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Reimagining India’s Strategy in the Indo-Pacific in Context of China’s Rise; By Rakshit Mohan, Adity

C3S Article no: 0029/2017

Rakshit Mohan

Aditya Menon

Vineet John

This paper has been written as a follow up of the presentation made by the authors on 15th February, 2017 at the International Conference on Changing Security Dynamics in the Asia-Pacific. The session was chaired by Admiral (Retd) Arun Prakash and was organized by India Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) in Hyderabad.


The rise of China as a dominant power in the Indo-Pacific has induced an atmosphere of uncertainty in the realpolitik of the region. China’s vast resources, exponential growth and aggressive posturing have been a source of concern for nations of the Indo-Pacific. It is thus incumbent upon India, being the other emerging power, to implement a realpolitik strategy to balance China’s rise by any and all means, while simultaneously enhancing India’s influence in the region.

At the onset of the new millennium, a plethora of influential voices among India’s civilian intelligentsia backed the notion of “Chindia”. It was a term suffused with the liberal hope for regional stability and international peace in a world order characterized by economic interdependence (Pesek, 2014). Optimism was high and guided by a rather naïve belief that the ‘Dragon’ and the ‘Peacock’ would come together in the “Century of Asia”. A decade and a half later, fueled by the overt re-ignition of China’s expansionist attitude post 2008, the optimism has witnessed a slow demise. China seems to be driven by the ambition to replace the United States as the acme of global power, with the Indo-Pacific serving as the field for the display of Beijing’s power play.  The era of geo-economic interdependence seems to witnessing an abrupt end with the rise of hard nationalism. Nations, and in particular the United States seem to be expressing an intent to revert to an international system based on sovereign states, that seek external ties insofar as it serves the state’s interest in the narrow sense of directly benefiting its citizens. Under these circumstances stability in the Indo-Pacific takes on a different connotation and India’s role in shaping the region’s architecture assumes greater importance.

India is, thus, at a critical juncture in history. She has registered phenomenal growth in the previous decade and is expected to be on the track for the years to come. India has emerged as a crucial power in the Indo-Pacific and her interaction with the nations of this region will determine the region’s trajectory. However, India’s own growth and her integration with the region will come about only if some crucial reforms are undertaken in the economic, military and the cultural realm. This paper suggests reforms in the economic and military domains, and argues that India has, for long, lacked a focused strategy to increase its cultural clout in the Indo-Pacific. We, therefore, suggest that New Delhi should deploy an all-encompassing cohesive strategy if it has to become a power of substance and influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Economic Reforms

We argue that India’s economic growth will be an important determinant of her influence in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, we assert that India must undertake reforms in the economic realm and address those issues which can negatively impact her quest for influence. Setting our economy in order and diversifying our infrastructure across the globe are crucial in pursuit of her national interest.

First, Indian policymakers must work to substantially improve the indicators of ease of doing business. Currently, India is ranked among the worst in indicators of ease of doing business. It ranked one hundred and thirty among one hundred and ninety nations that were assessed in a survey conducted by the World Bank (Doing Business, 2016). However, the above must not be mistaken to argue that the ease of doing business in India has not improved. India has shown a positive change in all the assessed indicators but other nations have improved during the same period. India has performed well in indicators like getting electricity, paying taxes, trading across border and enforcing contracts but has shown stagnation in indicators like starting a business, construction permits, registering property, getting credit, protecting minority investors and resolving insolvency (Doing Business, 2016). The difficulty in setting up and running a business in India arises because of multiple layers of bureaucratic clearances that have to be obtained. Thus, India in order to address this issue must carry on with radical reforms in the indicators of ease of doing business to make the environment conducive for domestic and foreign investment. This will prove instrumental in furthering India’s economic integration with the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Second, extensive investment is needed in order to enhance connectivity within the nation. An extensive network of rail and road shall be instrumental in cutting the loss due to delay in transportation and will, therefore, encourage businesses in the remotest areas of India. Investment in connectivity infrastructure is invariably linked to change in objective conditions vis-à-vis ease of doing business. Thus, ease of doing business and greater connectivity complement each other to generate a business friendly ecosystem. It is important that the objective reality on the ground changes in order to attract foreign direct investment from the USA, East Asian tigers, Japan and  Australia.

Third, an important dimension of infrastructure that has been neglected in India is the development of ports. Internal connectivity and maritime connectivity have to be increased by complementing road and rail network with an extensive network of ports. However, despite having an enormous coastline and advantage of location in the Indo-Pacific, India is yet to utilize its true potential as a docking point in this crucial trading route. For a country which dreams of being a major power in Indo-Pacific, an extensive network of deep water ports which can handle Panamax and Post-Panamax containers is an absolute necessity. The government’s Sagarmala project is a step in the right direction as it can prove instrumental in increasing India’s capacity to quickly dock and undock big containers. However, regulations need to be streamlined in order to enable swift ingress and exit of vessels from Indian dockyards.

Fourth, India must actively engage with friendly nations in the Indo-Pacific in order to develop crucial infrastructure in those nations. For example, despite positive overtures shown by Mozambique and Vietnam, India has not responded well in developing their ports. Such delays will cost India its integration with the region at the detriment of its own strategic and economic interests. Connectivity between nations will play an integral part in furthering bilateral ties that India envisages to develop with these nations. In addition, trading with India will help in reducing the dependence of smaller powers on China and put a break on Chinese expansion through “debt trap diplomacy” (Chellany, 2017).

Finally, granting generous international aid shall be instrumental in bolstering India’s ties with poorer nations as it would convey that New Delhi is serious about assuming asymmetric responsibilities for the purpose of fostering regional development. Aid can be utilized to finance crucial infrastructure development, as mentioned in the fourth point. Besides development of infrastructure, India can, using aid, fund the training of policy makers of smaller nations by providing them quality training at Indian institutions. Such a workforce in other nations shall be sensitive to India’s interests and would be considerate to India’s interests while designing policy.There is, in this aspect, not only an economic dimension but also a dimension of cultural capital and soft power. The subsequent sections shall deal with our outlook in re-imagining India in the strategic and cultural domain with the aim of establishing its position as the key player in shaping the architecture of the Indo-Pacific in the international realm.

Restructuring the Strategic Space

“A nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors, will have its thinking done by cowards and fighting done by fools”- Thucydides

Milieus change, threats change, threat perceptions change, and so does the role of a nation’s armed forces. China has shifted its primary adversarial focus from India and Japan to the United States. The United States with its Asian pivot, has switched its military emphasis from Russia to China. India however, remains the anomaly among major powers with its military stress principally on the threat posed by a conventionally insignificant Pakistan. Our foreign policy, despite the drubbing of 1962 has largely been guided by the belief that where Beijing is concerned, diplomacy can score over military muscle. This antipathy to hard power is the first hurdle that New Delhi must overcome in its outlook. This objective can be achieved using assertive defence diplomacy. A militarily assertive, yet responsible India can serve as a natural anchor of regional stability in the Indo-Pacific.On the contrary, an India, dependent on the United States could conversely, lose respect in the comity of developing states giving China the opportunity of swooping down and seizing the strategic initiative.

The defence establishment in New Delhi can begin by constituting a department with dedicated funding for defence diplomacy. The department can act as an enabler for the country’s top military leadership in the Integrated Defence Staff to chalk out a long term military plan that would inspire confidence in defence ties on part of our allies due to lack of resultant uncertainty (Muthanna, 2011). Integral to expansion of military presence for diplomatic purposes, is the deployment of defence attaches. Defence attaches by combining military and diplomatic tools can enhance Indian military and security interests as they form the bridge between India and the host nation’s military leadership. India currently has 100 Defence attachés, with over 67 of them being from the army. Currently, only the United States, United Kingdom and Russia have defence attaches from all the three services (Pandit, 2013). India must actively get cracking at ensuring that attaches from the armed forces are posted in India’s strategic missions across the Indo-Pacific depending on the nature of security challenges in the region. Deployment of defence attaches in nations of strategic importance would provide a fillip to our strategic relations and would be a good exemplification of New Delhi’s intent to counterbalance China’s role as the net security provider in the region.

At a multilateral level the Indian government must actively push for the setting up of an Indo-Pacific Military Initiative (IPMI), to facilitate and institutionalize multilateral military diplomacy in the region. India’s vast experiences in mountain warfare, counterinsurgency, jungle warfare, terrorist and anti-piracy operations, and its redoubtable military training machinery can be utilized to develop vibrant relations thorough diverse mediums under the ambit of the IPMI.  India must capitalize on the goodwill it has generated due to its humanitarian disaster relief assistance and historically non-expansionist outlook to solidify all weather military ties. India can act as a military mentor to countries under the ambit of the IPMI. Tailored military training programmes for officer rank personnel and non-commissioned officer cadre of friendly nations for purposes such as International peacekeeping, jungle warfare and other domains as mutually desired must be explored. The Indo Pacific Military Initiative, we reiterate, is not a military alliance, but would rather represent the coming together of partners sharing similar security concerns.

At the bilateral level defence diplomacy must expand to include sale of indigenously manufactured defence equipment used in conventional and sub-conventional operations to friendly nations in the Indo-Pacific. It is our belief that soft power is best wielded in conjunction with the willingness to engage in discriminate use of hard power. New Delhi needs to demonstrate that it intends to use its armed forces for power projection rather than just constraining them for protection of India’s territorial sovereignty. Deployment of Indian military assets in regions far away from the mainland to protect India’s interests would exemplify India’s intent to project power. For instance, India could deploy its Kalavari class submarines in the oil blocks around Vietnam.

India’s defence establishment must explore the possibility of setting up a tri-service Indo-Pacific command with the aim of establishing military bases in regions that constitute New Delhi’s core areas of interest, thereby indicating a mix of growing confidence and prudent restraint. The policy can be strengthened with grants to purchase Indian-made military hardware and sustaining military connections, in particular with the Indian Ocean littoral states and countries in Southeast Asia like Vietnam. The possibility of deploying permanent Indian Military Training Teams to countries depending on their particular requirements will further accentuate India’s role as a vital security partner. This more than any other single policy set will force China to rethink their military strategy in the region.

At the domestic level, our approach must be governed by the reality that China is India’s main competitor. India thus armed with this reality, must engage in a conscious strategic build-up with single minded focus aimed at inducing caution and deterring possible misadventures. The activation of satellite air fields, up gradation of bases and advanced landing grounds in the northeast to host the Su-30 MKI’s would act as a net provider of air defence in the region. The mountain strike core that is being raised must be equipped with at least eight divisions to enable the fight to be taken to the Tibetan plains, if necessary. New Delhi can also signal its intent to deploy its now under development, future infantry combat vehicle with the corps. The possibility of excavating invulnerable tunnels to house IRBM’s can be looked into depending on Beijing’s power play in the region. At a time when an influential London based think tank has acknowledged China’s near attainment of military parity with the West, it is incumbent upon New Delhi to engage in aggressive posturing to inhibit China from engaging in bellicose in regions that constitute India’s core areas of interest.

Culture as strategic policy

Most discussion surrounding power projection has remained in the realm of the economic and military, but perhaps what is much more subtle and pertinent is the use of culture to condition and create consent within nations that would otherwise have been averse to power projections in the region.

With the slow but steady demise of the Washington Consensus, now more than ever, the economic, military and cultural future seems uncertain with several spaces being created in all three domains that are being seized with varying degrees of success by countries that have been beneficiaries of sustained economic growth.

The surplus economic capacities of these nations have often been used to project power externally, so as to attempt the creation of new world systems that institutionalise the power imbalances in regions. This could perhaps best be understood through the lens of the Washington consensus in 1989, when the consensus in itself is not seen as a starting but the inevitable watershed moment of a successfully implemented strategic policy in the realms of economics, military and culture. Once again, addressing the economic and military successes of America and Western Europe through the Cold War would be a rather unnecessary effort, seeing as it has already been analysed and re-analysed. However, through the lens of the developing and non-aligned world it was the use of “cultural warfare” that developed sympathies and sentiments that lay the social groundwork for the economic rollout of the consensus.

This “cultural warfare” must not be seen as an inevitable by-product of economic clout but instead as a result of sustained policy over extended periods of times to generate socially conducive environments, which then paved the path for later “hard power” strategic manoeuvres in the region.

International relations much like the free market of old run is quite like a modern market with barriers to entry, cartels, monopolies and competition, and it is in such a marketplace that India possesses a Unique Selling Point; a civilizational footprint that extends far beyond its shores. As a USP this is critical as it is one that cannot be purchased, created or otherwise contested with heavy historical evidence backing the cultural similarities and links within the Indian Ocean Region, that in turn point to a larger trans-Indus civilizational identity in itself.

At a time when the world is in more of a flux than it has ever been over the last half century, it is the entity that captures cultural spaces that successfully lays the framework for strategic advancement in the future. In this regard, it would be in India’s interest to actualize its civilizational ties by capitalizing on the existing vacuum to develop condition and generate cooperation within nations in the IOR to then allow for more radical policies in the region.

This is not to say that India has not attempted some form of cultural camaraderie before, with Nehru attempting to push the “pan-Asian” identity forward[1], but what lacked in this matter were two key points. The first was their ad hoc nature or their pursuit not as strategic objectives but as disconnected shows of benevolent cultural exchange and the second was their conceptualization as a “pan-Asian” identity rather than as one that revolved around the “Indianess” of the larger identity in itself (Singh. S, 2011).

The flaws of the first point are self-explanatory, but the flaw of the second lies in the fact that the strategic role of the identity is to create the image of the big brother in the conceptualization itself, rather than paint it as a relationship between equals.

For India to succeed in the identity reconstruction, it must look to avoid such mistakes and pursue the reconstruction in a systemic and systematic manner that looks to completely re-envision how India is perceived by its neighbours in the region.

A pilot of the same could be attempted in Indonesia, a country located at a prime strategic juncture off the straits of Malacca and with a president who conceptualises the country as an axis between two maritime regions. With civilizational ties going back to the times of the Ramayana and a social composition almost as diverse as India’s, India has a lot to offer Indonesia, a nation plagued with religious fundamentalism and a threat to its secular credentials very much like India itself .

Countering fundamentalism and ideological threats has often been in the domain of the cultural, and more specifically, that of cultural education which in turn creates creates cultural perceptions. What India can offer Indonesia is the ideological tools to defend its conceptualisation as a secular democratic nation state. By actively pursuing MoUs (Memorandums of Understanding) with the Indonesian government, India can enable a constant flow of knowledge and professors to public Indonesian institutions of higher learning. Through this, India can exchange with Indonesia its expertise in subjects such as Information Technology and engineering, while providing avenues of economic growth that have the potential to subsume fundamentalist discourse[2].

At the moment a mere 3% of Indonesia’s institutions of higher education are government run and yet account for 57% of its student enrolment (including a massive Malaysian student populace). Such a situation presents itself as a golden opportunity to Indian policy designers, as influencing discourse from these select few universities would then help shape discourse around the country. By sponsoring professorships in the University of Indonesia, Gadjah Madah University, and the Bandung Institute of Technology while simultaneously subsidizing Indian education in Indonesia, India could very well create a relatively low cost, and long term high impact, cultural bond, which could enable much deeper economic cooperation in the future. With Indonesia located right along the Straits of Malacca and Delhi cannot afford to ignore Jakarta’s vital role in the region and squander the opportunity to create a cultural bond that enables deeper cooperation in the future.

The effect of such moves could be further compounded by utilising the massive cultural and financial capital of Bollywood to propagate and cultivate such an identity within the region by financially supporting a more culturally diverse set of films and by integrating aspects of pan-Asian culture into Bollywood movies. The by-product of such a move would be the creation of sense unity within IOR nations, by bringing about a convergence of cultural identities.

Such an idea however, requires an extremely long term approach, and is one that has already been deployed by several nations such as South Korea and the United States. By integrating different cultures and regions into their extremely successful media productions, they have created a role for themselves as enablers of culturally diverse films and creators of new cultural identities, opening up the possibility of cultural integration across geographical boundaries and economic opportunity within these nations.[3] If India adopted these approaches within the IOR region, its potential for cultural and economic success, would be tremendous (as it has been with South Korea and America) and would also have several positive spillover in the realm of the political as well.


The path ahead calls for a re-imagination of our hard and soft power strategies in the region as a holistic multi-dimensional framework that creates a thousand allies but no enemies. This framework must continue to go beyond traditional “carrot and stick” thinking, limited by the binaries of threat and incentive, but to cultivate India friendly policies by aptly utilising existing defensive, economic, and cultural capabilities to cultivate India friendly policies. By nature such policies cannot be short term in nature and would look to restructure regional politics and polices by fostering a culture of interdependence within the region. Such an approach would successfully raise the overall threshold of conflict in the region to ensure peace and locate India as the one of the primary nodes of economic, defensive and cultural interdependence in the region.


[1]                      For more on this read Sinderpal Singh “From Delhi to Bandung: Nehru, ‘Indian-ness’ and ‘Pan-Asian-ness”

[2]                      This comes from the understanding that often times such discourse is linked to poverty and lack of economic and social opportunity

[3]                      “Revenues from American films outside North America constitute more than 60 percent of each year’s take by the Hollywood studios, a number that’s risen from under 40 percent several decades ago.” (Stephen Followay, Foreign Policy, 2012)


Chellany, B. (January 23, 2017). China’s Debt-Trap Diplomacy. Project Syndicate. Retrieved from

Doing Business. (October 25, 2016). Doing Business 2017: Equal Opportunity for All. Retrieved from

Muthanna, K. (2011). Military Diplomacy.Journal of Defence Studies, 5(1), pp.1-15. Retrieved from

Pesek, W. (2014, June 23). Time to make ‘Chindia’ a reality.The Japan Times. Retrieved February 18, 2017,from

Singh, S. (2011). From Delhi to Bandung: Nehru, ‘Indian-ness’ and ‘Pan-Asian-ness, Journal Of South Asian Studies, 34(1), Retreived from

Galloway, S. (2012), “How Hollywood Conquered the World (All Over Again)” Foreign Policy , February 24

(Rakshit Mohan is an undergraduate student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. His interests include India-China relations, Indo-Pacific security dynamics and India’s foreign policy. He is an aspiring civil services officer and wishes to pursue higher studies in the field of international relations. [Email-]

Aditya Menon is an undergraduate student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences with interests encompassing a wide spectrum of domains such as international polity, assyemtric warfare and in particular the role of hard power in leveraging a nation’s core interests in an increasingly multipolar world order.

Vineet John Samuel is a writer who writes primarily on topics of security, sustainability and development in Asian Newspapers and online news portals, with work experience in Myanmar and India. He is currently also a part the Institute for Sustainable Development, a think tank on sustainability and democratic governance.)

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