The Indo-Pacific – Competitive Space?

 By Kanchana Ramanujam

Indo-Pacific: Origin of the term

Though the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been in use for many decades, it was first used as a geo-political constructin 2007 by CaptGurpreet S. Khurana – an Indian Naval Officer. When the Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, used the same term again in 2007 on Indian soil, he became the first world leader to use the term. It was subsequently used by Hillary Clinton in 2010 and Donald Trump in 2017 from when the term gained prominence.

Interpretation of the Term

The Indian understanding of the term is based on considering the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean asingle, unified theatre. India has always underscored the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Indo-Pacific. For India, the Indo-Pacific stretches from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas.[i] The Japanese interpretation of the region is congruent with the Indian understanding.[ii]  The Unites States (US), however, has a different interpretation, starting with the American shores and stopping at the Indian shores.[iii]ASEANhas not gone into the geographical scope of the Indo-Pacific in the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ issued by it.[iv]

Challenges to the Stability

India envisions a multi-polar, open, integrated, inclusive, and rule-based Indo-Pacific with respect for the sovereignty of the nations. India’s actions in the region are guided by her understanding of the region as a unitary space. The centrality of ASEAN is seen an important pillar of India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific.

China sees the American interest and activity in the region, to some extent justifiably, as a move to contain her. Keeping the Chinese sensitivities in mind, India has deliberately kept the Quad low profile. However, Chinese action in the region – be it Chinese Coast Guard ships asking ONGC Videsh to stop oil exploration activities in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea[v] or sends submarines to ostensibly fight piracy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)[vi] reflect China’s disregard for the sensitivities and sovereignty of other countries in the region. Despite being a signatory to the 2002 ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’ (DoC), China has openly flouted rules – be it cutting the cables of Vietnamese Binh Minh 02 ships while carrying out oil exploration work in its own EEZ[vii] or establishing military installations in the Spratly and Paracel Islands [viii]or taking over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.[ix] It’s pertinent to quote point 5 of the DoC to underscore the irrelevance of China having signed the agreement -“The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”[x]

It is also apposite to mention that the DoC is an ineffective agreement not providing any mechanism for either enforcement of rules or dispute resolution. Just being party to the DoCdoes not make China law-abiding.

Such repeated assertive actions and flouting of laws by China threaten the stability and multi-polar character of the Indo-Pacific that India desires. India has to decide whether it will remain a mute spectator to the destabilising actions of China or do something tangible to protect and promote the ‘rules-based order’ in the Indo-Pacific.

The following points are of significance for any reactionary measures to preserve the stability and the respect for international rules in the region –

  • A realistic and practical assessment of one’s relative strengths and weakness is of paramount importance before reacting to the situation. Individual strength aside, there could also be a concrete concert of concerned parties against the one challenging the inclusive, rules-based order in the region.
  • In order to protect her national interests, the country must identify the vulnerabilities of her adversaries and then progressively increase the capabilities in those areas.
  • India should start by accepting the asymmetry that exists in the Sino-India relations. Countless examples of how Saudi’s highly sophisticated Patriot, Skyguard, and Shahine systems proved ineffective against cheap drones, how North Korea could force the mightiest country in the world to talks, etc. have shown us that a David vs Goliath situation may unfold if the tools of negotiation are chosen properly.
  • We need to be very clear on the fact that China realises its geographical constraints as far as maritime power-projection is concerned and is working towards becoming a blue-water navy. No wonder People’s Liberation Army Navy operates a military support base in Djibouti and has commissioned 80 ships in the past five years.[xi] If assertive actions by China increase in the region, India should shed her reservations around military alliances and go in for a naval alliance.
  • While India underscores ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific, it has to be bear in mind that a united and independent ASEAN is a myth, thanks to Chinese investments in these countries. At the end of 2018, China had been ASEAN’s largest trading partner for nine consecutive years.[xii] But that does not mean a united front against aggressive actions cannot be put up.
  • The Quad has been an under-exploited forum. If aggressive actions continue to disturb regional stability, the Quad should be turned into an effect-based grouping. India and other partners should also be prepared for a counter-Quad alliance in the future.

While confrontations in the Indo-Pacific are not desirable, India cannot remain a passive audience to the events unfolding. All their aggressive and provocative actions notwithstanding, the Chinese are not irrational actors and an honest dialogue could be the key to addressing serious issues. Hence, India should first convey her genuine concerns to the Chinese from a position of strength and with the clear intent to take counter-measures if talks fail. While a united and open Indo-Pacific is in everyone’s’ interest, provocative and aggressive acts cannot go unanswered.


[i] (2018). Prime Minister’s Keynote Address at Shangri La Dialogue (June 01, 2018). [online] Available at:  [Accessed 15 Sep. 2019].

[ii]Towards Free and Open Indo-Pacific.(2019). [ebook] The Government of Japan. Available at: [Accessed 15 Sep. 2019].

[iii][iii]Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.(2019). [online] United States Department of Defense. Available at:  [Accessed 16 Sep. 2019].

[iv]ASEAN OUTLOOK ON THE INDO-PACIFIC.(2019). [online] ASEAN. Available at:  [Accessed 15 Sep. 2019].

[v]Pandey, V. (2019). China trying to stall ONGC oil project in SCS: Vietnam. [online] The Asian Age. Available at:  [Accessed 28 Sep. 2019].

[vi]The Economic Times. (2019). China deploys new missile destroyer, frigate in its anti-piracy fleet. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 28 Sep. 2019].

[vii] (2011). Viking II incident and Beijing’s plot – News VietNamNet. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 28 Sep. 2019].

[viii]Farley, R. (2019). China Might Not Actually Be Able to Hold Its South China Sea Bases but That’s Not the Point. [online] The National Interest. Available at:  [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019].

[ix]Carsten, P. and Mogato, M. (2016). China says ‘situation’ at disputed Scarborough Shoal has not changed. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019].


[xi]The Economic Times. (2019). Chinese navy a force which is here to stay: Navy Chief Lanba. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019].

[xii] (2019). China-ASEAN trade continues to boom amid global growth slowdown, uncertainties – [online] Available at:  [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019].