New York: In an emerging strategic transformation, India is now considering itself as maritime power and building up its navy to meet that challenge after having thought of itself for a long time as a land power, according to a former senior US diplomat who is a leading expert on South Asia.
India increasingly sees its role across the Indian Ocean as a “net provider of regional security”, which is echoed by the US Secretaries of Defence and State when they talk about its role in the region, Alyssa Ayres, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said Wednesday.
“There is a transformation of the way the Indian Navy talks about the seas, from using the seas to securing the seas – this whole idea of New Delhi now playing a role in protecting the freedom of navigation as opposed to just the sealanes that the Indian Navy uses,” she said.
Ayres, who is now a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the recently-published ‘Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World’, was speaking at the Asia Society here on ‘India 2018’ a look at the year ahead.
When thinking about the strategic future there is concern about China’s activities in East and Southeast Asia, she said.
As a result the US and India share an interest in ensuring that the sealanes remain open.
“India like the US is a vocal advocate of freedom of navigation,” she said. “The US and India are both very focused on this issue.”
“What you have seen in the last four-five months is an increasing convergence, where (President Donald) Trump’s administration has picked up what the Indian, the Japanese and the Australian government talk about, a concept of the Indo-Pacific region,” she said.
While the US traditionally spoke of the Asia Pacific region, the Australians, Japanese and Indian leaders had a broader concept of the Indo-Pacific region, Ayres said.
“The US is now using that same term (and) what that does is that it expands the field of reference, it places India in a much more central role,” she said.
“It acknowledges the fact that India is a major defence partner in this larger (Indo-Pacific) region and that the US and India will continue to partner closely.”
The Philippines Permanent Representative to the UN, Teodoro L Locsin Jr, questioned the basis of an Indo-Pacific concept saying it was “nowhere comparable to Asia-Pacific relationship to western economies”.
“I think the US focus on an Indian military alliance or relationship is really a distraction for the Chinese,” he said.
“The Indian Ocean is just too big a neck to choke. So the real problem really remains the straits and the South China Sea.”
“Whatever is raised about the possibility of a Japan, Australia, India military combination to counter the Chinese concern, the usual reaction from the Philippines and the others is resentment,” he said.
“We do not want to get involved in any quarrel with China that involves India.”
“To get connected to India is really asking for trouble from China,” he added.
Ayres said that the defence relations between Washington and New Delhi have grown through the last three US presidencies and Trump is continuing it.
A measure of the closeness can be seen in the joint military exercises they hold, she said.
“India now exercises more with the US than with any other partner and the talking point on the US side is that it exercises more with India than with any other non-NATO partner.”