Although, the term Indo-Pacific has been used previously as well, “Indo-Pacific” is a fairly recent addition to the geopolitical lexicon. For almost a century, the term Asia-Pacific region was used for constructing policies and strategies of the west. This has changed in the second decade of the 21st century.
India’s concept of the Indo-Pacific region stretches from the western coast of North America to the eastern shores of Africa.
Evolution of Indo-Pacific Concept
With the rise of China and its efforts to dominate the region, the term has found its way into official documents such as national security strategies or defense white papers as well as into the rhetoric of the elite countries.
- In 2007 the term found mention in the speech of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Delhi, where he called the Indian and Pacific Oceans as one common space.
- In 2011, the term found mention in the speech Hillary Clinton, the then US Secretary of State, in the context of US ‘Pivot to Asia’, but not found mention in official documents.
- In 2016, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, declared his Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, to be the core of Japan’s foreign policy doctrine.
- In November 2017, US President presented his “vision” of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Since then the term “FOIP” has been enshrined in official documents of the US.
- In 2018, French President Emanuel Macron speaks about France’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific.
- In June 2018, India’s PM Modi presented India’s concept of the Indo-Pacific region at Shangri-La dialogue.
Although the geographical definition of the Indo-Pacific region is a bit different for these countries, all countries are on common ground with reference to the importance of a rules-based international order.
India’s concept of Indo-Pacific
The term “Indo-Pacific” is gradually replacing the previously common term, “Asia-Pacific”, which excluded India from its geographical extent.
The concept of Indo-Pacific for India was cleared by India’s PM Modi during the speech in 2018, in Shangri La Dialogue, Singapore.
India’s concept of Indo-Pacific includes: “inclusiveness”, “openness”, “ASEAN centrality” that is not directed against any country:
- Openness: A free, open, and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific, based upon respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue and adherence to international rules and laws.
- Inclusiveness: India’s concept of the Indo-Pacific is inclusive in nature, and supports an approach that respects the right to freedom of navigation and overflight for all in the international seas.
- ASEAN-Centrality: India’s Indo-Pacific vision is premised upon the principle of ‘ASEAN-Centrality’.
India’s approach is based on cooperation and collaboration, given the need for shared responses to shared challenges in the region.
Divergence in the conceptualisation of Indo-pacific region and India-US concepts
The Indo-Pacific construct means different things to different people.
The divergences involve, among other things,
- the extension of the Indo-Pacific as a geographical area,
- the objectives associated with each respective concept,
- the focus on or weighting of different policy fields within each respective concept,
- the question of China’s inclusion or exclusion
US concept of Indo-Pacific aims to contain China and is thus an expression of the growing strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Whereas for India
For India, Indo-Pacific is the vast maritime space stretching from the western coast of North America to the eastern shores of Africa as highlighted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018. Whereas for US, it extends up to the west coast of India which is also the geographic boundary of the US Indo-Pacific command whereas
While the US does not consider China a part of its Indo-Pacific construct, India has gone to great length to highlight it as an inclusive construct for the whole region.
Importance of Indo-Pacific region
- Growing Importance of India: The popularity of the term Indo-Pacific over Asia-Pacific reflects the growing importance of India for the western developed countries in the region.
- Maritime advantage against China: It can be considered a reaction to the militarization of waters in the Indo-Pacific, the South China Sea (SCS) in particular, and the growing heft of the Chinese economy across Asia and Africa.
- For India, growing maritime power in the Indo-Pacific region will provide it with a new weapon against China’s misadventures on India’s borders.
- International Trade: The Indo-Pacific ocean system carries an estimated 65 per cent of world trade and contributes 60 percent of global GDP. Ninety per cent of India’s international trade travels on its waters.
- The two-third container trade of the world passes through this region. The economies of many countries are dependent upon the Indo-Pacific sea routes for their trade and energy supply.
- Many western countries including US are concerned due to shifting in the economic trajectory from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific and the rise of China has added to it.
- That is why a country like Germany, physically distant but an economic stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific, has released a strategy for the region. After France and the Netherlands, it is the third European country to do so.
- Natural Resources: Maritime territories have emerged as depositories of vital resources ranging from fish stocks to minerals and offshore oil and gas. The South China Sea, for instance, is estimated to hold some 10% of the global fish resources as well as 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Steps taken by India to promote Indo-Pacific vision
Indo-Pacific Division: Ministry has recently set up an Indo-Pacific Division as well as an Oceania Division, and placed them under the same Additional Secretary level officer, which is a sign of India’s commitment to this critical geography.
SAGAR: India’s policy on maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is based on the approach of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region). Under this doctrine, India believes in an Indo-Pacific that is free, open, and inclusive, and one that is founded upon a cooperative and collaborative rules-based order.
Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue (IPRD): IPRDs are being held for engaging the global strategic community in an annual review of India’s opportunities and challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI): Initiative was launched at the East Asia Summit held in Bangkok in 2019. IPOI draws on existing regional cooperation architecture and mechanisms to focus on seven central pillars conceived around
- Maritime Security;
- Maritime Ecology;
- Maritime Resources;
- Capacity Building and Resource Sharing;
- Disaster Risk Reduction and Management;
- Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation; and
- Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport.
The context of ASEAN centrality as envisaged in IPOI perfectly synergizes with India’s Act East Policy, East Asia Summit, and Quad configuration.
Maritime exercises: India has taken part in many military exercises Like Malabar naval exercises in the region. In the Malabar exercise, India, Australia, Japan, and the US naval forces participated.
Participation at international platforms: India has been an active participant in mechanisms like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the East Asia Summit, and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus. All these engagements portray India’s increasing involvement in the Indo-Pacific.
Challenges for India
- Definition of the concept: While the Indo-Pacific construct is the US-led maritime initiative and is yet to find the right direction amongst its partners, government change in the US, might prove fatal to this initiative.
- US concept of the Indo-Pacific region is not at all-inclusive, unlike India. US concept is based on its regional rivalry with China, whereas India won’t like to present this concept as a mere China-centric, as clarified in its Indo-Pacific vision.
- It has actually been taken to heart by China which, in the meantime, has extended its naval footprint from Djibouti at the western extremity of the Indian Ocean where it has established a base to the eastern extreme of the western Pacific where it stakes a claim to the land and sea features.
- India’s weak economic presence: For a politico-economic construct such as the Indo-Pacific to survive, there must be strong economic partnerships and linkages among its members. Merely focusing on strategic talk and possible military cooperation will not work because, at some point, the unavoidable economic logic will kick in.
- India’s economic engagements with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region remained insufficient due to domestic political considerations. Exiting from RCEP is one such example. On the other side, China has major economic relations with all the states except the US.
- India’s role in the Indo-Pacific will remain limited if it does not prove to be a major economic partner to the States in the region.
- China’s defense partnership: China has become a major defence supplier to several of the region’s states including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
India should not let the Indo-Pacific concept turn into a US-led concept directed against China, it has more long-term potential to become a strong regional economic alliance that will promote prosperity and peace in the region. Thus, rather than focusing on China’s containment, the focus of the Indo Pacific initiative should be on connectivity, enhancing maritime security, counterterrorism, non-proliferation, and cyber issues.