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India- China- U.S. relations in the Indo-Pacific region; By Soorya. S

Image Courtesy: Pandaily

Article 32/2020

“The Mediterranean is the ocean of the past, The Atlantic is the ocean of the present, and The Pacific, the ocean of the future,” said John Hay, U.S. Secretary of State (1898 to 1905) over a century ago. This marks the beginning of the Unites States’ strategic engagement with Asia.

The 21st century has seen the rise of Asia and it is also called the ‘Asian Century[1]’. Asia is a diverse continent with various countries, history, culture, language, government, economy and every other aspect. The Western powers have been and still continue to be dependent on many of the Asian countries for their economic growth and national interest to a certain extent.


The recent emergence of Asia as a formidable military and economic power with countries like China, India, Japan, South Korea and North Korea constitutes the most significant development in the post-Cold War international politics. Countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have also shown tremendous economic growth and stability in the past decade. It incubates a new world order with evident signals for a radical shift in international power equations. These developments in the Asia-Pacific and the growing companionship between India and the US have caught attention across the globe.

[1] “Asian Century” The 21st century is unarguable the Asian century. It has seen the rise of many developing countries and third world countries. It has also interested the western powers to invest and trade more in the region. Asia has seen phenomenal growth in the present century when compared to the previous ones where some of the countries were still colonised and dependent on big powers for survival.

For a long time now, we know that maritime trade routes are one of the best and easiest and also most competitive ways of geo-economics.  Indo-Pacific is no exception to it. Big powers in the region like China, the U.S., India and Australia along with other countries are trying to co-operate and co-ordinate with each other.

A view across the region indicates the presence of complex challenges[1]. The US-Afghan relation is in a strategic dilemma[2]. The ongoing controversy between Iran and the United States share an unfitted

[1] Complex challenges are many in the region due to its diverse population and varied governments. There is still political instability in many parts of the continent with issues booming every single day. Despite all the complexities that this region faces, it still continues to grow better and stronger for relationships with other countries.

nature of affairs in the region. Pakistan, on the other hand, has its border issues with India. Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar states that have their own internal issues to deal with in the region. Militarily, Indo-Pacific is full of flashpoints that serve as a potential source of armed conflicts. In addition, the maritime disputes and continuous violations by China’s aggressive posture and violations of the international norms in the Spratly Island, Anti-Access, Area-Denial (A2AD) and Nine- dash line in the South China Sea and the East China Sea are heightening the tension. For a region to be strong and steady, the nations of that region should have relative peace that necessitates better co-operation and co-ordination which is negligible in Asia.

The interests of the US, China India and other regional players, along with the strategic significance of the South China Sea and the East China Sea, make the region a volatile one. The rise of China and its ambition to establish hegemony in Asia directly challenges the primacy of the US. Therefore, the role of India in this subsequent power struggle is of strategic importance and interest. The unprecedented rise of China could be the result of the strategic convergence between India and the US. The basic reasons for the conflictual relationship between China and the US could possibly be because of the South and East China seas and also on trade, investment and security basis. Chinese actions in conflicts over Taiwan and the South China Sea are reflective of not only China’s rise but also its growing hegemonic stance[1]. Taiwan is being supported by the US in the Indo-Pacific by elevating the island’s status[2]. “China Standards 2035”[3] is a plan that focuses on China becoming the “Technology Super Power” following the “Made in China 2025” leaving behind Europe and the US.  By 2049, marking China’s 100th anniversary, Chinese President Xi aims at China becoming a developed nation and its grand plan to take over the world. Xi calls it “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by taking over the No.1 position in the global world order, replacing the US[4].

Rebalancing Asia Strategy

The East Asian foreign policy of the former US President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” was a major shift in the US Foreign Policy. This policy was adopted to maintain cordial relations with the East by means of FDIs and other bilateral and multilateral organisations. It is also commonly referred to as “Rebalancing Asia Strategy”[5]. The Rebalance is “a partnership not just with nations, but with people…for decades to come.  Bound by the values we share, guided by the vision we seek, I am absolutely confident we can advance the security and the prosperity and the dignity of people across this region”, said former President Obama in 2014[6].

[5] “Asia rebalancing” This rebalancing strategy should to expand American presence within the Asia-Pacific by forging closer military, trade, and people-to-people ties with various states across the region. It was first called the “Pivot” to Asia by the former United States President Barack Obama. Some consider the “Pivot” to Asia by President Obama to be the biggest mistake. It became a popular buzzword after Hillary Clinton authored America’s Pacific Century, in Foreign Policy.

The U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Indo-Pacific strategy” has been an improvised version of former President Barack Obama’s “Rebalancing Asia Strategy” policy. President Trump said in November 2017: “We have been friends, partners, and allies in the Indo-Pacific for a long, long time, and we will be friends, partners, and allies for a long time to come.”[1] However, China’s perception is that the geopolitical change brought about by its rise in the region is what that is making Washington boost alliances and efforts in the region. The increasing tilt from Atlantic to Asia and economic and geopolitical gravity towards the Indo-Pacific is certainly demanding the position of the United States[2].

Japan being an ally of the U.S. and plays an important role in the conception and promotion of the security in the region by supporting the U.S. The challenge to the U.S. in the region seems to be China and Russia, where China is continuously mocking down all the countries in the region with its economic and military dominance. The Russian-Chinese détente took place in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union[3]. China’s rapid industrial growth made it an ideal partner for Russia, which is rich in natural resources. It has now become a challenge to the countries in the region including India. The aggressive posture of China is impeding other countries’ freedom of navigation in other countries.

Concern about China’s rising economic and military posturing in the region is another serious threat faced by major and minor powers in the region. India has been an advocate to “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy and co-operates with the U.S., Japan and Australia in combating for free and open trade in the region.

Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy

The “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” is a joint strategic vision by the United States, Australia, Japan and India. Although there are differences of opinion between the countries, the “Quad” wants the Indo-Pacific region to be utilized in a way that will benefit everybody without any influence. The free and open maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region is to develop trade and commerce bringing stability and prosperity as well as securing peace in the region as a whole.

Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy[1] consists of three pillars:

  1. Promotion and establishment of rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade, etc.

  2. The pursuit of economic prosperity.

  3. Commitment for peace and stability.

“What I call the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” derives from our desire to preserve the blessings of open seas, together with these very countries, as well as the United States, Australia, India, and others, and indeed, all countries and peoples who share the same intent,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

India and the Indo-Pacific

The US’s interest and values in the Indo-Pacific have been very effective in recent years after Indian PM Modi’s visit to the US and other countries of the ASEAN member countries. Indian PM in one his speeches in 2015[2] showed his interests in collaborating and inviting the US to the region for further activities. The “Shangrila Dialogue” in 2018 clearly constructs India’s interests in the region, where PM Modi said that India’s policy perspective on Indo-Pacific included “inclusiveness”, “openness”, “ASEAN centrality” and that the concept was not directed against any country[3].

The Indian government has introduced the concept of “SAGAR” (Security And Growth for All in the Region) and believes in an Indo-Pacific that is free, open and inclusive, and one that is founded upon a cooperative and collaborative rules-based order. According to MEA reports, India has been extremely careful of its relationship with China by keeping away from several military and naval exercises. The second edition of the Indo-Pacific regional dialogue in 2019 discussed five main issues counting solutions for achieving cohesion in the region through maritime connectivity, what steps can be taken to attain and maintain a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and the regional transition from ‘Brown to Blue” economy- opportunities and challenges[4].

Another important aspect to touch upon is the shift from India’s Look East Policy to Act East Policy. India’s need to access the South and East China Seas becomes important for it to trade with countries like Russia which is in the far east of India. A maritime trade route is a key component in the existing relations between India and Russia. The projected route between Chennai and Vladivostok could open new opportunities for both the countries in areas of the trade like oil, minerals, energy and natural resources, etc.,  The Russian Far East (RFE) is a region which gives an extended reach to the “Arctic Region” which is melting due to Global Warming and Climate Change. The “Energy Bond” between India and Russia helps in mitigating India’s inflation, primarily based on energy prices, maintains price stability and energy security making it a key pillar in the Indo-Russian ties[5]. This again directly challenges India to navigate freely in the South and East China Seas which is under the serious influence of China.

India is considered as an important geostrategic partner of the US in its Asia rebalancing and the increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” symbolizes it. There has been a greater co-operation between the two countries on defence and socio-economic. The second half of the twentieth century has been regarded by many as a phase of the triumph of democracy.

COVID-19 and the Implications on Indo-Pacific

Covid-19 has been a major turning point for all the countries across the globe. The fact that it started to spread from China is a key factor in shaping global politics. Since the Chinese did not warn about the serious outbreak of the virus and its consequences, many lives have been lost and is still being a victim to the virus and every country has gone through a serious economic depression that will take months from now to regain their position back in line. The geopolitical swings in the Indo-Pacific have intensified the role of regional actors along with several extra-regional actors. China being one of the leading trading partners for the ASEAN countries, the impact of the pandemic is growing more and more every day. The Quad countries are co-operating together on issues like vaccine development, financial assistance, future economy and more during this time to make their bond more promising and effective in the future[1]. The individual impact on every country would shape the future of the geopolitics in the region with China being a less reliable and less promising country for other players in the region. ASEAN and Quad will play a vital role in the post-pandemic world adapting themselves to the shifts in economies[2].

The present situation in Taiwan and the protests in Hong Kong with regards to independence and the influence of the US in the state have all provoked the Chinese for more assertion and rough handling of the crisis. This again makes China to be boxed. The aggressive posture of China in the South China Sea is another huge factor that determines its relationship with other powers. The post-pandemic world is going to a lot of tilts and new dimensions in international relations, especially in the Indo-Pacific as it is emerging. India is one of the key players will have to assess every move closely as both China and the US are already competing for it in the region.


There are certain hurdles bound to come up in the process on the account of contrasting traditions between India and the US, their national interests and their foreign policies can sometimes be at stake. The answer to all these questions lies in the fact that both countries have a common interest in the region which includes the rule of law and democratic principle, promoting global security, stability and economic prosperity through trade, investment and connectivity[3]. Both are concerned about the visible possibility of China enhancing its influence by funding infrastructure projects in the neighbourhood of India. The Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka has been taken over on lease by the Chinese for a period of 99 years, otherwise known as “debt trap”. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by China is another huge infrastructure project which connects nearly 70 countries across the region. Another important project is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)[4] that posses a great challenge to India. These three countries being immediate neighbours to India affect its territorial integrity and sovereignty[1].

All this shows how effectively India will have to strategize its influence and presence in the region as China is challenging India’s historical dominance in the region[2]. At the same time, the United States also shares a similar fear of China’s growing influence militarily in the South China Sea. This has put the US on alert. The main purpose of the Asia rebalancing policy is to maintain balance on the rising Chinese influence in the region. Also, the fact that it is looking at India as a ‘pivot’ means that it is giving special importance to South Asia[3]. According to Rischard M. Rossow, Senior Adviser and Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies, “If India is indeed to be a central pillar of the US vision for the Indo-Pacific; it must be more deeply consulted in the development of a US strategy which reflects the interests of both strategic partners.”The US and India must jointly develop a common strategy that acknowledges the Chinese challenge in the region.

[1] The Chinese as a part of their global development strategy adopted the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which involves infrastructure development and investments in nearly 70 countries across Asia, Europe and Africa. The Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka is a classic example of “Debt Trap” by China which took a lease for a period of 99 years.

(Soorya. S is a research intern at the Chennai Centre for China Studies. She is pursuing her second year  M.A in International Studies at Stella Maris College, Chennai. The views expressed are personal)


Bibliography & References

Josukutty C.A. “INDIA-U.S. Relations and Asian Rebalancing.” ISBN: 978-81-7708-415-3 Published: July 2015, New Century Publications, New Delhi.

Fazal Mahmood. “Foreign Policy of India and West Asia: Change and Continuity.” ISBN: 978-81-7708-381-1 Published: 2014, New Century Publications, New Delhi.

  1. Nirmala Devi and Adluri Subramanyam Raju. “INDIA AND SOUTHEAST ASIA: Strategic Convergence in the Twenty-first Century.” ISBN: 978-81-7304-952-1 Published: 2012, Manohar Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi.

Isabelle Saint-Mezard. “EASTWARD BOUND: India’s New Positioning in Asia” ISBN: 81-7304-721-9 Published: 2006, Manohar Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi.


Rebalancing Asia Strategy

Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy

India and the Indo-Pacific

COVID-19 and the Implications on Indo-Pacific


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