the major centres of world power are self-absorbed. The United States (US) is preoccupied with the possibility of President Donald Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. The United Kingdom is in the throes of deliberating its withdrawal from the European Union, with implications for the rest of that 28-country bloc. China continues to witness demonstrations in Hong Kong, while experiencing the adverse effects of massive tariffs by the US.
Amid these developments, questions are being raised about India’s role in international affairs. Where does India stand on supporting or opposing what has, in recent years, been a US-led international order? Is India willing, and able, to assume a leadership position of its own, at least on certain issues and in certain areas?
At the outset, it should be clear that Indians, by and large, do not view a US-led international order with the nostalgia of many Americans or Europeans. The Cold War was a trying time for India, and even when it was in the right — as on disarmament, decolonisation, or managing rivalries — it often lacked the power to impose its will upon the world. For India, the Cold War era was defined by divisions, hunger, warfare, and nuclear isolation, often enabled or encouraged by the world’s leading powers.
A much stronger case can be made in favour of New Delhi supporting a post-1991 international order. India was arguably one of the top beneficiaries (along with China and the US) of the post-Cold War system, which coincided with India’s initial economic liberalisation. Indian opportunities for growth and development widened and its security increased. However, the changing distribution of power in India’s favour contrasted with the intransigence of important global institutions. It is naturally frustrating from New Delhi’s perspective that the global governance of security, international economics, and technology is still based on antiquated organisations that serve vested interests.
These realities — the shifts in world power coming into conflict with anachronistic institutions — provide the context for Indian engagement with world affairs today. Hints of the kind of international order that India seeks are apparent in several developments over the past few years. Consider three examples.
The first relates to climate change. India was often portrayed as a reluctant actor by the West in committing to a global climate agreement, as in Copenhagen in 2009, even when its per capita emissions were only a fraction of the West’s. But the situation has changed dramatically. Today, it is the US that has unilaterally withdrawn from the Paris Climate Treaty. India has responded by doubling down on its commitment to sustainable development. Not only has India shown leadership through initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance, but it has made commitments at home. The Climate Action Tracker — an independent assessment of climate commitments of countries — rates Europe’s actions as insufficient, China’s and Japan’s as highly insufficient, and US and Russian measures as critically insufficient. India is among only a handful of countries whose measures are rated satisfactorily.
A second example of Indian leadership relates to connectivity. In 2017, when every major country — including the United States, Japan, and most Europeans — sent representatives to China’s Belt and Road Forum, India decided not to participate. Instead, it articulated a set of normative principles for connectivity. These included the sustainability of financing, employment, and the environment; greater transparency; and respect for sovereignty. Today, these principles have formed the basis for norms laid out by several others, including the US, Europe, and Japan. India could certainly do more to elaborate on and assess these values, and work with others to enforce them. But New Delhi was ahead of the curve in anticipating the resulting challenges.
A third example of Indian leadership relates to maritime security, where action has been most pronounced, particularly in the Indian Ocean. Over the past several years, India has increased its naval patrols; improved its logistics network from East Africa to the Gulf to South-east Asia; enhanced its ability to monitor maritime traffic; invested in military infrastructure and maritime assistance to less capable states; and elevated interoperability and information-sharing with key partners.
These signs of Indian leadership are indicative of India’s broader world view when it comes to global affairs, even if they are not always well appreciated either in India or elsewhere.
Of course, many obstacles to Indian leadership remain, and they mostly arise from within. Economic growth and the prosperity of one’s population offer the basic foundations of international power, and the recent growth figures for India have been underwhelming. The amendment of Article 370 and its implications for Jammu and Kashmir have generated urgent new priorities. Resource and capacity constraints persist inside and outside government, requiring any progress to be gradual and ambitions to remain in line with capabilities. Nevertheless, it should be clear from recent developments that India is not just sitting on its hands as the world turns.

September 3, 2019

India Steps Up: Securing the Indian Ocean Region

The following article was published for the Indian Ocean Conference 2019 held in the Maldives on September 3-4, 2019. 

The Indian Ocean is important for India and for the world. It remains a major conduit for international trade, particularly energy trade, as well as the exchange of people and ideas. These reflect historical antecedents, including ancient and medieval trading networks that once linked Zanzibar to Muscat, Basra to Gujarat, the Coromandel coast to Aceh, and eastwards to Indochina, China’s Pearl River Delta, and Nagasaki. But in more recent years, regional linkages have assumed modern characteristics as the global economy has developed. The Indian Ocean littoral is now home to some of the fastest growing regions of the world, from South and Southeast Asia to East Africa and the Gulf. Additionally, the Ocean basin is an important source of natural resources, including mineral, energy, and fishing resources.

At the same time, the Indian Ocean is under-governed. It remains vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis. It has several weak and fragile states along its coast. It still witnesses dangerous activities by non-state actors, from smugglers and traffickers to terrorists and pirates. And the region’s institutional architecture, while much improved, is less well-developed than other maritime regions of the world.

It is amid this backdrop that the security of the Indian Ocean is undergoing significant changes to its security. The most significant change is the permanent entry into the Indian Ocean of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). As India’s previous Navy Chief Sunil Lanba said earlier this year:

Since 2008, there has been a permanent presence of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean region in the form of an anti-piracy escort force. The 31st anti-piracy escort force is presently in the Gulf of Aden. So at any given time there are 6 to 8 Chinese navy ships in the northern part of the Indian Ocean. Also, two years ago they commissioned their first overseas facility, or base, in Djibouti.

The stated aim of this deployment is to protect their trade, which is flowing through this area, from piracy. That included deployed submarines for anti-piracy operations, which is the most unlikely platform to be used for this role. There is no doubt they are spending a huge sum of money in developing their military capability. They are modernising their forces, they are modernising the command structure. And in my opinion, no navy has grown so rapidly in the last 200 years as the Chinese navy. They’ve added 80 new ships in the last five years. So the Chinese navy is a force, and it is a force which is here to stay.

China’s Navy is not the only one to have increased its presence in the region. Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Force now also operates actively in the Indian Ocean, as does the U.S. Navy, the maritime forces of several European powers, and Russia. The Indian Ocean is no longer just under-governed, it is increasingly contested. For regional navies, including India’s, this presents new kinds of challenges.

In response to these changes, the Indian Navy – the Indian Ocean’s most capable resident maritime force – has stepped up, especially since 2017. It has been assisted by other elements of India’s defence establishment, including the Coast Guard, Army, Air Force, space and cyber assets, military diplomacy, defence industry, and civilian agencies. Moreover, it has benefited tremendously from partnerships with other countries: both resident Indian Ocean states and partners among the major powers. There are at least five ways in which India – led by the Navy – is attempting to better manage security in the Indian Ocean.

The first is that since 2017, the Indian Navy has stepped up its patrols in the Indian Ocean. Seven zones were identified for permanent patrols by armed surface vessels, submarines, or aircraft: the Straits of Malacca, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the northern Bay of Bengal, the Laccadive islands and the Maldives, the northern Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the exclusive economic zones of Mauritius and the Seychelles. These mission-based deployments are a departure from the past, when the Navy participated in flag waving, port calls, or periodic visits for surveillance or other missions. The current efforts include coordinated patrols with local forces, whether with Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia, or other patrolling and security efforts in conjunction with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles. Such operations are also bolstered by Indian humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), search and rescue, and evacuation operations. Over the past decade, India has executed or assisted in such operations in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mozambique, and Yemen, among other places. The operational reach of the Indian Navy has also improved with a host of bilateral agreements signed over the last few years, including with the United States, France, Singapore, and others. From Sabang in Indonesia to Salalah in Oman, the Indian armed forces today have unprecedented access across the Indian Ocean region.

The second area has involved improvements in maritime domain awareness (MDA). India has signed white shipping agreements – for sharing information about known commercial shipping – with over thirty countries. It recently established an information fusion centre – the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) – in Gurgaon, with the intention to link with similar centres in both Singapore and Madagascar. This would give a real-time and all-encompassing picture of the presence of vessels and other developments across the Indian Ocean. MDA coordination mechanisms with other countries – the Maldives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles – continue, and India has benefited from the acquisition of new platforms, such as P-8i maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which bring down the cost and efficiency of MDA activities.

A third major development has involved a host of new strategic coordination mechanisms, as well as the gradual development of new institutions for governing the Indian Ocean region. The evolution of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) are well-known. But these are being buttressed by a network of bilateral and trilateral dialogues. These include configurations such as India-U.S.-Japan, India-Japan-Australia, and India-Indonesia-Australia, as well as quadrilateral conversations. Such coordination mechanisms extend to strategic assessments, working level information sharing, and infrastructure coordination activities.

A fourth development has been growing interoperability between the Indian military and others. This is reflected in a large and growing number of military exercises involving armies, air forces, and navies. Today, India holds regular exercises of different scales and frequencies with almost every Indian Ocean littoral state, as well as the United States, Russia, Japan, China, France, and the United Kingdom. Breakthrough exercises with Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Australia are but some of the new changes reflected in this area. Such exercises have moved beyond basic passing exercises (PASSEX) to more sophisticated anti-submarine warfare and mid-air refuelling. 

The final element of India’s step-up in the Indian Ocean involves capacity building. This is reflected even in an area such as equipment, despite India’s poor capabilities in that department. India has provided coastal radar systems, transport aircraft, and offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) to a number of smaller countries around the Indian Ocean basin. Training too has increased, particularly for South Asian and African countries; in Southeast Asia this extends to combat aircraft pilots and submarine sailors. And there is also the development of military and civilian infrastructure. Among other projects, India has helped develop a container port in Chabahar in Iran as well as a port in Sittwe in Myanmar, with the objective of linking these ports to north-south connectivity infrastructure. Additional infrastructure projects are being negotiated with other countries in the region, including island nations.

Taken together, these developments reflect a significant change in India’s presence and activity in the Indian Ocean, driven by both the traditional and non-traditional security dynamics that are changing the region’s landscape. These efforts are largely cooperative in nature, based on transparency, sustainability, and consent. They are part of a broader effort to preserve the Indian Ocean as a free, open, and inclusive zone, one that witnesses dampened – rather than heightened – security competition.

September 1, 2019

Europe and Indo-Pacific Connectivity

The following discussion paper was published by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) in Singapore in September 2019. The introduction is below and the full text can be accessed here.

When political leaders, security officials and economic policymakers look at maps today, their eyes are as likely to look beyond boundaries to new kinds of lines being drawn: maritime trading routes, railway lines, transcontinental highways pipelines and energy transmission networks. Connectivity is becoming one of the primary arenas of geopolitical competition in the early 21st century. Nowhere is this more important than in the Indo-Pacific – a vast region extending from East Africa to the west coast of the Americas – a region that is experiencing both dynamic economic growth and intensifying security competition.

While in a narrow sense not ‘of the region’, Europe will be tremendously affected by these developments in the Indo-Pacific and will have a decisive role to play in shaping the emerging connectivity picture. As a collective entity, Europe remains – along with the United States (US) and China – one of the major poles of the global economy. It boasts considerable financial resources, high-quality governance standards and technical and technological expertise. However, the ability to harness these capabilities for geopolitical ends will require greater conceptual clarity on the part of European leaders about regional dynamics, better coordination within, and targeted interventions to shape outcomes in Europe’s favour. This would allow Europe to use its comparative advantages – money, norms and knowledge – most effectively.

Read the full report here.

August 8, 2019

The Indigenisation of India's Defence Industry

The following report was released by Brookings India on August 8, 2019. The full report can be downloaded here.

Executive Summary

An indigenous defence industry is a vital objective for India given its security environment and strategic objectives. India has a large and growing defence budget and a long history of defence industrial production. However, the country remains heavily reliant on defence imports, particularly for major platforms, while its own exports are extremely meagre. Although several high-level committees have been established to address the problem of defence industrial indigenisation, very few of the necessary steps have been taken. In part, this is because India faces a number of dilemmas in trying to reform its defence industry: the normal rules of market economics do not apply; ideal objectives of quality, cost, and timeframes cannot be achieved simultaneously; defence budgets remain susceptible to cuts; the nature of defence supply chains is changing; and little heed has been paid to policies to maximise technological absorption. Moreover, major stakeholders confront their own challenges: India’s powerful defence public sector faces conflicts of interest and is resistant to change; the armed services provide unrealistic qualitative requirements; the Ministry of Defence lacks specialisation; the Finance Ministry discourages long-term spending; and the political leadership lacks expertise and is reluctant to make decisions due to political perceptions. To address these diverse challenges, efforts should be made to ensure predictable long-term requirements and create a more level playing field between the public and private sectors. Further, a mechanism must be found to ensure predictable capital expenditure, in order to incentivise investment. Without such steps being taken, India will continue to struggle in its quest for defence indigenisation.

Read the full report here.