In the evolving geopolitical discourse, the Indo-Pacific has been transformed from a biogeographic region into a strategic one. Accompanying this change in perception is a change is scope, with strategists considering now not just the tropical Indian Ocean, but also the western and sometimes even central Pacific Ocean. The emergence of this newly defined area is significant, and not just for the region itself. So much so that some observers are now talking of an “Indo-Pacific Pivot.”
The Indo-Pacific ranges from East Africa, across the Indian Ocean, to the western and central Pacific, including Japan and Australia. Within this vast area, cooperation between countries and systems of alliances form, such as cooperation between the U.S., Japan and Australia, countering trends such as China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea and its growing presence in the Indian Ocean. This is not to pit one group against another, but rather to point out that there is a subtle heterogeneity involved in emerging Indo-Pacific relations.
The region’s strategic and economic significance is meanwhile growing. From South to East Asia, trade has surged and, especially with the rise of Asian powers like China and India, the Indo-Pacific incorporates some of the busiest sea lanes in the world. The rise in commerce creates political and strategic interests, along with concerns that these interests may be under threat with the rise of China and its assertive maritime behavior. It is in fact these concerns that have helped encourage the emergence of the concept of an Indo-Pacific region, although at least two other factors are at play: the U.S. pivot to Asia and, more recently, direct mention and discussion of the concept in Australia’s Defence White Paper (2013).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The new structure that is evolving in the Indo-Pacific is still in transition, because the distribution of power is a variable that itself remains fluid. This power ambiguity in turn reflects the shifting roles played by two dominant elements: politics and economics. While military might and geopolitics form part of the first element, trade is the key constituent of the second.
The U.S. is leading a group of countries in trying to give some solidity to Indo-Pacific geopolitics. This new initiative entails a strategic realignment that would accord an important role to India and the Indian Ocean. The policies will play out over a strategic arc that essentially brings together the ASEAN+6, minus South Korea.
Where does India stand?
These countries will vary in the extent to which they seek to formalize Indo-Pacific alliances. While we might expect the U.S., Japan and Australia to be more proactive in seeking formal arrangements, India is likely to be less willing, albeit still keen to work with these countries to ensure peace and stability. For New Delhi, a degree of ambiguity and equivocality serves its interests in the region. Direct and vocal engagement with one group will not only run the risk of antagonizing China; it will diminish the freedom of action that India associates with its non-alignment policy.
Since the Indo-Pacific is primarily a maritime expanse, the presence and influence of the U.S. is a given, given the capabilities and reach of its blue-water navy. However, the nature of that influence going forward will certainly be different from the hegemony Washington enjoyed in postwar Asia. Dominance in logistics and maritime operations will give way to collective security and a balance of power. In this effort, the U.S. will find highly supportive partners (like Australia) and more reserved ones (like India).