Counter-terror, Indo-Pacific security to propel India's strategic outlook
A decade after the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai from November 26, 2008, held the country paralysed for four days, terrorism remains an abiding concern and challenge for India. In a series of high-level meetings with US Vice-President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, among others, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Singapore in the run up to the tenth anniversary of the November 2008 Mumbai terror outrage, Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly emphasizing the point that terrorism, which appeared to emanate from one source, had to be stopped.
A most crucial aspect of India-US relations in recent years is their counter-terrorism collaboration; from improved vigilance and naming and shaming Pakistan, to real-time intelligence sharing, improved big city policing, acquiring better equipment, blocking funding for terrorist sources and cyber policing. The collaboration is intense and across the board. India’s continuous reiteration of Pakistani duplicity in maintaining linkages with and using terrorists as a part of their foreign policy has led Washington under the Donald Trump administration to stop paying the Pakistani government for its services in allowing US troops into Afghanistan.
In Singapore, Modi told Pence at length about the issue of terrorism sponsored from Pakistan, pointing out that “all the traces or all the leads in global terror attacks ultimately lead to a single source”. Particularly worrying, he said, was the political mainstreaming in Pakistan of people involved in terror activities, referring to the political party founded by Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed contesting the general elections in Pakistan in July this year.
Pence told Modi about key aspects of the White House’s new National Strategy for Counter-terrorism, which expands on the December 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), which had identified “Jihadist terrorist organisations” as the most dangerous threat to the US.
The new strategy reiterates many priorities identified in the NSS, but advocates a more balanced approach that incorporates both military and non-military tools and non-traditional partners, including civil society and the private sector.
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said during the discussion on terrorism, Pence referred to the approaching 10th anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai Terror attacks. “In this context he greatly appreciated the cooperation which has been built between the United States and India on counter-terrorism,” Gokhale said.
“In response, the Prime Minister also reminded him that in one way or another all the traces or all the leads in global terror attacks ultimately lead to a single source, a single place of origin,” Gokhale said. “He did point out that the mainstreaming of the people involved in Mumbai terror attacks in a political process which had taken place in a recent election in Pakistan should be a matter of serious concern not just to our two countries but to the international community.”
Modi and Pence discussed a host of other issues including the roles of their respective nations in ensuring a free Indo-Pacific region and enhanced defence and trade cooperation.
Since the Trump administration assumed office, India’s trade with the US has grown substantially and the trade imbalance reduced, with a 50 per cent rise in US exports to India, including of crude oil and gas amounting to almost four billion dollars.
“It is perhaps one of the countries, perhaps the only one, of the top 10 countries with which the United States has a trade deficit where the deficit has actually reduced last year and is on course to further reduce this year and this is important from the perspective of the United States,” Gokhale said.
India’s imports of defence hardware from the US have also risen substantially, amounting to over 10 billion dollars, its most recent acquisitions being the M777A2 Ultra Lightweight Howitzers (ULH) for the Indian army.
Another crucial aspect of Indo-US collaboration is the developing strategic architecture in the region that the US (and Japan and Australia) are calling the Indo-Pacific.
For the US Vice-President, Modi outlined his vision for the Indo-Pacific from thoughts he had delivered in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, which are based on “a rules-based order that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, ensures freedom of navigation and over-flight as well as unimpeded lawful commerce, and seeks peaceful resolution of disputes with full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including those reflected in the UNCLOS (UN Convention for the Law of the Sea), without resorting to threat or use of force.”
Pence, who also spoke of a free and open Indo-Pacific, “felt that India’s contribution in ensuring this would be important and we then discussed how both sides can strengthen cooperation in this area to ensure that this is an area of growth, of prosperity, of development and of benefit for the countries of the region in the future,” Gokhale said.
India and the US, along with Japan and Australia, are part of a quadrilateral of countries, revived in 2017, that seek to work for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the Quad has not built consensus or crystallized into a unit beyond a talk shop, with each country choosing to put out similar statements with slightly differing emphases and not a joint statement after the official level talks in Singapore.
While the elephant in the room of any discussions on the Indo-Pacific is China, some analysts say India is to blame for not being whole-heartedly behind the Quad effort, while others point out that the different country statements indicate a level of apprehension among all members.
India is the only one among the four to share a border with China and, per force, must ensure its own interests and be seen to maintain a distance, particularly from being part of any defence alliance that might appear aimed at Beijing. India apart, the other three are part of a military treaty alliance, which would account for New Delhi’s caution. India’s hugely enhanced security cooperation with Vietnam, and with Singapore, is another important pole in its multi-polar security strategy.
With the US and Japan and, recently with Australia, India has established bilateral defence and security dialogues at senior levels, but these are not as a military alliance. Analysts say the only way for the Quad to be effective in the face of growing Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region is if they form at least a semi-formal military alliance, which appears unlikely for the moment.
Cooperation in countering terrorism and non-traditional crime, ensuring freedom of passage along maritime lanes and collaboration in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) will be the core focus areas for the Quad, at least in the near future. With the US (and other Quad partners), the bilateral strategic and security partnerships will drive all the other aspects of their multi-faceted relationship.