The geopolitics of Indo-Pacific

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The geopolitics of Indo-Pacific

Why in news?

  • The term “Indo-Pacific” has featured during the just-concluded G20 summit as well as during US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s recent visit to Delhi.

The origin of Indo-Pacific

  • Growing eminence of India: An essential underpinning of the Indo-Pacific idea is the growing eminence of India.
    • Even though the “Indo” in “Indo-Pacific” represents the Indian Ocean and not India, the global community expects India to play a major role, including in terms of ensuring a maritime environment that is conducive for economic growth and development.
    • The long-prevalent “Asia-Pacific” construct was inadequate and ambiguous in terms of incorporating India in the affairs of the region.
  • Geographically, the Indo-Pacific refers to the Indian and the Pacific Oceans between the east coast of Africa and the American west coast and their several littoral countries.
  • As a term to denote an economic and strategic community, it has been in use among scholars of international relations and geopolitics since the first decade of this century, around the same time as China’s rise.
    • On a visit to India in 2007, Japanese Prime Miister Shinzo Abe did not use the exact term, but spoke of a “broader Asia” in the “Confluence of Two Seas”.
  • The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.
    • A ‘broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form.
  • Our two countries have the ability — and the responsibility — to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparence.

The “Indo-Pacific” concept – values, rationale, objectives

  • By the turn of the 21st Century, the geopolitical connect between the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific had become increasingly palpable, in both the geoeconomic and security dimensions.
  • The first is exemplified by the critical dependence of East Asia on the natural resources of West Asia and Africa via the Indian Ocean.
  • The security dimension is best represented by the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) launched in 2004 to counter sea-borne proliferation of WMDs, which focused on the maritime swath stretching from West Asia (Iran and Syria) to Northeast Asia (North Korea).
  • “Asia” was too broad and continental. “Asia-Pacific” – which traditionally stood for “the Asian littoral of the Pacific” – was inadequate. The “Indo-Pacific’” (Indian Ocean–Pacific Ocean combine) – seemed more appropriate.
  • The trigger for the “Indo-Pacific” coinage was China’s increasing politico-military assertiveness and the ensuing enunciation of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy in 2005 by a U.S. think-tank. These developments led to anxieties in many regional countries, including India and Japan.
  • In 2006, India and Japan began sharing strategic assessments.
  • The “Indo-Pacific” idea was an opportunity to showcase the Indian Navy’s capability to moderate China’s behavior, thereby dissuading its future aggressiveness.

New Delhi’s vision and policy implementation of “Indo-Pacific” vis-à-vis China and the United States

  • Since around 2010 when the Indo-Pacific idea gained currency, statements by India’s apex political leaders indicate that New Delhi has found promise in the idea – including its rationale and objectives – to further India’s national interests in its extended eastern maritime neighborhood.
    • These include geoeconomic interests, good order at sea, and freedom of navigation, but that is not all.
    • Considering that India’s geostrategic frontier vis-à-vis China is steadily expanding eastwards from the Indian Ocean, New Delhi also seeks to develop a credible strategic deterrence against China.
  • The “Indo-Pacific” construct provides India a valuable opportunity to partner with the resident countries and major stakeholder powers of Indo-Pacific, with whom these interests converge.
  • Since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, his revitalized Act East Policy has provided policy ballast to the Indo-Pacific concept.
    • In tandem with Act East, in 2015, the Indian Navy promulgated its new maritime security strategy, which expanded India’s “areas of maritime interest” to the entire western and southwestern Pacific Ocean.
    • However, notwithstanding India’s recent involvement in the “quadrilateral” (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.), there are calls from the Indian strategic community for New Delhi to demonstrate a greater commitment to implement its Act East [Policy], and even broaden the scope of Modi’s vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) in tandem with Act East.

Gaining currency

  • Australia: It was as Australia began reimagining its security and trade polices through a new regional lens in 2011-2102, that Indo-Pacific became its way to position itself to play a larger role in Asia, as an ally of the US and Japan, and as a country with friendly ties with China, India, Indonesia and South Korea among others.
    • At the end of 2012, the Julia Gillard government brought out a White Paper on ‘Australia and the Asian century’, following it with a national security policy document, ‘Strong and Secure – A Strategy for Australia’s National Interest’ at the beginning of 2013. Both dealt in detail with the term Indo-Pacific.
    • Some observers have raised a new ‘Indo–Pacific’ conception of the Asian region.
      • Under such a conception, the western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean would come to be considered as one strategic arc.
      • This conception is being driven by the increased economic interaction between South, Northeast and Southeast Asia and the importance of the lines of energy supply to Asia from the Middle East.”
    • USA: Though Australia embraced the term wholeheartedly, its widespread use in international diplomacy came five years later, after an October 2017 speech on US-India relations by former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who spoke of a partnership between the two countries in the interests of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. He spoke of India as more reliable than China.
      • India lavished praise on the speech, delivered at the height of the Delhi-Beijing tensions over several issues –
        • the Doklam military standoff,
        • the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor running through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, and
        • more generally over the entire Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.
      • By the next year, Indo-Pacific was being used more frequently by the Trump Administration, entirely replacing the earlier “Asia-Pacific”, a move recognised by analysts from Delhi and Beijing to Tokyo and Canberra as redefining the region away from China’s economic and strategic dominance.
      • Already in the US National Security Strategy of 2017, the Indo-Pacific had been described as a region where “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place” – China and North Korea on one side and all others on the other.

Cautious India

  • The move away from Asia-Pacific also seemed to elevate India to a position of prominence in the region, as a US ally that would help to contain China’s dominance.
  • Towards this end, the adoption of the term also appeared to challenge India to play a larger role in the region, for instance in the Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that informally brings together for strategic talks and military exercises, the US, Japan, Australia and India.
  • But India, quite aware of the inherent dangers of posturing in the region, has sought to bring its own vision to the definition of Indo-Pacific.
  • In June 2018, at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said:
    • “The Indo-Pacific is a natural region. It is also home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges… The ten countries of South East Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilisational sense. Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific. India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific Region is, therefore, a positive one.”

Way ahead

  • It is unclear if India and US are on the same page on the definition of the Indo-Pacific.
    • In the last US National Security Strategy document, in 2017, the Indo-Pacific is described as the region from the “west coast of India to the west coast of the United States”.
    • However, India looks at it as a wider region, which extends all the way to West Asia and and the east coast of Africa.
  • For India, as important as securing the east, is its western maritime security, where the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea meet – aside from the hostility with Pakistan, India’s energy sources are all in west Asia, where Delhi’s friendly ties with Tehran US-Iran hostility.
  • Nor does the US definition take into account India’s robust engagement with the Indian Ocean Rim Association countries.

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