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A new order for the Indo-Pacific

Why the US wants India as an ally and why energy and water may soon become defence issues

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Lou Del Bello

Jan 16 2021

6 mins read

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Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana during a tour of the Indo-Pacific region in December 2020 - Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Just a week ahead of the inauguration of the new US president Joe Biden, a couple of freshly released papers offer insights on how America feels about India and on the role it wants to play in the region as it battles China’s growing influence.

One document, recently declassified, lays out the US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, while the other, due to be released soon and first reported by Axios, explores “The Elements of the China Challenge”. The paper, which outlines the US response to the Asian regime, says that 

“China’s quest for preeminence — powered by economic might, cutting-edge technology, and an increasingly powerful military — proceeds outward through the Indo-Pacific to encompass the globe.”


It adds that China sees India as a rival and seeks to disrupt its alliance with other democracies such as the US, Japan and Australia. The document also notes how in South and Central Asia China is banking on transportation infrastructure to expand its trade routes into Europe, moving energy, raw materials and other resources across continents. Pakistan is Asia’s key node of the Belt and Road Initiative with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), where China has funded 20.3GW of renewable and (mostly) fossil capacity, producing 55.4 kiloton of emissions a year. 

Mainstream media covering this story have mainly focused on governance and military issues, but the quest for energy dominance peppers both documents and in many ways shapes political and military conflicts in the region. 

Non traditional security items

Security analysts are traditionally preoccupied with “hard security” issues, such as military interventions, says B.R. Deepak, chair of the Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. But after the pandemic highlighted a new host of vulnerabilities, “non traditional security [items] such as water, public health and environmental factors that may underpin an epidemic will start to gain traction” and will likely inform new defence policies.

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Relevant paragraphs from the recently declassified US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific

In terms of energy development, India is still a small player compared to China’s mighty infrastructure which spans South Asia and Southeast Asia with more than 89GW of installed capacity. But the US has an interest in promoting its expansion and helping the country wean itself off Middle East dependency, from where most of India’s fossil fuel imports still come from: “If you look at the numbers, India is now importing more and more natural gas from America, which is becoming a major player in its energy security,” says Harsh V Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. 

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While the Middle East is still the main provider or LNG, imports from the US are growing, slowly but steadily. Image source: EIA

“The kind of convergence between India and the US that has been developing is far beyond anyone had anticipated just a few years back,” he says. “Of course there’s a logic to it: the recognition in Washington that while there might still be differences with India, the biggest challenge is, of course, China.” The newly declassified document, Pant says, “makes it very clear that a US-India partnership is being driven by factors that go beyond political administrations.”

India on the fence

But India may not be fully ready to give unquestioning support to the US against China, Deepak cautions. “I think India is still a little ambivalent, even though in this declassified document it’s clear that the US sees a role for India, as a counterbalance to China.” The relationship between the two countries, he says, is very complex, and India, as well as smaller countries in Southeast Asia such as Myanmar, “will not go overboard to antagonize China because of the stakes it has in their economy and the system.” 

The US has promised investment in the region, but the hundreds of million of dollars on the plate are “peanuts” compared to the scale of trade and investments coming from China, Deepak says. However, as far as cooperation and manufacturing in the energy sector go, India remains an important player due to the size of its market, and it’s trying to decouple its growth and emissions, something that China is already working towards.

Albeit slowly, countries are starting to recognise that energy development and environmental stressors such as water issues and climate change are becoming a matter of security. Take the example of the India-China border, Pant says: “you have global warming, flooding, the damming of rivers, and all of that impacts the region.” This means a water crisis could emerge any time in China, and that will have serious consequences for India as a lower riparian state. “And then you have other states in the region, Bangladesh or even Pakistan, they will have problems too,” he says. Once these problems start emerging in one or two countries, they may lead to a cascade of consequences that will inevitably play out across borders: “So you have an entire new [geopolitical] arrangement where water becomes the next battlefield.” 

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