Modi Needs to Show India Has Teeth
Asia is ready for India to step up as the United States withdraws.
Asia’s premier security meeting is this week, and all eyes will be on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he gives his keynote speech — the first for an Indian leader. The defense chiefs and diplomats at the Shangri-La Dialogue are eager to see whether Modi — and India — have the chops to take on an increasingly critical regional role.
Asia’s uncertain political and economic climate presents an opportunity for Modi. U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies, including the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and a purely transactional approach to longtime alliances, have contributed to strategic drift in the region as China grows assertive and authoritarian. The situation calls for steady leadership — and the United States and its Pacific allies better hope that New Delhi can deliver.
One of the few things Washington’s leaders can agree on is that the Asian century should be India’s as much as China’s. Yet, India’s inadequate defense-industrial base and lack of regional economic integration threaten to frustrate its ambitions. Modi needs to convince Asia’s elites that his country is ready to become a leading power that can ensure no one country can dominate the region’s future.
It’s fitting Modi gets the historic honor of taking center stage. Singapore, the host of the summit, has longed for New Delhi to provide strategic balance to the Asia-Pacific since the early days of the city-state’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew. One of Modi’s early foreign-policy moves was to replace India’s “Look East” approach with a more energetic “Act East” strategy.
The country has since made some tantalizing moves eastward, but Singapore is not alone in wanting India to show up and stand out. Most Asian governments would love to witness Modi declare a strong and sustained commitment, backed by resources, to being a leading power championing well-accepted norms. But until recently, India lacked the national capacity for a bigger, bolder regional policy.
Few things would send a more reassuring message than signs of seriousness about India’s military modernization. The country’s 2018 defense budget doesn’t exceed 1.5 percent of GDP, and the military still has acute shortfalls in major weapons systems like fighter jets, basic infantry combat equipment, and even ammunition. The best estimates of China’s defense spending are about 2 percent of its GDP, but Beijing’s economy was almost five times the size of India’s in 2016. As the world’s fastest-growing large economy, India is getting better positioned to build its defense capabilities if it can muster the political will, streamline procurements, and improve both civil-military and intra-services coordination.
Modi can start close to home, where India’s abilities and interests are the strongest, by announcing a beefed-up presence in the Indian Ocean, as well as assistance and capacity-building activities in the Bay of Bengal region. China is testing India around South Asia and surrounding maritime trade and energy routes as never before. Events this winter in the Maldives led some commentators to wonder whether its leader, Abdulla Yameen, was shifting allegiances from New Delhi to Beijing. Modi must meet the challenge. As former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has written, “It is India’s neighbourhood that holds the key to its emergence as a regional and global power.”
Modi should also call on collective efforts to help strengthen the maritime capacity of Southeast Asia. The region will listen attentively to what he says about related disputes and the need to resolve them peacefully and in accordance with global rules. China’s militarization of the South China Sea flouts international law. Both Asian giants recently faced adverse rulings on claims at sea by United Nations arbitral tribunals. But only one — India — accepted the decision, in favor of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal.
India has already been growing its security partnerships in the face of a rising China. It has rapidly expanded security ties with Japan and Vietnam, participated in sea exercises with other powers, and joined the revival of the quadrilateral U.S.-Japan-India-Australia democratic security grouping. Getting the band back together is positive, but Southeast Asia doesn’t want to be left out. The 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries await confirmation that the Quad complements, not substitutes for, that body’s centrality and the inclusive multilateralism that ASEAN-led frameworks represent.
The Indian government missed an opportunity to reassert the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight and respect for international law after the four nations met last year. Modi can restate these principles and also call for greater cooperation with Europe’s democracies. France, for example, has significant Indian Ocean interests and is sending clear signals to India, Australia, and the region that it’s ready to work together. Northeast Asian delegates will arrive preoccupied by the latest theatrics on the Korean Peninsula, whatever tweet-driven drama prevails that week. India isn’t a central player here but should maintain solidarity with friends and keep regional pressure on North Korea to denuclearize without delay, complicating China’s resumption of business as usual with its client.
Of course, all the attendees will lean in when Modi turns to the region’s two heavyweights. Now isn’t the time to betray anxiety over Washington’s unpredictability. He should embrace the nation best equipped to underwrite India’s defense and technological transformation — and, even today, Asia’s rules-based security order. While at it, Modi can gently remind the United States why it’s in its own self-interest to do so.
At the same time, there’s no reason India shouldn’t accelerate the building of ties with Australia and South Korea, and in Southeast Asia, cultivate closer relations with Indonesia, Singapore, and the new Malaysian government. As China’s influence expands to include the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, the region is headed toward more networked security partnerships. Modi should welcome this variable geometry.
Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping recently tried to reset fraying ties after a tense border confrontation. It’s important they try, even though the giants’ inveterate mistrust suggests the détente may not last. Smaller countries are watching to see if India stands its ground. But the region also doesn’t want conflict. For most, the logic of interdependence lies intact.
That may start to change as China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build Eurasian infrastructure creates potential debt traps, as has already happened in Sri Lanka, and Beijing’s political and military leverage limits countries’ independence. Thus far, territorial grievances with Pakistan and sovereignty concerns have animated New Delhi’s criticism of the initiative. This can come across as too myopic. Modi should pivot to making the case that India, Japan, and the West offer bankable alternatives for the private sector, while keeping the door open to partnering selectively with China.
Companies — and their governments — need greater confidence India will restart economic reforms after next spring’s parliamentary elections. A pledge to reinvigorate its efforts to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership would draw resounding applause. India is understandably nervous about opening up its agriculture and manufacturing to China and 14 other countries. But it needs to meet them in the middle to strengthen global competitiveness and enable its high-skilled services professionals to work abroad. Both India and Southeast Asia have far more to gain strategically and economically by finding a way forward and protecting against overdependence on China.
India’s willingness to advance deeper economic integration with the region is also essential. After all, it’s much harder to be a reliable security partner while arguing with everyone over trade and often sitting outside Asia’s supply chains.
Finally, Modi shouldn’t shy away from highlighting liberal values such as openness, tolerance, and rule of law. It’s these attributes that make India’s rise so compelling and essential to the preservation of the Asian order. Building New Delhi’s soft power requires tackling India’s own injustices and addressing the horrors suffered by the Rohingya (and other groups) in Myanmar and now Bangladesh.
Modi has the perfect moment to show world leaders that India’s future belongs at the high table of global powers — and that its ascendancy comes with obvious benefits for their countries.
Atman Trivedi is a Managing Director at Hills & Company and Adjunct Fellow at the Pacific Forum. He worked on India policy at the State and Commerce Departments and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.