by Dr. Muzammil Ahad Dar 22 June 2022
The confluence of transnational interests and divergent approaches followed by multiple actors has surrounded the Indo-Pacific region with a myriad of strategic complexes- Geo-Political, Geo-economic, and security. This paper has thus made a humble attempt to understand the Indo-Pacific strategic predicament from an Asia-Pacific perspective. The portmanteau of Indo-pacific strategic gamble has multiple actors from global powers to regional actors. On the indo-pacific waters, not only flow trade relations but the tides of conflicts and controversies are striking these actors against each other. The alliance formation and infrastructure building have built-in threat perceptions from rivals and vice-versa. The assertiveness of China as a reality and India’s ideological doctrine of peace and friendship as well as American rebalancing against China could be seen clear and bright on the indo-pacific strategic portmanteau. ASEAN and Japan to have oscillating posturing in the strategic dilemma. The aim and objective of the paper are to sketch out the prospectus and prejudices of the Indo-pacific strategic complex.
The Indo-Pacific as an Asian maritime super-region is in reality an old one, though new to geopolitics. The term was occasionally used until mid-20th as a distinct bio-geographic region in marine science. The European maps of the colonial era, entitled Asia, referred to an Indo-Pacific arc from the Indian Ocean rim, through Southeast Asia, to China, Korea and Japan. The theatres of war in the Indian and Pacific Oceans against Japan during the World War II conformed to the Indo-Pacific region now being debated. Apart from the implicit usage of this term in the 1950s to discuss decolonization and at the two seminars held by the Australian institutes in the 1960s, the British and Australian defense documents referred to the Indo-Pacific Basin until the 1970s. Certainly, India’s legacy of the British Raj bears the better testimony to the idea of the Indo-Pacific. The imperatives of post-Cold War globalization, Indo-Pacific region has begun emerging as a key driver of global politics rather a centre of global power. It has been from the early 21st century that the term Indo-Pacific entered the geopolitical lexicon (Raja Mohan, June 07, 2016 The Indian Express). Yet; Indo-Pacific is too broad a term to denote a meaningful strategic interaction. A key transit zone between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the main route for trade in energy to East Asia forms the core of Indo-Pacific encompassing the South China Sea, maritime Southeast Asia and the Bay of Bengal.
Portmanteau: Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific is not simply a new name for the Asia-Pacific, but nor is it a radically redefined regional concept that downplays the centrality of Asia. Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith outrightly acknowledged the reference of Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Rim as the Indo-Pacific, which will become the world’s strategic centre of gravity, or pivot of the world power. The Indo-Pacific is looked upon as a strategic enlargement of the Asia-Pacific template, rather a strategic arc extending from India through Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia, including the sea lines of communication on which the region depends. The Indo-Pacific is as much a strategic concept as a geographical definition, while some others consider it as a new geographical term increasingly used to replace Asia-Pacific. The Pacific is likely to take the place of the Atlantic in the future as the nerve centre of the world, prophetically envisioned in Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru who further observed India, though not directly a Pacific state, would inevitably exercise an important influence there. The two terms Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific are not synonymous, though they overlap.
The term Indo-Pacific, which complements the term Asia-Pacific, is in some ways an evolution, rather than a rejection, of the late 20 century idea of the Asia-Pacific, instead this new geopolitical paradigm of Indo-Pacific is viewed as the Greater or Extended Asia–Pacific. Much of the areal extent of Asia is getting incorporated in a newly emerging strategic arena of Indo-Pacific, which has become the home to three of the world’s superpowers (USA, China and India), four of the world’s largest militaries (USA, Russia, China, and North Korea), and the world’s largest navies, (USA, China, India and Russia) and three major Asian economic powers (China, Japan and India). Furthermore, the salience of the Indo-Pacific owes to its sizeable population (3 billion), large GDP (US $20 trillion), and significant volume of the world’s seaborne trade. Unlike the term Asia-Pacific, Indo-Pacific brings in two themes at the geographic level, it brings in the Indian Ocean, and at the state level, it brings in India.
Indo-Pacific strategic Complex
Unlike the plethora of trans-regional organizations rather multilateral institutions emerged in the post-Cold War globalized world, the term Indo-Pacific carries with it some ideological baggage. In 2005, the inclusion of India, Australia and New Zealand in East Asia Summit (EAS) symbolized a more unified Indo-Pacific region and thereby EAS was fittingly termed as a conscious act of diplomacy by Southeast Asian states. It is a broader geographic space for a broader set of interactions of the big maritime trading and strategic powers the US, China, India and, to some extent, Japan and others that create the tension and the glue of an emerging strategic system. The Indo-Pacific or Indo-Pacific Asia, as the 2009 Australian Defence White Paper called it, is the logical extension of the wider Asia-Pacific region. Subsequently, the 2013 Australia’s Defence White Paper saw the Indo-Pacific as a strategic arc connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper links the future balance of power in the Indo–Pacific to the actions of the United States, China and major powers such as Japan and India. Indo-Pacific concept forms a useful way of understanding changing regional dynamics and the key strategic relationships in the context of world entering Indo-Pacific Century.
Strategic Predicament in Indo-Pacific Region
Much as Indo-Pacific on its way to becoming a fertile ground for collaboration and competition, both the regional powers and the extra-regional powers have made this region for convergence of their interests and for divergent approaches, and hence Indo-Pacific acquires geostrategic, geo-economic and geopolitical salience.
A surge of explanations is offered to the Indo-Pacific ideas espoused in different tones: terminology choice, raison d’être for and against using Indo-Pacific concept. All along with enthusiasm of some countries like India, Japan, the USA, Indonesia and Australia, there is contempt for the concept as in the case of China and mulling over the implications of the new construct among the Southeast Asian countries. Indo-Pacific becomes the fulcrum between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean as well as a theatre for great power rivalry entailing negative consequences for peace and stability. In as much as many of the Indo-Pacific security challenges are not problems common across all of its sub-regions, it is not a fully integrated, interdependent strategic system and hence, neither unilateralism nor inclusive multilateralism offers a realistic solution to all the Indo-Pacific’s serious security challenges. Most of the states in the Indo-Pacific are inclined to join in mini-lateral maritime security coalitions, backed by the United States and the other responsible regional maritime powers.
Even as the four-nation (Japan, the US, India and Australia) quad actions are reportedly not directed against Beijing, China is apparently wary of quadrilateral grouping as a potential balancing act against China, by terming it a Cold War mentality aiming at containing China instead China called for enhancing mutual trust and focus on cooperation. Besides vast expansive territory, dissimilarity among countless littoral states and extra-regional stakeholders tends to impinge on timely and practical multilateral solutions to a host of problems ranging from piracy to strategic mistrust.
The Indo-Pacific concept emphasizes the growing interactions between the major East Asian powers and the burgeoning economies of Southern Asia (including but not limited to India) and the strategic implications of these interactions. The South China Sea forming the core of the maritime realm has the dubious distinction of being termed as the geopolitical lake of Southeast Asia. Given the freedom of navigation through the international waters zone is indispensable to the world’s seaborne trade, South China Sea is perceived as a potential flashpoint rather Asia’s Cauldron, just as the Indian Ocean described by Robert Kaplan as a cockpit of future maritime rivalries. The overlapping claims of the littoral states to South China Sea have assumed significance in the context of rights and duties of littoral states on the exclusive economic zones (EEZ). As well as potential reserves of 11.0 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, South China Sea forms the lifeline for the US trade worth $1.2 billion out of its total of $ 5.3 billion annual trade; 85 – 90 per cent of Japan’s oil imports; 75 per cent of China’s oil imports; 33 per cent of Japan’s LNG imports about 60 per cent of Australia’s trade essentially high volume of exports of coal, iron ore, LNG and other metals and 55 per cent of India’s trade alongside its investment in energy sector in Vietnam worth the US $ 5.0 billion. With about 50,000 vessels transiting through it annually, Indian Ocean Region (IOR) assumes importance for global trade and energy, insofar as it accounts for 50% of the world’s oil production, 55% of the known world oil reserves and 40% of the world’s known natural gas reserves. Security for oil shipping across the IOR is therefore imperative for many countries as, for instance, Japan (80 % of its oil imports), China (39 %), Europe (21 %) and the US (16 %). Security of the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in the IOR is equally vital for India’s 75% trade in value and 95% in volume as well as 90% oil imports. Geographical distribution of Chinese string of pearls’ principally reflects concerns over energy security and securing access to SLOCs which form the strategic asset rather maritime oil lifeline. If most nations have interests in maritime security, above all in SLOCs, it reiterates the importance of maintaining the freedom of navigation in the seas and precludes any single nation to claim the waters as their own.
Sync of Trans-national Interest
Indo-Pacific region is fully replete with strategies, strategic equations and competing policy frames which are not mutually exclusive, in the face of their overlapping and multilateral in character. A number of crisscrossing strategies are there seeking to increase political, security, and economic ties, particularly with the ASEAN states India’s Act East Policy evolved from Look East policy, South Korea’s New Southern Policy, the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper, Taiwan’s new Southbound Policy. A multitude of the strategic equations such as China’s Maritime Silk Road, India’s Act East Policy, the US Rebalance or Pivot to Asia and Japan’s idea of Confluence of the Two Seas are intricately identified with the competing policy frameworks as, for instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), China‘’ One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and India’s Act East Policy.
Furthermore, the region becomes an arena of a new geopolitical great game among the regional and external powers in an environment where China fears Indian rise and the US containment, India fears Chinese containment and the US fears Chinese dominance. Yet, Indo-Pacific has evolved as a region of global significance to meet ‘transnational aspirations’ on win-win situation, testifying to political and economic interdependence among the nations. Understandably, the Indo-Pacific evolves as a centre of gravity of strategic affairs, given the international geopolitical architecture testifying to issue-based cooperation and competition as well as uncertainty and fluidity in international affairs. For all the enduring strategic rivalries rooted in emotive and historical territorial disputes only the issue based debates and deliberations would guarantee the sustainability and inclusivity of the Indo-Pacific strategic arc.
Indo-Pacific Regionalism: Outlook of Divergent Approaches
Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan and the US several other Asian middle powers acquiesced to the Indo-Pacific terminology. Together with a clandestine set of political purposes and policy imperatives, Indo-Pacific carries with it some ideological baggage, besides being developed as a mental map depicting the emerging geopolitical realities. Unlike the plethora of trans-regional organizations rather multilateral institutions emerged with various nomenclatures in the post-Cold War globalized world, Indo-Pacific offers scope for strategic intersection, forming the basis for formal agreements of mutual interest leading to co-existence, while deterring a formal coalition between any two of the three countries.
India Unveiled SAGAR: India has reconciled to the Open Regionalism in the Indo-pacific region. As a sequel to India’s policy of forging partnership with the nations in the eastern neighbourhood India has begun to identify itself as an Indo-Pacific nation and appropriate Indo-Pacific regionalism to further its domestic economic imperatives. It was the spirit and purpose of India’s Act East policy that swirled rise of India and expansion of its interests beyond traditional areas, including in the Indian and Pacific Oceans so much as to bring out an important geopolitical change in the evolution of maritime geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific. SAGAR (an acronym for Security and Growth for All in the Region) is a framework for the Indian Ocean unveiled in March 2015 in Mauritius by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who enunciated the five-fold framework for India’s maritime engagement to seek a climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries; sensitivity to each other`s interests; peaceful resolution of maritime issues; and increase in maritime cooperation. Later at the second Indian Ocean Conference (31 August- 2 September 2017) in Colombo, the Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM), Sushma Swaraj called upon the people of the region to bear the primary responsibility for the peace, stability and prosperity. India’s outreach activities in Indo-Pacific and the prospects would facilitate India’s emerging influence in the Indo-Pacific that offers an opportunity to serve not just national interests but also help in reducing Indo-Pacific tensions. India’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, as exemplified by the Indian PM Modi in his keynote address at the Shangri-La dialogue of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore on 1 June 2018, would be based on the five S’ in Hindi: Sammaan (respect); Samvad (dialogue); Sahyog (cooperation), Shanti (peace), and Samridhi (prosperity). India’s vision towards the Indo-Pacific region was for the first time articulated by the India’s PM Modi at the Shangri-La dialogue when he quintessentially announced the spirit and purpose of India’s free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific policy (FOIIP). Besides placing Indo-Pacific at the heart of India’s engagement with the world, Modi as well regarded ASEAN as the core of the Indo-Pacific region. While vouching for the importance of partnerships on the basis of shared values and interests, Modi disdained Asia of rivalry that would hold all people back; and hence argued that friendships are not alliances of containment.
ASEAN Approach to Indo-Pacific regionalism: Of much significance is the Southeast Asia’s strategic position, connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which could serve as the geographic centre of the emerging Indo-Pacific system. The Indo-Pacific is not necessarily to be mistaken as some kind of effort to reduce the centrality of Asia in regional conceptions; rather, it is a region with maritime Asia at its core. The role for Southeast Asian countries has been important in the development of the Indo-Pacific concept to the extent that the ASEAN countries have preferred to have the presence of a major power that gives them a sense of security. ASEAN forms the link or corridor that connects the Indian and the Pacific oceans through a gamut of security driven institutional norms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the EAS and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus. Befitting this ASEAN Centrality, well-acknowledged by India-Japan-Australia, the leaders of all the 10 ASEAN member countries on 25-26 January 2018 on the eve of their participation at the summit meeting to mark 25 years of India-ASEAN ties and incidentally attending India’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi conveyed their desire for India’s greater and assertive role in the strategically important Indo-Pacific region, despite the consequences of the rising tensions over the South China Sea dispute. All said and done, the term Indo-Pacific has not been widely used in policy documents, with the exception being a speech given in Washington, D.C. in 2013 by Minister of Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa who favoured an Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.
Japan’s Strategic and Security Aims: Japan which intends for Indo-Pacific to supersede Asia Pacific has embarked new Indo-Pacific strategy that aims at improving the connectivity between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and between the African and Asian continents. Having, looked upon the Indo-Pacific as being synonymous with the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity, Japan moves on strengthening ties with its Indo-Pacific partners. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who had earlier on 22 August 2007 explicitly referred Indo-Pacific to “broader Asia” later in August 2016 unveiled his regional vision called the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. Abe was equally in appreciation of Modi’s active engagement in the region under the “Act East Policy’ which is in tandem with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. The two Prime Ministers in their joint statement on 11 November 2016 in Tokyo underscored the rising importance of the Indo-Pacific region as the key driver for the prosperity of the world. Anthony Bergin, Deputy Director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute considers Indo-Pacific as an obvious area where Japan can work with both Australia and India.
China’s Assertion in Indo-Pacific Regionalism: The diplomatic skill has it that China welcomed India for setting up Indo-Pacific era that could avoid the US ‘Asia Pivot doctrine’ and obviously, there was discernible comfortableness in using Indo-Pacific terminology in the writings of some Chinese analysts. China’s own interests are Indo-Pacific in nature, in view of the region being important to the supply of resources to China and a rightful sphere of influence. Surprisingly, China in its usual trait is simply opposed to regional architecture building, multi-polarity and multilateralism, primarily because of its perception of Indo-Pacific concept as a US-led containment strategy aiming at China. The region is too larger region to be dominated by any one country, and hence no geopolitical conspiracy, instead it is a geo-economic reality, the contemporary context within which China is rising, not a strategic project to contain that rise. Alternatively, the question is as to how India and China get along in the shared Indo-Pacific space cooperation, coexistence, competition, or confrontation. China needs to realize that its aggressive behaviour flares up fears so much as to prompt the ASEAN countries to encourage India and particularly the US to remain diplomatically, economically and militarily engaged in the Indo-Pacific, counter to Chinese strategic objectives.
Australia’s Indo-Pacific Strategic Arc: Besides making Australia the first country in the world to officially recognize its region as the Indo-Pacific rather than the Asia-Pacific, the 2013 Defence White Paper has given credence to the Indo-Pacific strategic arc testifying to India’s rise and growing eastward orientation as a major and positive development in the changing Asian strategic order. If the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has begun spreading the term Indo-Pacific across the DFAT-website in place of Asia Pacific Australia’s Defence Minister Stephen Smith declared plainly that his country’s region forms a part of the Indo–Pacific. In Australia, the Indo-Pacific is considered as not so strong a paradigm shift that it changes the way Australia will structure its defence; at the same time, Ric Smith, the former secretary of Defence and senior diplomat looked the Indo-Pacific as a useful policy construct and politically handy, too, though not a force determinant
US approach to Indo-Pacific Regionalism: The US complementary outlook of India‘s enhanced Look East is viewed as one of the important areas of cooperation between India and US to serve as a bridge South and Southeast Asia where the Indian and Pacific Oceans converge and where trade has thrived for centuries. Toeing the line of prediction of Admiral Alfred Mahan that the destiny of the world would be hinging on the waters of the Indian Ocean, the U.S. interests have begun to be linked to the stability of the Indo-Pacific and the safety of its sea lanes. Nisha Desai Biswal (Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, USA) viewed Indo-Pacific as a true proof-of-concept testifying to strategic location at the epicentre of global trade and commerce. Of much relevance is the US president Trumps’ vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, in which all nations are sovereign, strong, and prosperous. Even as the US Department of State put across its willingness to strengthen governance practices in the Indo-Pacific, both bilaterally and through regional mechanisms including ASEAN, APEC, PIF, LMI, BIMSTEC, and IORA was sceptical of a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order. That the US-vision of India as one of the strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific region bears testimony to the Trump administration reckoning India a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indo-Pacific disdained as being more about Ideas than Action. The Indo-Pacific region is beleaguered by a deficit of strategic trust, unresolved territorial claims, and rapid transformation of regional states and the relationships between them, that would likely cause instability. Therefore, there needs to be an Indo–Pacific Treaty of friendship and cooperation, as articulated by the Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa, to encourage the idea of common security and promote trust and confidence and thereby the resolution of disputes by peaceful means. Asian Relations Conference IV (2013) brought to focus the issues of practicality and feasibility of the concept of Indo-Pacific in solving regional problems, such as the prospects of India’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, the challenges and constraints it faced, and effective mechanisms for resolving the regional conflicts and trade disputes (Asian Relations Conference, 20-21, March 2013, New Dehli). Washington’s pivot to Indo-Pacific speaks of its defence planning or forward balancing concept in the Indian Ocean and maritime Southeast Asia. Indo-Pacific sub-regions have their own strategic priorities and security challenges. A few to mention are the Korean Peninsula problem, the China-Taiwan issue, the China-Japan jostling in the East China Sea and the Indo-Pak rivalry perpetuated as the South Asian concern. Indo-Pacific as the centre of gravity in the world economy portends conflict involving major Indo-Pacific powers- China, India, Japan or the US, in the event of a major disruption with large repercussions.
The Indo-Pacific, as Allan Gyngell pointed out, is a framing device, not a geographical reality. Its proponents shape it around their different interests. Each country has its own Indo-Pacific. India’s version of the Indo-Pacific is an extension of its Look East policy in Southeast Asia; for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it is to ensure that the infrastructure networks across Asia to Africa are not dominated by China and Chinese standards; Australian White Paper commits to engage with major Indo-Pacific democracies including by working in small groups, to promote a balance in the region favourable to our interests. The US President Donald Trump speaks about a free and open Indo-Pacific; and China has its own Indo-Pacific in the Maritime Silk Road, part of the Belt and Road Initiative. In essence, Indo-Pacific has its players designed to cooperate (as in the case of the East Asia Summit) and sometimes to compete (given the subtle intentions of China and ASEAN as to be central of the framework) as well as it has its groupings / alliances intended to engage distrustful neighbours or distant partners in terms of economic, normative, or geographic connections, knowing full well that Indo-Pacific strategic and economic ecosystem is as much varied as to accommodate diverse features.