Context: The term “Indo-Pacific” is repeatedly used by the countries, as seen in recently held G20 summit as well as during the visit of US Secretary of State Michael Pompoe to Delhi. However, different countries interpret it differently.
The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ refers to the maritime space stretching from the littorals of East Africa and West Asia, across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean, to the littorals of East Asia.
Background of the term in Geopolitics:
The term was picked up by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, in 2007 that talked about the “Confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” as “the dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” in the “broader Asia”. From about 2011 onwards, the term has been used frequently by strategic analysts and high-level government/military leadership in Australia, Japan and the US to denote said region. However, a formal/ official documented articulation of the term first appeared in Australia’s Defence White Paper, 2013. The term’s profile was raised when it found mention in the joint statement issued by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Donald Trump after the former’s state visit to the White House in 2017.
Australia’s interest in Indo-Pacific: The 2013 Defence White Paper clearly delineates the Indo-Pacific as an area of supreme importance to Australia. Developing a close strategic partnership with India is an important part of this strategy. However, there is a fundamental disconnect between Australian and Indian perceptions of the Indo-Pacific: on balance, Australia prefers to avoid being part of any formulation that could be seen as attempting to contain China and prefers an inclusive framework; by contrast, mainstream thinking in India has opposed the inclusion of China and is anxious about the growing visibility of China in the Indian Ocean Region.
USA’s definition of Indo-Pacific:
In the last US National Security Strategy document, in 2017, the Indo-Pacific is described as the region from the “west coast of India to the west coast of the United States”. Rising China has been a challenge to the US supremacy, therefore India is seen more like a regional balance keeper. Also, with the use of Indo-Pacific term in its administration, Washington is softening the ground for a revival of the so-called Quadrilateral strategic alliance consisting of the US, Japan, Australia and India to counter China’s rise.
India and Indo-Pacific:
However, it is quite different from the broader Indian perspective. India looks at it as a wider region, which extends from West Asia to the East coast of Africa. This is primarily because India’s security interests falls within Indian Ocean and now with changing global maritime focus, it also covers Western Pacific.
The focus on maritime issues is evident from the increase in maritime exchanges led by the Indian Navy with countries, such as, Vietnam, Singapore and Japan. India’s approach to the region is exemplified by its evolving Look East Policy to Act East Policy, beginning with economic engagement with Southeast Asia and now expanding to strategic cooperation beyond Southeast Asia. The US’ Rebalance to Asia no doubt highlights the importance of the “Indo-Pacific” concept and generates much speculation regarding the interaction between the US, its regional allies, India and China. It has been identified as a realm of great power rivalry by many. However, for India the region’s importance is neither a new development nor is it dictated by a shift in the American focus.
Following the same lines, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore mentioned, “The Indo-Pacific is a natural region. It is also home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges… The ten countries of South East Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilisational sense. Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific. India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific Region is, therefore, a positive one.”