Indo-Pacific: The Way Forward In The New Asian Dynamics
By Akanksha Chopra
The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ first used as a geopolitical construct by Captain (Dr.) Gurpreet S Khurana in 2007. In broader terms, it is a broader region that combines the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and the land masses that surround them. The region is of great strategic importance as it acts like means to Asia’s geopolitical ends and geo-economic opportunities.
The region consists of sixty four countries and holds under its umbrella a large number of relevant issues. However, this article will focus at the prominent factors and the way forward for the viability of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ from India’s perspective.
Importance of the Region
Recently, there has been an unprecedented shift of global interests from the West to the East. The Asian continent offers a large spectrum of possibilities making the West dependent on it for a credible growth in future.
The majority of the world trade passes through these oceans. The Strait of Malacca being the significant economic and trade bottleneck has a strategic role to play. The region also acts as a consociational model for the ASEAN countries, giving them an aspiration of stake-holdership and participation.
Another important aspect that highlights the dominance of the Indo-Pacific in the Asian geopolitical fervour is the Quad narrative. The very foundation of the Quad and the interests of all the four major democratic economies (US, Japan, India and Australia) in the region is interdependent.
The Indo-Pacific also greatly impacts the multilateral relations due to the conflict of interests in the geostrategic, geopolitical and geo-economic domains. Its strategic relevance compels the global powers to establish the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Policy.
India’s perspective on ‘Indo-Pacific’ is inclusive, open, fair and balanced for growth of all countries in the region. The concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’ being of interest to most South East Asian countries and the west is a quintessential factor in the India-China dynamics. Therefore the way forward needs to be such that its geopolitical spectrum unfolds in future in a beneficial manner for all in the region.
Strait of Malacca
Significance of the Indo-Pacific lies with the Strait of Malacca being the commercial and economic lifeline. The strait acts as the choke point for the world trade and energy supplies. The Strait of Malacca is of importance for the socio-economic development in Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The trading patterns across the Indo-Pacific places the region in the global highlight.
The ASEAN countries are great stakeholders in the shaping of the Indo-Pacific narrative. The acceptance and cooperation of the ASEAN for the setting up and execution of the Indo-Pacific policy would pay dividends, in terms of a great factor for peace and stability in the region.
The ASEAN countries after numerous deliberations have concluded a document in June 2019 called the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”.
The ‘Outlook’ document highlights ASEAN’s concept and strategy of the Indo-Pacific, in which the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean have been regarded as the dynamic expanse. The ‘Outlook’ projects that the grouping would maintain its central role in the evolving regional architecture in Southeast Asia and the surrounding regions.
It also enlightens about the aim being to enhance the organisation’s community and strenghthen the pre-existing ASEAN-led mechanisms (like East Asia Summit, Indian Ocean Rim Association, Pacific Islands Forum etc), as platforms for implementation and dialogue of the Indo-Pacific cooperation. It also mentions the ‘UN Sustainable Development Guidelines 2030’, economic development and engagement with other countries of the Indo-Pacific region.
Though, what is to be closely noticed is the dependency of the ASEAN nations on the Republic of China. The Chinese influence makes the organisation run into ambiguity and it showcases itself as a puppet of the many favours done by China in South East Asia.
As the name itself suggests, the Quad is the coalition and alignment of the world’s four large democracies namely US, Japan, India and Australia. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is known as the mastermind of the Quad ideology; having to bring it back after the great sink of the QSD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue).
The Quad though, in simpler words is a splendid cooperation in addition to the pre-existing network of defence and security amongst the four democracies of the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad, nevertheless is in a spiral of controversies and challenges. The ‘China factor’ is something that puts the shallow water on the freeze, not only due to the big brother dominance but also the unpredictability of a country like Australia because of its noteworthy past for the same.
The most recent “US-Australia-India-Japan Consultations” took place in Bangkok on 04 November 2019. Along with reaffirming their commitment towards a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific, the discussion also highlighted firm support towards ASEAN-centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms. The officials also exchanged views on the ongoing and additional practical cooperation in areas of connectivity infrastructure development, and security matters, including cyber and maritime security.
Cohesion of the four democracies, wanting to work on counter-terrorism, counterproliferation and interdependency in terms of humanitarian agendas is too farfetched a dream to be imagined in smooth functioning. The reason for the same is the vague and ambiguous structure of the Indo-Pacific, as a foremost stepping stone; complied by the very fact that the policies of Quad have not been formalized on a ministerial level, yet.
The group has its own faultlines. There is ambiguity on the commitment of the nations to the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and there is no formalisation of the same.
It has also been unable to showcase results in terms of great gains and performance about the on-ground deliverables due to the loosely designed rules and regulations about functioning of the Quad.
The ‘Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership’ (RCEP) can be seen as an agreement for the ASEAN gravity to reinforce its stability and security in the Indo-Pacific. Though, India as of now has pulled itself out of RCEP, since it wants to boost ‘Make in India’. As of today, the country runs a large trade deficit with RCEP countries and seeks specific protection for its industry and farmers from a surge in imports, especially from China.
‘Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation’ (APEC), is another organisation of key importance to the Indo-Pacific region. APEC has played a principal role facilitating trade and investment liberalisation across Asia and Pacific, integrating both developed and developing countries.
The US initiative for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, and making it submerge with the Quad is perceived as accelerating economic and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean region to create a “single strategic system”.
The Indo-Pacific is emerging as the chief conceptual challenge to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); a China-centric vision of the extended region. It is also reducing the salience of the late 20th century idea of the Asia-Pacific (essentially an East Asia-centric order that had come to suit China because it tended to exclude India).
China’s determination to discredit the concept of Indo-Pacific is deeply ironic and probably futile, given that it is the extension of China’s own interests, capabilities, and influence in the Indian Ocean. China’s own geoeconomic regional influence through infrastructure enterprise; the BRI; includes the ‘Maritime Silk Road’. This is essentially the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics. Indeed, as of today, China may be the only nation with a focused approach against the Indo-Pacific.
China has been a threat to the Asia Pacific countries and is posing threat to Indian interests in the Indian Ocean as well. China has a hold over Hambantota port (Sri Lanka), which is just a few hundred miles off the shores of India. It is supplying military equipment to India’s neighbours such as submarines to Myanmar, frigate to Sri Lanka, military hardware to Bangladesh and Thailand; thus in a way dominating the region.
China is viewed as more of a challenge to India’s stand in the Indo-Pacific than a threat to its significance in the region. Therefore, the concept of the Indo-Pacific (including the Quad) acts as prominent factor in the India-China dynamics.
India has emphasised on the ASEAN centralism in the whole concept of security in the Indo-Pacific. During the Shangri-La Dialogue (June 2018), Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech, spoke about the Indo-Pacific as one of India’s shared visions for partnership and cooperation.
India’s idea of the Indo-Pacific geographical expanse is from the shores of Africa to the shores of America in the Pacific (as stated by the Indian Prime Minister in his Shangri-La dialogue speech). India’s vision remains to focus on its policy for Indian Ocean ie ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region).
India considers the region as an inclusive, open, integrated and balanced space. India continuously emphasises on strategic inter-connections, common challenges and opportunities between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
India does not comply with the US version of the Indo-Pacific, which seeks to contain Chinese dominance. India is rather looking for the ways through which it can work together with China. India does not want hegemony of any player in the region, however, it is looking for democratising the region.
All the nations that are part of the Indo-Pacific should abide by the international law and should maintain equal access to the common spaces in air and sea. There should be freedom of navigation, unrestricted commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with the international law.
Strong naval capabilities, multilateral international relations and economic integration with nations are essential for India to meet the challenges within the Indo-Pacific region.
Encouragement of multipolarity with respect to peace and security, and implementation of the ‘Maritime Domain Security’ is a must. There should also be good connectivity in the region. The sovereignty, territorial integrity, of the countries involved should be respected, and characteristics like good governance, transparency, and sustainability should be more focused upon.
The Indo-Pacific region includes close to half of the world’s population, including in its ambit the dynamic sub-regions of the globe. Therefore it is imperative that the Indo-Pacific Strategy should be based on the fairness, equality, transparency and mutual growth of all in the region.
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 IDSA Articles