On May 31, 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis formally renamed the US Pacific Command (PACOM) to Indo-Pacific Command. This was not a surprising move, as the Trump administration had already been using the new name in official statements. While no substantive changes to US military strategy have occurred because of this change, it symbolizes much more than a simple rebranding. It demonstrates the strong desire by the United States to bring India firmly into their camp. However, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi has other ideas for India’s foreign policy.
United States President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Modi have a very close relationship, at least according to State Department officials. After Prime Minister Modi visited President Trump at the White House in June 2017, they released a joint statement that affirmed the mutual desire to strengthen ties between the two countries. When Trump visited the region in November 2017, he announced that it was now time for an Indo-Pacific strategy, making clear his intentions to bring India into the larger strategic picture. In addition to demonstrating a mutual desire for stronger ties, the new name further demonstrates the United States’ desire for India to take on a larger role in the region.
There are a multitude of reasons why the United States would appreciate India’s involvement in the Pacific Command. The Indo-Pacific region is seen as one of the most volatile regions in the world today, in part due to a series of measures undertaken by China in recent years. China has made claims to vast stretches of the South and East China Seas, including numerous small land masses within them, with virtually all their claims being disputed by one of their maritime neighbors. While India is removed from these disputes, it also has a history of dealing with Chinese expansionism and border disagreements.
By adding India to the Pacific Command region, the Trump administration has indicated that they would like to see India take a larger role in promoting regional stability. With India recently becoming one of the world’s top five largest military spenders and as a growing economic force, the United States hopes that India could provide a significant counter to Chinese expansionism. India’s location along oil shipping routes and its large shared border to China’s east provide it with significant reasons to be seen as a very advantageous ally to have when confronting China, as the United States is doing.
While Modi initially expressed favorable reactions to the United States’ courtship, more recently actions have demonstrated Modi’s desire to maintain India’s historical role as a neutral party in great power disputes. In a move that surprised nearly all in attendance, during his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Modi expressed a belief that “Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests”. Despite being a member of the QUAD alliance (along with the US, Japan, and Australia), a group whose purpose many believe is to stand against Chinese territorial expansionism, India’s comments were taken by some as a defense of China’s aggressive approach in the South and East China Seas.
Prime Minister Modi has tried hard to keep India in neutral standing despite some significant obstacles. Perhaps most noteworthy was the military stand-off near the Doklam plateau with China in 2017 over the construction of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, but both sides have taken steps to mend ties and prevent a similar occurrence from happening again. In a meeting between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2018, both expressed a willingness to communicate and work together.
Modi has also taken steps that more closely adhere to what the United States would like to see. In a 2015 January statement, India made a transparent reference to China’s actions in the South China Sea, by calling for all parties to resolve maritime disputes through “peaceful means”. India has also participated with joint naval exercises with the United States and Japan and has demonstrated an increased willingness to engage in the region. Modi is also a staunch defender of the smaller nations in the South China Sea and recently took steps to strengthen India’s relationship with nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
China is unlikely to see this renaming of the regional command and the participation of India in naval exercises as a positive development. In fact, many Chinese analysts have taken Defense Secretary Mattis’ comment “the Indo-Pacific has many belts and many roads” at the official announcement ceremony as a dig at China’s One Belt One Road initiative. A state-run newspaper, Global Times, warned India that should it enter a “strategic competition” with China, it would “burn its own fingers”. Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhou, a research fellow at the Institute of War Studies in China, expressed a belief that the Indo-Pacific strategy would not last long.
Perhaps most importantly, China will see this developing relationship as a US-led attempt to encircle China and its economic interests, specifically its oil imports. Nearly 80% of China’s oil imports pass through the India ocean and the Straits of Malacca before reaching the South China Sea, where China can more easily defend them. This has been an element of Chinese military strategy for over a decade. In 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao referred to the Malacca dilemma, and subsequent Chinese military doctrine has demonstrated their desire to address these vulnerabilities, including the creation of new blue-water navy and its expansion of dual-use ports (ports with civilian and military purposes).
In part this explains why the Chinese have taken steps to improving their relationship with India. They do not want a nation with such an advantageous geostrategic position to be aligned against them in their growing competition with the United States. With India publicly demonstrating its desire to further develop relations in the region (with projects such as investing in Indonesian ports), there remains the significant possibility for tensions to reemerge between the two Asian powers.