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The Origin of ‘Indo-Pacific’ as Geopolitical Construct

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Trans-Pacific View

The Origin of ‘Indo-Pacific’ as Geopolitical Construct

Insights from Gurpreet Khurana.

The Origin of ‘Indo-Pacific’ as Geopolitical Construct
Credit: U.S. Pacific Command/Flickr

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Gurpreet S. Khurana executive director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi, India and a Captain in the Indian Navy who is credited with the first use of the term “Indo-Pacific” in the context of strategic and geopolitical discourse in India is the 124th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the essence of “Indo-Pacific” as a geopolitical framework.  

One often comes across the eastward shift of the world’s economic “center of gravity” toward the Asian continent. Given the inextricable link between geoeconomics and the ocean realm, the continent’s rim-land is likely to lead Asia’s “rise.” This made it exigent for the “maritime underbelly” of Asia – the Indo-Pacific – to be regarded as a singular and integrated geopolitical construct, wherein lie tremendous geoeconomic opportunities as well as daunting security challenges, not only for Asia, but also for the rest of the wider world.

Another essential underpinning of the Indo-Pacific idea is the growing eminence of India. Even though the “Indo” in “Indo-Pacific” represents the Indian Ocean and not India, the global community expects India to play a major role, including in terms of ensuring a maritime environment that is conducive for economic growth and development. The long-prevalent “Asia-Pacific” construct was inadequate and ambiguous in terms of incorporating India in the affairs of the region.

What elements – values, rationale, objectives – constitute the “Indo-Pacific” concept?

By the turn of the 21st Century, the geopolitical connect between the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific had become increasingly palpable, in both the geoeconomic and security dimensions. The first is exemplified by the critical dependence of East Asia on the natural resources of West Asia and Africa via the Indian Ocean. The security dimension is best represented by the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) launched in 2004 to counter sea-borne proliferation of WMDs, which focused on the maritime swath stretching from West Asia (Iran and Syria) to Northeast Asia (North Korea). Such interconnectedness led analysts like me to the search for a suitable regional nomenclature. “Asia” was too broad and continental. “Asia-Pacific” – which traditionally stood for “the Asian littoral of the Pacific” – was inadequate. The “Indo-Pacific’” (Indian Ocean–Pacific Ocean combine) – seemed more appropriate.

The trigger for the “Indo-Pacific” coinage was China’s increasing politico-military assertiveness and the ensuing enunciation of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy in 2005 by a U.S. think-tank. These developments led to anxieties in many regional countries, including India and Japan. In 2006, India and Japan began sharing strategic assessments. During my discussions with Japanese analysts at IDSA [Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses] in New Delhi in October 2006, we took note of China’s key strategic vulnerability, viz, its energy lifelines transiting the Indian Ocean. The “Indo-Pacific” idea was an opportunity to showcase the Indian Navy’s capability to moderate China’s behavior, thereby dissuading its future aggressiveness. This led to the publication of my paper titled “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation” in IDSA’s Strategic Analyses journal (January 2007) explaining the Indo-Pacific concept, albeit in a subtle manner. A few months later in August 2007, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian Parliament, speaking of the “Confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

Assess the U.S. administration’s use of “Indo-Pacific” versus “Asia-Pacific” in the context of political rhetoric and foreign policy strategy.

Since the beginning of the current decade, the U.S. administration realized the inadequacy of the “Asia-Pacific” [term] to meet its geopolitical and attendant foreign policy objectives in Asia, for two key reasons. The first was China’s expanding politico-military activities from the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean. The second was the imperative to incorporate New Delhi into the region-wide security architecture, as evidenced by the U.S. desire for India to be a regional “net security provider.” This led the U.S. to initially expand the “Asia-Pacific” to the “Indo-Asia Pacific,” encompassing the entire swath of Indian and Pacific oceans. The “Indo-Asia Pacific” [concept] was necessary for the U.S. to maintain its relevance as a resident power in Asia. However, while the term had a sound geoeconomic rationale, President Donald Trump preferred to shorten it to “Indo-Pacific,” ostensibly, to focus on the security dimension of America’s geopolitical ends – primarily relating to China – that necessitated a more robust collaboration with U.S. allies and partners.

What is New Delhi’s vision and policy implementation of “Indo-Pacific” vis-à-vis China and the United States?

Since around 2010 when the Indo-Pacific idea gained currency, statements by India’s apex political leaders indicate that New Delhi has found promise in the idea – including its rationale and objectives – to further India’s national interests in its extended eastern maritime neighborhood. These include geoeconomic interests, good order at sea, and freedom of navigation, but that is not all. Considering that India’s geostrategic frontier vis-à-vis China is steadily expanding eastwards from the Indian Ocean, New Delhi also seeks to develop a credible strategic deterrence against China. The “Indo-Pacific” construct provides India a valuable opportunity to partner with the resident countries and major stakeholder powers of Indo-Pacific, with whom these interests converge.

Since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, his revitalized Act East Policy has provided policy ballast to the Indo-Pacific concept. In tandem with Act East, in 2015, the Indian Navy promulgated its new maritime security strategy, which expanded India’s “areas of maritime interest” to the entire western and southwestern Pacific Ocean. However, notwithstanding India’s recent involvement in the “quadrilateral” (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.), there are calls from the Indian strategic community for New Delhi to demonstrate a greater commitment to implement its Act East [Policy], and even broaden the scope of Modi’s vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) in tandem with Act East.

Is “Indo-Pacific” a sphere of influence? Explain.

As mentioned earlier, the “Indo-Pacific” idea was originally conceived in 2006-07 for a more constructive geopolitical amalgamation of the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific regions, including for coping with the growing comprehensive power of China. However, from the realist perspective, geopolitics is much about establishing spheres of influence; therefore, the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical construct will necessarily involve such competition. While the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence in the region in face of the Chinese challenge, it also seeks to prop up India’s influence eastwards of the Malacca Straits, and Japan’s influence in the Indian Ocean.

The Indo-Pacific is, however, not an exclusive concept. It will also help China to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean, wherein Beijing’s critical interests lie, and reinforce its geopolitical strategy being implemented through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is possibly why China has not expressed any resentment of the Indo-Pacific, at least not explicitly.