India should rethink its policy in the emerging cold war with China
If India has to form a trilateral initiative along with Japan and France, then it must not solely focus on the flexibility factor alone.
Dr Nehginpao Kipgen and Mohanasakthivel
In the wake of recent Chinese aggression in the disputed Himalayan border running along the Ladakh area of Kashmir, the debate about India aligning with the United States has resurfaced once again. One of the central questions to India’s China threat is how it should respond in an emerging new cold war in which the United States and China are at loggerheads.
In this globalized and interdependent world, “evasive balancing” is one strategy that can be pursued by countries such as India, Japan, France and Australia. Countries tend to exhibit balancing or band-wagoning behaviour when there is an existential threat.
The current framework established to balance China is the formation of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as Quad) in the Indo-Pacific region. But this carries an innate limitation. As former Indian national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon pointed out in May this year “Indo-Pacific is not the answer to India’s continental security issues, of which there are many, and which are not shared by any of the other members of the Quad.”
The other frameworks such as Japan-America-India (JAI) or India-France-Australia, as suggested by French President Emmanuel Macron, are oriented toward the Indo-Pacific and they share the same maritime limitation. In order to have a holistic strategy, it must include both Indo-Pacific and Eurasian constructs.
It is pertinent for India to have a Eurasian strategy and not inordinately focus on the Indo-Pacific, because China can project power effectively in the Indo-Pacific if it consolidates its position in Eurasia.
Based on the premise of a holistic strategy, if India has to form a trilateral initiative along with Japan and France, then it must not solely focus on the flexibility factor alone.
Rather, it must strive to increase the trust factor also, as these countries can eventually align their policies and face the common threat cohesively. Furthermore, a trilateral initiative should act as a precursor for an alignment, because it is an incremental process and should not be an end in itself.
Since the start of the 21st century, France and Japan have been two important countries with which India has carefully developed bilateral relationships. Over the years, there has been an increasing level of ease among all the three countries while dealing with each other because of the rise of China and a similar vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
India-Japan-France is an efficient trilateral framework because it has the potential to balance China in both the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia, and there is a significant level of convergence on a wide range of global issues including terrorism, piracy, climate change and saving multilateralism in an increasingly multi-polar world.
Ideological solidarity and convergence of interest
It is natural for a state to align itself with another state that shares a similar domestic characteristic, but ideology alone will not bring states together. The convergence of interest plays a vital role as well.
France is one of the permanent members in the United Nations Security Council and a resident Indo-Pacific power. It has a significant military presence in both Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and its Indo-Pacific strategy also aligns with India and Japan.
Moreover, both France and Japan do not attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of India, unlike the United States. They acknowledge the fact that India is a robust democracy and trust in its internal mechanisms.
Decision-making autonomy without asymmetrical dependency
One of the continuing features of the Indian statecraft is to be independent while making decisions, without succumbing to the superpower diktats. Given the current dwindling status of the trans-Atlantic relationship, it is evident that being in alliance with the superpower would only make India as a junior partner, rather than a partner on equal terms.
France has maintained its strategic autonomy, and Japan is trying to strive for strategic autonomy despite being a United States close ally. The India-Japan-France trilateral framework grants the scope to be in a mutually dependent relationship rather than an asymmetrical one.
Aligning with the United States would exacerbate the asymmetry for all the three countries and increase the dominant powers leverage over the weaker ones. The trilateral framework is a favourable option for the three countries to retain strategic autonomy.
Areas of partnership in infrastructure and defense cooperation
As the trilateral partnership incorporates both the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia regions, it broadens the scope for cooperation in infrastructural development in other regions, such as Central Asia and Africa.
Central Asia is the heartland of Eurasia, and Kazakhstan occupies a significant portion of Central Asia. China sees Kazakhstan as its gateway to Europe, and has encouraged the speedy development of some of the most emblematic projects of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Notably, some of the most visible projects of BRI are in Kazakhstan. All the three countries have a robust relationship with Kazakhstan, and joint infrastructural development in the region will help Kazakhstan to overcome its excessive dependency on China.
Africa is a crucial region in the Indo-Pacific and realizing that China has been the first mover in terms of upgrading the African ports, railways, and mines. India, Japan and France are not far behind as India’s trade with Africa has reached $100 billion dollars per year and is growing at 35% annually. Some 20% of Indian foreign direct investment is directed toward Africa.
Japan and India enjoy a more favourable public image in Africa than China does. They have formed the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in partnership with the African Development Bank. France is a traditional power in Africa; it has significant military personnel based in Djibouti. Moreover, in 2015, both France and Japan signed a Joint Plan of Action for Africa and Security Cooperation.
The trilateral partnership will immensely benefit Africa and reduce China’s role in the region. The three countries should declare a joint strategic and global partnership vision which should encompass both Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific regions.
Efforts must be made to institutionalize the 2+2 mechanism, as there is already an existing mechanism between both France and Japan and India and Japan, which would result in a holistic assessment of both the Indo-Pacific and Eurasian regions.
If all the three countries have a joint 2+2 meeting, France can join in the annual Malabar naval exercise and there can be a trilateral maritime exercise in the East African coast and in the Gulf region. In the diplomatic realms, India, Japan and France could start by meeting on the sidelines of various multilateral forums such as ASEM, G20 and G7.
Given all these factors, India needs to be cautious about its alignment in the emerging cold war because in a multi-polar world, middle-power coalitions will be India’s best option as compared to the other viable alternatives.
(Dr Nehginpao Kipgen is a political scientist, Associate Professor, Assistant Dean and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. Mohanasakthivel is a research assistant at CSEAS)