The narrative of Indo-Pacific has been attracting vital attention in the global affairs, and India, formerly reluctant to respond, is now showing greater enthusiasm to embrace it. Though the narrative, in its indirect way, is poising itself against the Chinese aggression in the region, it has a greater level of potential to alter and improve the regional security architecture. However, the notion lacks a coherent approach. The article argues that Indo-Pacific will only be yielding its potential benefits when a strong institutional framework based on shared values and principles are put in place. It also argues that, India, being the largest democracy should come forward to shape the narrative and lead from the front to attract acceptance that would culminate in a free, fair and more inclusive Indo-Pacific.
Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, in his keynote address at the Shangri La dialogue on 01 June 2018, stated clearly that India is ready for the ‘Indo-Pacific’. He emphasized that, for India, Indo-Pacific stands for “a free, open, inclusive region” that embraces all the countries in the region in a shared pursuit of progress and prosperity.
Earlier in May, the United States (US) renamed its Hawaii based strategic military division – the US Pacific Command to the ‘US Indo-Pacific Command’. James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, while announcing the change, pointed out the strategic importance of the region. He reiterated the necessity for the region to be always open to investment and free, fair and reciprocal trade, not bound by any nation’s predatory economics or threats of coercion.
Such acknowledgements are coming to the fore with the pretext of establishing a new regional narrative – the Indo-Pacific. India’s growing significance in the global affairs and China’s deliberate expansionisms are the key catalysts that triggered this. India has been producing better growth numbers in the recent past and giving a great degree of importance to its foreign policy under Modi administration, while China has already stamped their authority as an economic powerhouse. Moreover, China is also showing greater enthusiasm in establishing itself a regional leader through coercive overture, which antagonizes other nations. On the other hand, India’s posture as a stable democracy and its strategic position in the region has attracted more partners, in anticipation that joining hands with India would deter China’s expansionist moves.
But, are these events adequate enough to construct a regional narrative that the notion of Indo-Pacific intends to make? Nevertheless, it lacks the essential framework to operate and, the region and its periphery itself are also undefined. So, if India is seriously looking to plough back any benefit from this construct, it has to come out and take the lead to define the region and establish an institutional framework.
The Notion of Indo-Pacific
One of the earliest significant mentions of Indo-Pacific can be found in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech at the Indian parliament in 2007. He was trying to convey a concept of ‘broader Asia’ carved out of the confluence of Indian and Pacific Oceans. The Indo-Pacific regional construction, thus, found its place in the political narratives before gaining real prominence in 2011.
Since 2011, the notion of Indo-Pacific has been used to promote a regional architecture that aligns India more closely with the democratic players in the region such as the US and Australia. Hillary Clinton, former State Secretary of the US and Stephen Smith, former Defence Minister of Australia used the term vehemently in their speeches. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has now found its place on the official dossier related to defence and foreign policy in the US Defence strategy and Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper.
It is clear that the Japanese wanted to push forth the idea of Indo-Pacific mainly to counter the Chinese influence on the Indian Ocean. It is mainly because, the island nation depends on the oceanic routes for their oil and gas supplies. Hence, a free Indo-Pacific sea-route devoid of any Chinese interference is key to Japan’s interests. Even while sharing the same school of thought with Japan, the US and Australia might possibly have an additional aspiration to further draw India to an alignment more beneficial to them, as far as their strategy and interests in the region are concerned. In doing so, they might be thinking to put a strong defence against China even without poising them as the real counterweight.
Undoubtedly, it is the rise of China and India that substantiated the significance of Indo-Pacific construct. India’s prominence had been missing in the former ‘Asia-Pacific’ narrative. It may have been caused by India’s Nehruvian policies of non-alignment. However, the Indo-Pacific encompasses India as an integral part of not just Asia, but of the Eastern world as well.
The Region of Dubiety
Having generated enough buzz through the political narratives, the notion of Indo-Pacific has drawn interest of many scholars, although their views have largely been varied and are contrasting in nature. On one hand we have Indian strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan[i] who considers Indo-Pacific as a single integrated geopolitical theatre as the seas of the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean must be seen as a single entity. Moreover, China venturing into the large swathe of Indian Ocean and India’s specific interest in the Western Pacific would attribute to Mohan’s claim. India and China are embarking up on the African continent by way of extending business and trade operations and securing land for military and naval bases along the sea route. It is clear that both the nations are essentially trying to imprint their validity. Robert Kaplan[ii] thinks that Indo-Pacific represents the vivid geographical face of the region’s seamless natural coherence. More or less in the same vigor, Medcalf[iii] believes it is a valid and objective description of the greater region. Medcalf’s belief is augmented by the fact that the diplomatic attention and military commitments to Asia from across the globe are very clearly addressing the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific altogether, rather than taking a narrow approach to East Asia or Asia-Pacific.
On the other hand, there is a section within the scholarly community who believes that putting a discursive construct rather than a natural geographical space into international practice would invite undesirable consequences[iv] like regional polarization and escalation of arms-race. Some others think that the new Asian littoral ignores the Pan-Asia dynamics[v] as it does not embrace all the Asian players and is promoted by a few to cater to their own geopolitical interests, hence would likely intensify the regional competition[vi]. In line with this thought, many believe that Indo-Pacific is more US-centric and China-exclusive[vii]. Chengxin Pan[viii], a Chinese scholar also share this idea by arguing that the construct is primarily designed for the US and their allies to indurate their existing regional alliance network in defending the perceived China-centric regional order.
The opposing faction’s argument is somewhat valid in the sense that Indo-Pacific has been carved out with specific political interest coupled with geopolitical dynamics. Beeson[ix], for instance, thinks that the idea of Indo-Pacific may not have the vigor to shape an identity in the region as the European Union (EU) did in Europe. This argument may not be entirely valid, because Indo-Pacific narrative has just gained momentum and it is a bit early to judge its longevity prospects. Moreover, it should not be expected that Indo-Pacific could possibly bring out an EU-like regional identity. The recent degradation of the EU’s European Integration and the plight of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also suggest that such common identity might not be sufficient to offer sustainability. Besides, it is also noteworthy that, occupying same part of the world does not grant a precursor to construct a cohesive regional framework[x].
Further, the presence of regional institutions like that of SAARC and ASEAN will see a framework overlap with Indo-Pacific. How Indo-Pacific can offer beyond what SAARC and ASEAN has achieved in the region is still not clear at this stage, making the regional consolidation more difficult. The ASEAN states and other East Asian nations scrupulously guard their sovereignty and are highly sensitive to any perceived infringements of domestic political space[xi], further making the prospects of Indo-Pacific very limited. Additionally, even with the strategic importance it holds, it is still unclear as to how and to what extent the notion of Indo-Pacific should play a role in the foreign policy milieu. The main factor that casts doubts over its longevity is the lack of a valid institutional framework and clearly defined purposes.
It is true that the exact geographical extent of Indo-Pacific has not yet been defined. According to the recently-retired US Pacific Command Chief Admiral Harry Harris’ famous quip, “it extends from Hollywood to Bollywood”. However, it is basically China’s strategic reach to the Indian Ocean that defines Indo-Pacific[xii]. Despite being a traditional continental power, modern Chinese leaders are pursuing a grand strategy encompassing an explicit goal of becoming a maritime power by flexing its muscles across Indian and Pacific Oceans[xiii] – building ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan to boost up their ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), leveraging political influence inside island nations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and accession to African continent as a business partner and setting-up military bases there. This network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication, which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan, referred to as the String of Pearl, is quite hostile to Indian interests. In the long-run it would enable China to dictate the strategic and trade affairs. This is why American analysts think that China’s rise is a threat that would destabilize the US interests in the region and must be countered with a heightened sense of region[xiv]. Viewing through this lens might give an impression that Indo-Pacific is a strategic and diplomatic response to China.
However, all these views not just contradict each other, but also reflect the state of dubiety underlying the notion. It is, therefore, necessary to remove the confusion from the narrative to project a solid and sustainable idea. The players whoever take the initiative to promote the concept should take the effort towards this end that would define the region and lead towards establishing a common behavior and possibly a collective identity.
The Indian Mindset
India maintained a cautious approach to Indo-Pacific when it was mooted in the diplomatic corridors, wary of the fact that such an overture, eluding China, will affect the precarious relations New Delhi has with Beijing. Even with the land disputes and military standoff, China still remains to be one of the foremost trading partners of India, with the bilateral trade nearing $100 billion mark. The two nations have more than 30 dialogue mechanism at various levels. India’s seaborne trade expanding rapidly with East Asia, much of which is with China itself. This would clearly explain India’s cautious approach to Indo-Pacific.
Probably, New Delhi might have taken its time to contemplate the concept, its underpinned issues and the Chinese aspect, though it is still unsure whether they have been successful in circumventing them all. Undoubtedly, Indo-Pacific is a large maritime theatre where Indian interests rest to a large extent, on the concept of countering the rising Chinese presence. At the least, in the Straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok, India will look to subdue Chinese economic interests.
India’s maritime strategy concentrates more on the western part of the Indian Ocean and never tries to break the periphery of Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It could reasonably due to the fact that 65% of its energy supply line runs through the Western part and a large Indian Diaspora is residing in the Middle Eastern region. However, naval strategy for a nation like India, having a large shoreline and swath of waters to protect, should evolve with time and need. Staying away from formulating and updating timely naval doctrine aiming at a broader region like Indo-Pacific will keep India lagging behind all other major actors. Hence, India needs to focus more on Indo-Pacific to reflect both strategic and economic agenda.
Firstly, on strategic terms, a greater degree of attention to Indo-Pacific and its dynamics would entrust India to formulate a better strategic roadmap that would help them to formulate joint military doctrine which is now absent. Secondly, India’s democratic history and military resilience naturally gives them an image of a more effective economic security provider in the region than China. It will not take long for countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives to realize that integrating with the Indian supply lines is the best way to integrate with the global economy. It is mainly because of the fact that India is establishing substantial economic and security knots with major powers, and playing a pivotal role in several multilateral frameworks. Such an acceptance coupled with India’s stable tradition of being a democratic nation with powerful military would further complement India’s position as well. These interspersing factors will likely help India in future to further assert the concept of Indo-Pacific that would possibly help serve India’s aspiration in putting the country forth as a formidable leader in the region.
However, it is logical to believe that the US is also pursuing a strategy to draw a regional status-quo in its favor. They do not want China determining the order at the cost of American influence. It can be assumed that the nations promoting the concept of Indo-Pacific have a natural instinct to support an American-centric order – Australia, for instance. However, this assumption will most likely be challenged by the traditional Indian stand. Firstly, it is unclear whether India would support the American cause blindly in the way the other allies do. Secondly, India has good trade relations with Beijing, and New Delhi would most unlikely be interested in giving this up to serve Washington’s objectives and preferences. Instead, they should sense the danger the Chinese String of Pearl might bring in and try to advance their strategic role to intervene to catapult their own interests.
Thus, India will have to tackle the objectives and interests of two major powers – China and the US, if it decides to pursue the path towards Indo-Pacific. Staying away from Indo-Pacific to appease China might prove to be unyielding, because China needs Indian market, as much as the other way around. Besides, expecting a great change in Chinese response to India either staying with or moving away from Indo-Pacific, would likely be faulty too. Major Powers respond to their own set of structural incentives, and that they may not necessarily respond to the assumptions underpinning the policies of their competitors would be a valid thought to be considered here as well. Hence, Indian policymakers should ideally not invest their time and effort in assuming the Chinese response to India’s overture to Indo-Pacific, rather they should look ways to elevate their strategic importance to strike a balance.
On the other hand, the US will most likely continue to pamper India to a great extent through several strategic bilateral pacts. The regular bilateral meetings like 2+2 Ministerial dialogue mechanism and Trump administration’s decision to give special waive to India in buying Iranian oil and operating Chabahar port amidst US sanctions against Iran, are clear indicators. By empowering India through these strategic deals, the US might be trying to address the question of rising China itself. It is highly possible that the US policymakers will be assuming that nothing has to be done towards the containment of the rising China when India is powered-up; the rise of India will do it all[xv]. In other words, an empowered India will be a great bulwark against the revisionist China in the region.
Looking forward, efforts should pour aplenty into the areas of a structured cooperation that would provide a binding and cohesive framework to operate. At the same time, caution should also be taken not to obstruct the significance of other regional establishments. A strong cooperative security mechanism is lacking in all current regional establishments in South and East Asia. The notion of Indo-Pacific can offer this. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad which is referred to as the ‘NATO of the East’ offers a huge potential. The Quad itself is in its formative stage and its purpose and principles are yet to be realized. But it would certainly complement the notion of Indo-Pacific. Such a setting would not probably irk other major regional establishments like SAARC, ASEAN or Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
A pursuit through the channels of the Quad will enable Indo-Pacific to have a solid ground to frame a security practice in the region. It can not only provide a hedge against Chinese aggression, but the seamless construct could also be spread around the areas of maritime security, counter-piracy, counter-terrorism, disaster relief and beyond. However, to advance this further, the notion needs to establish a framework and principles in which the members can work according to the common rules and norms that would shape their collective behavior. Only then can the so-called security practice would earn the status of regional security governance.
The Anchor Bend
At the moment, Indo-Pacific may not be offering a strong base for any of its promoters to claim as a coherent geopolitical narrative, however, it does stand as a single strategic theatre for them to advance their geopolitical interest. This strategic value of Indo-Pacific transforms the concept to something unique that needs to be pursued, which could eventually bring in an unprecedented practice of security governance in the region that would likely lead to sustainable peace. Undoubtedly, the responsibility of shaping Indo-Pacific regional architecture and getting adequate acceptance is vested in the hands of the maritime democracies – India, Japan, Australia and the US. Indo-Pacific could offer a more sustainable platform for promoting the idea of inclusive regional security architecture than those built on bilateral security agreements. It could help avoid any foreseeable scuffles across the region and would likely deny any actor’s adventurous plans and moreover, making a free, fair and open Indo-Pacific.
India’s strategic maritime position and its history as a democratic nation makes it a natural leader of consensus and a strong element of normative suasion when trying to widen the cooperation in the broader Asia. New Delhi should embrace it and willingly take lead in forming an official framework for better governance. The recent developments like Modi’s Shangri La speech and his recent visit to Japan where he expressed his strong commitment towards a free, fair and inclusive Indo-Pacific are of course clearly stating India’s enthusiasm. Unlike the former governments, it seems like, Modi administration might have realized that Indo-Pacific indeed has the potential to place India as a strategic global leader, a position they fairly deserve.
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PS Rajeev is a contributing writer for CPPR. email@example.com
Rajeev P S is a contributing writer for the CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies. He was a journalist for over a decade focusing on politics, policy and international affairs. Rajeev can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.