India is increasingly a willing participant in the evolving US' Indo-Pacific strategy.
While these developments are related to the perception of a growing Chinese security challenge, their implications for India's much-vaunted strategic autonomy should be a matter of deeper and closer reflection, asserts former foreign secretary Shyam Saran.
On the concluding day of the New Delhi G20 summit on September 10, US President Joe Biden headed to Hanoi for a State visit.
The United States and Vietnam upgraded their Comprehensive Partnership, concluded in 2013, to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
From the press briefings during and after the visit, it was clear that the US is willing to provide military hardware, justifying it in terms of helping Vietnam diversify away from its current reliance on Russian supplies.
Vietnam, like India, shares a vulnerable land border with China and contests Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.
This latest development is part of a determined effort by the US to shore up its alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to confront China's assertive and often aggressive behaviour.
However, in the joint statement, Vietnam has been careful not to include language that may be provocative to China.
There is, for example, no reference to Taiwan, nor to the 2016 UN arbitral award in favour of the Philippines, rejecting Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
This may be contrasted with a recent change in India's position on the award, from merely 'noting'it earlier to explicitly endorsing it in the India-Philippines joint statement of June this year.
The relevant para reads, 'They (the ministers) underlined the need for a peaceful settlement of disputes and for adherence to international law, especially to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 arbitral award on the South China Sea in this regard.'
Vietnam remains cautious, but the upgrading of relations with the US is clearly directed against China and will be perceived as such.
Under the new administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr of the Philippines, there has been a significant upgrade in the country's military alliance with the US, which dates back to 1951.
Not only has the US regained access to its key bases in the Philippines after a hiatus of several years, but has recently also been given access to four additional bases in the country.
In May 2023, new guidelines were issued for the 1951 treaty, containing more specific US commitments to deal with security threats to Philippines' security, including its exclusive economic zones (EEZ).
There is now a provision for joint US-Philippines patrols in the EEZ. This may lead to direct confrontation between US and Chinese military and coast guard vessels.
The most important development in terms of American Indo-Pacific strategy is the successful forging of a trilateral security framework among the US and its two key military allies, Japan and South Korea.
There has been a long-standing American effort to bring its two allies together in a truly trilateral and coordinated alliance, but this always ran up against the deep-rooted hostility between the two countries spawned by a bitter history of Japanese colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945.
These negative sentiments will linger on, but the growing security threat from China and now from a nuclear-armed North Korea, have muted their mutual antagonism.
The just concluded visit of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, to Russia and the prospect of a deepening military alliance between the two countries, will only exacerbate fears in Seoul and Tokyo.
Under US sponsorship, the leaders of the US, Japan and South Korea, met at Camp David in the US in June and adopted the Camp David Principles, which provide for annual trilateral summits, a hotline among leaders, intelligence sharing, and annual military exercises.
It is worth noting that all three countries consider the situation in the Taiwan Strait as impacting regional peace and security.
President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea has described the Taiwan issue as a 'global issue' just as the North Korean issue is.
This is an important shift in South Korea's hitherto more cautious position on Taiwan.
The US is building a multi-tiered security architecture in the Indo-Pacific.
At the lowest level are partnerships such as with Vietnam and some Asean countries like Singapore and Thailand.
At the next level is the Quad, which groups together India, the US, Japan, and Australia.
India has a unique position in the Quad as it is not an ally but has strategic partnerships with each of the other members.
These have not yet been fully multi-lateralised, except in the ongoing annual Malabar naval exercises.
At the next level, one may cite the now trilateral US, Japan, South Korea military alliance.
And at the apex, one may put AUKUS, which is an upgraded military alliance among the US, UK, and Australia, whose distinguishing feature is the commitment to enable Australia to emerge as a nuclear submarine power, working in tandem with the US and UK's naval power in the Indo-Pacific.
The ASEAN countries may be seen as a weak link in this emerging US-led security architecture in the region.
There are individual countries like Laos and Cambodia that are fully aligned with China.
The others are wary of provoking China, which is the most important economic partner for them.
However, there are some straws in the wind.
The ASEAN countries are holding their first-ever naval exercises this month off the Natuna islands, which falls within Indonesia's EEZ but is overlapped by China's infamous nine-dash line that covers the whole of the South China Sea.
Perhaps this is the first sign of a push-back by ASEAN against China's exaggerated territorial claims in the region.
India is increasingly a willing participant in the evolving US Indo-Pacific strategy.
It has already concluded the three foundational agreements that provide a high degree of inter-operability between the armed forces of the two countries.
There are now two master ship repair agreements, one between the US navy and the Larsen and Toubro shipyard at Kattupalli near Chennai, and a more recent one concluded with the Mazagaon Docks in August.
American naval vessels have already been docking in these ports for repair and refitment. It would be comparatively easy to extend these facilities to the other Quad members.
While these developments are related to the perception of a growing Chinese security challenge, their implications for India's much-vaunted strategic autonomy should be a matter of deeper and closer reflection.
The prospect of another Trump presidency may throw every current assumption into a vortex of uncertainty.
Has that possibility been factored into our security calculus?
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and an honorary fellow at the Centre for Policy Research
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com