How Indo-Pacific changing the global security dimensions

The Indo-pacific region will continue to be of growing importance to the world economy and global stability, thanks to the economic dynamism of the key players in what is a vast area, described in the NSS as stretching “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States”. -Dr Jivanta Schoettli*

The Indo-Pacific, both as a region and as nomenclature, has come into prominence. An old term used during the cold war and for much longer, by oceanographers to describe the inter-connectivity between the oceans, it has gained political, economic and strategic salience of late. In the latest U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS), the Indo-Pacific is the first location specified in the ‘Strategy in a regional Context’ section of the NSS, announcing its primacy among five other areas, including the Middle East and Europe. In November last year, senior officials from Australia, Japan, India & the United States (known as the Quadrilateral grouping) met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila to discuss their shared vision for increased prosperity and security in the Indo-pacific region. Even more recently, Chiefs of the four navies spoke on a single forum at the Raisina Dialogue, New Delhi’s flagship conference on geopolitics and foreign policy, where the Indo-Pacific was a central theme.

Most recently, in his first policy speech as the newly appointed US Ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster described India as “A leading power in the Indo-Pacific region”. This follows a number of statements by the Former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson depicting India and the US as “Increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence”. Especially in the Indo-Pacific, this was also demonstrated during the 2017 trilateral Malabar exercise involving American, Indian and Japanese navies operating in the Bay of Bengal.

The Indo-pacific region will continue to be of growing importance to the world economy and global stability, thanks to the economic dynamism of the key players in what is a vast area, described in the NSS as stretching “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States”.

This covers two of the world’s seven largest economies and the world’s five most populous countries. It is also key to global security and stability considering that it is home to nuclear rivalries such as between India & Pakistan, potential nuclear crises as well as the threat of even further nuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and the range of dynamics unleashed by a resurgent China. Seeing the Indo-Pacific in it’s entirely thus highlights the immense value of this conduit as well as its vulnerability.

Another reason why the Indo-Pacific is gaining traction is due to an apparent change in India’s stance, described by many as a gradual acceptance of the term and its strategic connotations. In joining the Quad discussion in November 2017, India marked a break in joining a grouping that professes to be an exclusive get-together of maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific, based on the argument that they have shared interests and common values. However, the meet did not generate any concrete results, not even a joint statement. While US officials have denied the grouping is aimed at containing China, it is obvious that it is a concern over China’s rise and actions that have brought members of the group closer together. Beijing, as a result, is bound to watch closely and to resist the idea of Indo-Pacific gaining further institutionalized form. Amongst ASEAN members and as an organization, there has been cautiousness about the term Indo-pacific but India’s greater engagement, through the Act East Policy, is likely to change this as it pursues opportunities for greater integration of South and South East Asia.

Maritime engagement has become an important instrument of, and extension to, the country’s foreign policy | Image: Indian Navy

Two members of the quad, Australia and Japan, have been using the term Indo-Pacific for a longer time. In Australia’s case, the explicit focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ appeared as Australia’s strategic frame of reference stressed in the Defence White Papers of 2013 and 2016, amidst rising concerns about China’s growing maritime presence. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been an early advocate of connecting the two oceans, through closer relations with India and calling for a “democratic security diamond” in Asia, involving Japan, India, the US and Australia.

Outside the quadrilateral grouping, Indonesia (Southeast Asia’s largest economy and country by land and population) has been moving towards greater recognition of an interest in fostering Indo-Pacific regionalism. The term has been used explicitly in official foreign policy speeches and Indonesia is a key player given that it controls four vital sea lines of communication, namely the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits which link the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Not far away, India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands have attained even greater strategic significance as part of the larger framework of Indo-Pacific commerce, comity and cultural connectivity between South and South East Asia.

Nonetheless, while the term, ‘Indo-Pacific’ may be relevant and helpful to describe the interconnectedness of two oceans and to highlight the critical importance of maintaining open sea lines of communication and passage, as of now it does not carry any formalized institutional weight.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in contrast, underpins the idea of the Asia-Pacific. As a forum for 21 Pacific Rim member economies, it was formed in 1989, to promote free trade and in fact to ensure that a powerful Japan would remain integrated with the region. A similar approach towards the Indo-Pacific could perhaps be reproduced, incorporating China if the common goal was to promote and protect free trade. However, the difference today may be in the timing and the context of a world where the United States is not seen as supporting the expansion of global trade but rather focused on bringing businesses and jobs back home as a source of stimulating its own economy.

Timing matters because whilst the US has emphasized the importance of the Indo-Pacific in the reflection of its own view of the world, China has not only announced but is already in the midst of financing and building a vast infrastructure and network connecting and integrating the Eurasian continent.

In fact, the Belt and Road Initiative stretches to encompass the other half of the globe which the Indo-Pacific does not namely Europe and parts of the African continent regarded by many to be the next source of economic dynamism. India is central to both the Indo-Pacific idea and the Belt and Road vision, given its geographical location, economic importance and strategic capabilities.

At the moment, therefore the priority for India must be to improve, ensure and harness its centrality. This has been happening in terms of the government’s efforts to boost infrastructure and development at home. A renewed importance has been given to maritime-related issues including port development, port connectivity with the hinterland, setting up economic zones through the Sagarmala Programme. Maritime engagement has become an important instrument of, and extension to, the country’s foreign policy, and has given rise to concrete deliverables in the form of investments, for example into the recently launched Iranian port of Chabahar, deeper engagement with South East Asia as well as steps towards closer partnerships with Japan and the United States. Each of these actions and decisions is contributing to as well as confirming India’s geopolitical centrality.

However, aside from domestic compulsions and constraints, the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, will also to a large extent rest upon the demonstrations and acceptance of India’s leadership in its near neighbourhood.

While the ‘Neighbourhood First’ was a central plank in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy agenda, it has gained

Additional urgency as China’s influence in the region of South Asia has grown. India’s maritime outreach has included boosting coastal shipping with Bangladesh, the resolution of maritime disputes with neighbours through negotiations and international arbitration and the use of the Blue Economy for sustainability and partnerships in harnessing maritime resources. These are important and powerful tools for enhancing cooperation.

To go from political and strategic salience to some form of resilience, an Indo-Pacific region-ness will need to be cultivated. For this to happen, a broad definition of maritime governance, including sustainable development initiatives, humanitarian efforts and disaster relief planning, could help to avoid the dangers of falling into one’s own or somebody else’s ‘Thucydides Trap’, a term coined recently by the American scholar, Graham Allison.

*The author is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.

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