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).
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).
Its hesitancy notwithstanding, India will invariably find itself a part of this collective security framework, within which it will need to work with countries like the U.S., Japan and Australia. New Delhi will have to deploy some astute diplomacy by demonstrating that it can work equally well with China. For instance, China will need to be given considerable freedom in the Indo-Pacific region if India is expecting to enjoy unfettered navigation in the South China Sea.
In its new form, the Indo-Pacific offers leadership roles to India and Australia. The rise of India economically and militarily (especially its naval build up in the aftermath of the “string of pearls”) presents New Delhi with much more opportunity in the Indo-Pacific region than Washington enjoys. In taking up a leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region, India will find a stage on which it can practice its diplomatic arts.
For instance, apart from joining Australia in monitoring, patrolling and surveillance, India should insist on the adoption of a code of conduct for the Indo-Pacific. Given the volume of trade and traffic that passes through the area and the involvement of players like China, the U.S., India and Australia, the absence of such a code runs the risk of creating another South China Sea, which is riddled with disputes.
One of Australia’s main interests in the Indo-Pacific region is to define a broad region and create a rules-based order. It is here that the interests of Canberra and New Delhi coincide. India is among Australia’s top ten trading partners. This should be augmented by linking the two countries with an industrial sea-corridor across the Indo-Pacific and boosting bilateral military cooperation. India is already considering sending its P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft on sorties over the Indo-Pacific. This will require close cooperation with Australia. The primary agenda in the region should be to build a security structure that promotes peace and stability. Neither India nor Australia are overtly militaristic in their intent or approach, which makes them perfect candidates to take a leading role in building a stable region.
Meanwhile, India should secure its economic and strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific by promoting the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and getting involved in the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Region Cooperation (IOR-ARC). India will also need to work closely with other powers in the region, like Japan and China. In short, New Delhi should base its Indo-Pacific policy on an inclusive (even if competitive) coexistence.
Vivek Mishra is a PhD Research Scholar in the American Studies Program at the School of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.