Ammar Nainar is a second year undergraduate student reading for a BA in International Relations. His research interests mainly include contemporary Indian Grand Strategy and applied history.
The term Indo-Pacific has off late gained a tremendous level of traction in major policy networks of the world. The term has recently appeared in the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy, 2017 Australian White Paper on Foreign policy, Japan’s 2016 ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ and the U.S.-India Joint Statement in June 2017. Not surprisingly, the four countries mentioned are major stakeholders in furthering and promoting this new geostrategic construct. So what exactly is the Indo-Pacific, why is it salient in a world order increasingly in disarray and what is its importance for India are some of the questions this article seeks to tackle.
What is the Indo-Pacific?
The term Indo-Pacific may be broadly defined as the region which stretches from Eastern Africa across the Indian Ocean traversing the Straits of Malacca to the Western Pacific Ocean. Though the U.S. has formally defined the Indo-Pacific as a region which ‘stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States’. Nonetheless, the Indo-Pacific is beginning to be viewed as a ‘single and shared strategic space’. The Indo-Pacific should be seen as a ‘dynamic coupling’ of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean which undoubtedly brings together some of the world’s fastest growing economies and vibrant polities. For the U.S. in particular, the emergence of the Indo-Pacific has infused a tremendous level of political energy in terms of ‘preserving mutual interests’ with allies and strategic partners like Japan, Australia and India respectively. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently proclaimed the Indo-Pacific to be the ‘most consequential part of the globe in the 21st century’. For Japan, there exists a unique opportunity to enhance connectivity between Asia and Africa through a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. Likewise, Australia aims to leverage numerous opportunities with countries like India and Indonesia, which are located in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Salience of the Indo-Pacific
Common to both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as two maritime regions, is the rise of China and its muscle flexing which has raised eyebrows in New Delhi, Tokyo, ASEAN capitals and Washington D.C. Needless to say, China’s ongoing disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, its naval forays into the Indian Ocean Region where it recently sailed into the East Indian Ocean with a fleet of destroyers and its recent acquisition of naval bases in Djibouti and Gwadar have created an unprecedented amount of ‘strategic convergence’ between India, Japan, the U.S. and Australia. This strategic convergence is mainly to ensure a free, open, stable and secure Indo-Pacific region undergirded by a strong respect for rule of law and freedom of navigation. Though the political semantics of the four countries’ policy vis-à-vis China remains unclear, they would like to ensure that the post-world war rules based international order is preserved in this vital theater of the Indo-Pacific which is vulnerable to Chinese assertiveness. Hence, the salience of the Indo-Pacific lies with the fact that it is beginning to be seen as an arena where the rules-based international order should be preserved and if not neutralize, manage Chinese revisionism in the region.
The four countries taking the lead in this ambitious plan are categorized as ‘Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond’. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2012 conceived the Security Diamond in a seminal article in the Project Syndicate where he opined ‘Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. State of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific’. The coming together of maritime democracies was also evident in the recently held ‘Quad’ talks ahead of the ASEAN and East Asia Summit in Manila 2017. The four countries (Japan, U.S., India and Australia) agreed that ‘free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific region serves long term interests of all countries in the region’. The foundation of the ‘Quad’ is such that it comprises of democracies with a strong sense of shared values and interests. Nevertheless, the Quad grouping is very much a work in progress and has not yet materialized as a robust coalition due to the fact that each country will have to factor into their strategic calculus its effects on their relationship with China.
India and the Indo-Pacific
The intellectual framework of Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy is his ambition to make India a ‘leading rather than balancing’ power. The conception of India as a leading power is a desire to express ‘greater self-confidence’ in among other activities keeping the ‘maritime commons safe and secure’. The Indian Navy unveiled its maritime security strategy of Ensuring Secure Seas in 2015 where it wants to guard important SLOC’s and shape a ‘Favorable and Positive Maritime environment’ through which it would enhance net security. Also, this Maritime security strategy is well in sync with India’s ‘Act East policy’ through which it aims to expand economic relations and security cooperation with ASEAN countries, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Hence, India’s role in the Indo-Pacific region and the wider world is very much a reflection of a well-connected and deeply articulate grand strategy which, according to Prime Minister Modi’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, has allowed India to ‘improve our weight and punch proportionately’. So there is a suitable connect between India’s grand strategy and its ‘Act East’ policy in the Indo-Pacific where it aims to be a significant player in the geopolitics of the region.
The Indo-Pacific region is a vital theatre for India especially since 70% of an overall 90% of international trade flows through the high seas. Furthermore, to make sure international sea routes remain safe, secure and free for navigation, India must ensure the rules-based international order is preserved in the region. That being said, India conducts regular naval exercises with the Quad countries like the tri-lateral Malabar naval exercise with Japan and the U.S. off the Bay of Bengal, the bilateral AUSINDEX with Australia in the coast of western Australia.
To conclude, the Indo-Pacific is a promising region of the world, which may be a hotbed of geo-economics and security issues. One should be cognizant of its significance as well as some of the challenges it faces and how a country like India can play a vital role in enhancing a conducive atmosphere for international free trade, stability and prosperity.
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