Can India reshape the outlook of the Indo-Pacific region?

On 14th July, Bastille Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid official visit to France to bolster their relations and reaffirm their strategic partnership. President Emmanuel Macron invited Prime Minister Modi as guest of honor on Bastille Parade. Indian tricolor was elegantly flown and Indian soldiers with its lionizing eyes pridefully march through Champs Elysée from the Arc de Triomphe. Starting from the invasion of Alexander of Macedonia to Britain’s colonization, India has been the vocal point of various interests from great powers. The vastness of its land, resources and wider access to the sea attracted the eyes of keen traders (and of course ambitious empires).  Throughout the harsh colonization against foreign powers, India managed to appear on the world map thanks to its gallant yet bitter struggle.

Since the independence of 1947, India experienced phases of turbulent times: partition, civil unrest, wars, economic hardships, and post-colonial dilemma. Despite its initial setbacks, India made tremendous effort to reconstitute what it is supposed to manifest: one of the key players on the global politics according to its own vision.

As China exerts its influence on magnitude around the world, India, on the other hand, might become a pillar of the global democracy and key ally for withstanding China. The main issue, however, is whether India could emerge as a key player of the geopolitics.

India’s economic prospect  

Under the influence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, economic growth was being neglected in favor of economic self-reliance. In the periods of 1950 and 1960, India attempted to rapidly industrialize itself (styling Soviet 5-year plan) and improve its competitive nature through planned economic module. Initially, the fruits of the plan yielded certain benefits to India such as the increase of the educated manpower, higher growth of economy and lesser reliance on imported machines and tools. At the end of Cold War, India’s reluctance to open its market to global economy, austerity policies and regulations stunned its potential. India’s economy remained stagnant as GDP growth was numbering only 1.1% in 1991. Meanwhile, China, which opened its market earlier and as a result, its annual GDP growth reached around 9.3% in 1991 according to the World Bank. By implementing certain reforms and lifting some restrictions, India managed to come back on its tracks. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, India’s GDP was fluctuating around 1.1-7 percent. In 2020, India’s real GDP growth was indicating around minus 5.2. However, India managed to achieve astonishing result: 9.1 GDP growth within one year. In 2022, India became fifth largest economy by overtaking the United Kingdom according to Statista. Economist Chetan Ahya wrote that India “will add more than 400 billion dollars to its GDP every year, a scale that is only surpassed by the US and China”. The leverage that China holds is its economic capability primarily manufacturing industry. India’s population is on the verge of becoming the world’s biggest market due to the sheer size of the population. By capitalizing its population growth as economic advantage could further benefit for the development of India.

The importance of Indian Ocean

Half of the world population and 60% of the world’s GDP revolves in the Indo-Pacific region. As China expands its presence across the Indo-Pacific region especially South China Sea and Indian Ocean, India is finding itself more in rivalry over the influence of Indian Ocean with China.  Indian Ocean is an important middle ocean between Atlantic and Pacific Ocean as most of the energy (16 million of barrels per day in 2016 according to the US energy information center) and manufactured goods flow through the India Ocean via the Strait of Malacca. Prime Minister Modi even himself stated that Indian Ocean is crucial component of India’s priorities as 95% of the Indian trades are conducted through the Indian Ocean. If an armed conflict breaks out between the China and Taiwan (and the US), it would be fundamentally hard for China to withdraw natural resources, energy and imported goods as Indian Navy could easily initiate blockade (If Delhi is inclined to act). Thus, the scenario could force China not only rely more on Russian and Central Asian gas, oil, and minerals but it could lead to cutting China’s “right hand”. To avoid such scenario, China is pursuing “string of pearls” policy (constructing and funding the India’s neighboring countries to contain naval presence) and BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). By constructing, funding, and supporting India’s neighboring countries’ ports and infrastructure, China could sail India Ocean under the different flags of various countries. Yet, it could be challenging for China to sail through “back-up” ports. If Beijing requests Moscow’s military support directly or indirectly, it could challenge Russia’s status quo with Delhi as the biliteral relations between two countries have been “strategical” since the Cold War.  On the other hand, Indian’s current naval capability is doubtful to mount a naval blockade due to the number of ships from PLAN is numerically superior : over 340 ships according to 2022 Department of Defense annual report. To protect its strategical and maritime interests in the Indian Ocean, Delhi started renewing its naval capabilities. In 2020, India was possessing over 132 ships, 220 aircraft and 15 submarines. Delhi is striving to possess 200 ships, 500 aircraft and 24 attack submarines according to SP’s Naval Forces Journal. In addition, India is proactively producing its own naval vessels such as aircraft carrier and submarines to lessen the reliance on third sources. Despite China’s numerical advantage, China’s aggressive claim over the South-China Sea and provocation against Taiwan might push neighboring countries to seek military co-operation with India.

India’s challenges

Even though its prospective economy and boosting naval forces could be positive indicators, India faces several issues. Firstly, India is an ethnically diverse country. Millions of people have their own religion, language, and caste. Since the colonization of the British Empire, Ethnic and religion division have always been headache for the politicians. During the partition, thousands of people lost their lives and millions of people were displaced from their homes due to the religious division.   Latest example would be Manipur, where 50 people died, 23’000 thousand people were displaced according to CNN. Controversies surround Prime Minister Modi as several critics pointed out that he is pushing India into more one ethnic-centered nation and censoring a controversial documentary about Prime Minister Modi’s agenda in India.  Secondly, India is having difficulty of creating jobs for its increasing population. According to the ILO 2021 report, it stated that “the employment prospects for working-age population as a whole is getting worse” in India. Having fewer employed citizens means lower tax revenue and lower consumption. As a result, it could have lower demand that cannot fuel the economy. Thus, India economy might not be in better scenario. Thirdly, India’s currency rupee is undoubtedly weak against dollar due to the trade deficit and sluggish development of manufacturing sector. To further accommodate development growth, India needs to create a plausible environment for investing, combatting corruption and favorable terms for investors. Thereby, India would gain an ability to lower the unemployment rate. Fourth, the status-quo over Jammu and Kashmir is still disputable between India and Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir are strategically important as both states possess significant water resources that could not only provide agriculture but energy. Most of the armed conflicts between India and Pakistan used to revolve around the Jammu and Kashmir. If the Government of India do not approach the issues especially ethnic and religious issue without any precautions, it would completely backfire the integrity of the Indian Union.  Plus, it could damage its reputation as the grand democracy of the world leaving some doubts to its western and democratic oriented countries whether they would support India. Nevertheless, India is still an important actor to balance the power in Asia. Countries such as the US expressed its willingness to support India’s regional leadership in order to maintain its influence over Asia according to Indo-Pacific strategy. In addition, Quad is also getting significance for India due to the concern over maintenance of territorial integrity and Chinese-Pakistani interests on Kashmir. Quadrilateral security dialogue originated from the US, Japan, India, and Australia’s co-operation to provide international aid for the victims of 2004 Tsunami. When China’s influence started to have weight, the four countries reinstated Quad to “secure a rules-based order in Indo-Pacific” during the 2017 virtual meeting. Even though it may have a resemblance of military alliance, its focus is not military co-operation. Rather, it is an informal diplomatic dialogue to contribute to the stability of region and balance the power in the Indio-Pacific region. Compared to more structured organizations, the Quad seems far away from restructuring into more constructed entity. Despite its informal mechanism and broad intersected interests, the Quad is significant for India to deter Beijing’s influence and gain allies.


The future of Indo-Pacific region lies in the Indian Ocean. American historian Alfred Thayer Mahen famously quoted that “Whoever maintains the maritime superiority in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on international scene. Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, controls the Asia.”As the geopolitical tensions intensify, India is finding itself at the crossroads of determining the future of the region. Moscow is locked itself on the armed conflict in Ukraine and Beijing is attempting to remodify the world order in their own benefits. Even though Islamabad is in civil turmoil, Islamabad would not dare to back off from its vital interest in Jammu and Kashmir. Whatever India would become a major power is crucially linked to its Indian Ocean and its resolve to solve its domestic issues.  With its increasing population, strong economy, and expanding naval forces, India might play vital role in the Indo-Pacific region.