As the pivot of the world’s trade and energy supply, the Indo-Pacific has emerged as a region of immense strategic interest and engagement for the significant global players. The importance that India attaches to it can be gauged by the fact that in 2019, the Ministry of External Affairs established a new Division for the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific Division deals with matters relating to the Indo-Pacific, India-ASEAN relations, East Asia Summit, Indian Ocean Rim Association, Asia-Europe Meeting, Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, and Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS).
The Need for an Indo-Pacific Concept
‘Asia-Pacific’ is a Cold War construct aimed at containing Soviet Russia and extending American security cover to the region. China did not have any major role to play in the region at that time. Hence, a new architecture is required which not only acknowledges the military and economic rise of China, but also takes into account the Russia-China partnership, and the changing intra-regional engagements.
The exclusion of India from the membership of important regional forums, such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, has no validation given that India is the fifth largest economy by nominal GDP and the second most populous country not only in the region, but also in the world. Added to this, is India’s geo-strategic location. It may be noted that the Indian island territory of Andaman and Nicobar is situated very close to the Malacca Strait.India may not share a land border with the Pacific Ocean, but the Indian and the Pacific Ocean cannot be seen as two, distinct entities; it is indeed a unitary space.
In light of all this, a new architecture in the region, rightly taking into account the concerns and stakes of India in the region, is required.
India’s Stakes in the Indo-Pacific
India has strategic interests in the Indian Ocean Region and vital interests east of Malacca Strait.
- India’s ‘Hormuz Dilemma’
The Strait of Hormuz is of immense strategic interest as it provides the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean.India is a highly oil-dependent country, importing over 80 per cent of its oil requirements. Over 65 per cent of this import is channeled via the Strait of Hormuz. Any instability in this region would have an adverse impact on India’s energy and economic security. A USD10 increase in the price of a barrel of crude widens India’s current-account deficit by about 0.4 per cent of GDP, apart from significantly impacting inflation.
- India and the Malacca Strait
The Malacca Strait connects the Indian Ocean with the western Pacific Ocean. It is a major hub for maritime trade and is the shortest route between India and China. A chokepoint for most of Asia’s trade and fuel supplies,traffic to or from the Malacca Strait pass through the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This makes India a major stakeholder in the security of the region.
- Engagements in the Region
As part of its Act East Policy, India has been increasingly engaging in the economic, political, strategic, and cultural spheres with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries and those in the Pacific. Any instability in this region, including that in the South China Sea, impact India’s interests and future economic engagements in the region.
India’s Concerns in the Indo-Pacific
- Increased foreign submarine-presence in the Indian Ocean
During the Raisina Dialogue, 2020, the Chief of the Naval Staff – Admiral Karambir Singh – mentioned that around six to eight Chinese naval ships, submarines, research vessels, intelligence gathering vessel, etc. are present at any given time in the Indian Ocean. Recently, in December 2019, a Chinese Research Vessel – Shi Yan 1 – was spotted carrying out research activities in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) near Port Blair and was expelled. It is pertinent to note that United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires the consent of the state when a foreign vessel engages in marine research activity and marine data collection in the coastal state’s EEZ.
- Militarisation in the Region
China has been increasing its presence in the region by means of building ports and other maritime infrastructures. In South Asia alone, China has built ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, and established a military surveillance facility on Myanmar’s Coco Island. What is concerning is that some of these ports, governed by strict loan conditions, are not economically viable for the host countries and offer China unprecedented control over the ports, cases in point being Hambantota and Gwadar. In fact, it is believed that Gwadar may host China’s overseas military base. This would enhance China’s expeditionary warfare capabilities in the IOR.
- International Maritime Law
While India has accepted certain international rulings, like the 2014 UN verdict on the delimitation of the maritime boundary between India and Bangladesh, India disagrees with certain clauses of some international laws. Certain clauses related to India’s Maritime Zones mentioned in the India Act of 1976 like the clauses pertaining to jurisdiction over EEZs, differ from certain provisions of UNCLOS. On the issue of oversight over foreign vessels, there is more convergence on the position of India and China, than with the US or the provisions of UNCLOS.
Sub-sections 4 and 6 (on the right to passage for ‘warships including sub-marines and other underwater vehicles’ and on ‘designated areas’, respectively) is not only viewed by the US as restricting freedom of navigation, but also goes against the provisions of UNCLOS.
- Nuclear Proliferation
This is a major concern in the Indo-Pacific. Recently, Indian authorities detained a ship at Kandla carrying dual-use equipment such as autoclaves and a pressure chamber. The ship was believed to have originated in Shanghai, China, and bound for Pakistan. In addition, a proliferation ring was recently busted by the US. The ring involved a Pakistani resident supplying material to Advanced Engineering Research Organisation and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission which are in the Entity List of the US Commerce Department. The proliferation ring could be seen as ‘AQ Khan 2.0’. Maritime domain awareness is an important element of a stable and secure Indo-Pacific.
While India keeps mentioning ‘ASEAN centrality’ as one of the most important pillars of its idea of the Indo-Pacific, given the extent of China’s influence in ASEAN countries, is ASEAN centrality the correct approach and if yes, India first needs to work towards ensuring ASEAN centrality.
When India talks about preserving a ‘rule-based order’ in the Indo-Pacific, the fundamentals of the same have to be crystal clear. As brought about earlier in this article, India does not share its position on certain issues with Conventions such as UNCLOS.
At the moment, India does not have the requisite resources to act in accordance with her expansive definition of the Indo-Pacific as stretching from the shores of the US to that of Africa. As such, building partnerships with countries in the region (such as the one involving the development of a deep-sea port in Sabang, Indonesia), and involvement of other rising Pacific powers such Russia would help realise India’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and possibly act as a guard against unilateralist actions in the region.
Youtube.com. 2020. Fluid Fleets: Navigating Tides Of Revision In The Indo-Pacific | Raisina Dialogue 2020. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-_3Rrqqvhg [Accessed 26 February 2020].
1976. The Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone And Other Maritime Zones Act, 1976. [ebook] pp.1-3. Available at: http://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A1976-80.pdf [Accessed 6 March 2020].
Kartha, T. (2020). Mystery Chinese ship to Karachi, 5 indicted in US show Pakistan’s nuclear racket is alive. [online] ThePrint. Available at: https://theprint.in/opinion/mystery-chinese-ship-to-karachi-5-arrested-in-us-show-pakistans-nuclear-racket-is-alive/368151/ [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020].