"What does India’s presence mean?"
The emergence of China as an economic power has given impetus for the US to counteract what it sees as a new threat to its dominance in the eastern side of the Pacific rim. The Indo-Pacific as a geo-political concept is now frequently used by the Trump administration to differentiate it from President Obama’s pivot-to-Asia policy.
Geographically, the Indo-Pacific covers a much wider area as that includes the Pacific and Indian Ocean, and the littoral states surrounding that great body of water. Unlike the pivot-to-Asia policy, the US has to rely on its allies. The concept of Indo-Pacific is slowly being recast as an emerging security arrangement stretching from the South China Sea to the Andaman Sea onward to the Indian Ocean. US military strategists envision it as a way to check China’s influence.
The US now sees the Indo-Pacific to serve as foundation to future military alliance by commingling countries with different political allegiances and perceptions of the regional and international problems. However, taken collectively, it is devoid of ideological substance. Countries that may be covered are less cohesive and symmetrical in their perception of China. As a counterbalance to China’s increasing economic and political influence, it would be less effective and would expose the purpose of only wanting to insulate them from China.
This is the same strategy of desperately promoting a proxy war. By creating a wedge, the US hopes that countries in the widened geo-political equation would seek to formalize their military alliance with the US. It is principally eyeing India as the most eligible to take the cudgels of alternative force.
Possibly the US may establish a liaison with countries outside of the South China Sea to coordinate the conduct of joint military exercise that has for its objective instilling in India the responsibility of securing stability in the SCS, it being a coterminous to the Indian Ocean. That would then give India the leverage to assert in the SCS alongside countries that have a formal military alliance with the US like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand.
Should India decide to endorse the US proposal, there is the great possibility it would be carrying out the greater burden now being undertaken by the US navy now badly divided among securing the Straits of Taiwan, safeguarding the Sea of Japan to prevent surprised incursion from North Korea, and keeping an eye on the powerful Russian Navy based in Sakhalin Island. Should such unexpected turn of events happen, India would be forced to defend US interest without that country being formally inducted to join the alliance.
The presence of the Indian navy in the SCS may not drastically alter the military balance in the region, but it certainly it would deliver the much-needed propaganda boost, that the US still has the clout to rally behind it in containing China. In fact, some politicians in India adhere to the belief that China remains its rival not to say of their dormant but unresolved border dispute.
Even if we take it that isolating China is next to impossible, most countries in SCS even those situated in the India Ocean cannot wholly distance themselves from China. Through the years their economy has become integrated and complimentary to the Chinese economy which is essential to their own economic development and prosperity. They all realize that the US can never fill up this vacuum should they decide to forego their current economic link in favor of what many see as a rehash of the Cold War.
This explains why the Philippines like the rest of the ASEAN has slowly been economically tilting towards China. The US to this date has failed to analyze that its continued sponsorship of military alliances is a dissipating its resources while the continued building up of economic ties is always productive investment. This is the hard reality that the US refuses to accept; that it is only the US arms industry that is benefiting from the proxy war. China as their new trading partner has delivered the goods they needed while the US despite years of presence and dominance has failed.
How could the US promote the Indo-Pacific as a form of geo-political groupings? India for instance cannot openly endorse this rather outlandish strategy for objectively it has no direct interest to protect in the SCS. Stationing naval ships, conducting regular naval patrol or holding joint naval military exercise with other countries could only be interpreted as endorsing the US policy which in the long run is economically consuming to India. On the contrary, China and many countries in Southeast Asia could view their presence as an unwarranted provocation.
While China and the Asean concede that freedom navigation in the SCS should be firmly maintained, which in fact is about to ratify the Code of Conduct for navigation, that certainly could raise questions about the presence of naval ships alien to the region or do not share the same coastline in the SCS. If the US navy is seen as necessary to provide security and stability to countries with umbilical dependence on its presence, that does not hold true for other countries like India. For Asean to acquiesce to the regular presence of foreign navies not littoral to the SCS is to bestow in them right to treat SCS their lake, the way the US navy treats it as its own lake.
Instead of the US navy dangerously stretching its responsibility, it seems the new strategy is to encourage the sharing of that responsibility with other countries by allowing them to deploy their naval forces in the SCS. Many suspect this is to lay the groundwork for the future formation of a new military bloc. While the central operation would still be in the SCS, the new bloc would include the navies coming from the Indian Ocean. One must constantly bear in mind that the Indo-Pacific as a new geopolitical term came on the heels of the intensifying rivalry between the US and China.
In which case, India’s possible deployment of a naval task force in the SCS would require no formal military alliance with the US but nonetheless would herald to the world the US is not alone patrolling the area. Invariably, India will be more preoccupied in patrolling SCS than in the Indian Ocean which encompasses the Bay of Bengal in the West, Arabian Sea in the East and Sri Lanka to the South where there are more political hotspots than in the SCS.
Many observers believe that should the Indian presence in the SCS become regular, it would now be following the footsteps of the US navy, a role it should not play for the fact that its interest is only limited to transporting goods to and from China through the South China Sea which all countries in the region guarantee to remain open to all ships. Neither will Asean allow India to usurp its primordial role as principal arbiter to any dispute that may arise in the SCS.