The cartography of the world can be broadly understood in three ways. One can make sense of the world through its geographical demarcations — land and water, plateaus and peninsulas, seas and oceans. Another way of perceiving the world is through its political boundaries — continents and states, islands and territorial seas, continental shelves and exclusive economic zones. A third way of interpreting the map is through an imagination of a space that transcends both of the above. In simple terms, a mental map carved out of a space. An imaginative space of such kind might not find itself on the geographical map, like the Af-Pak region, nor does it always fits into existing political dimensions, for example the Asia-Pacific region.
The Indo-Pacific is one such mental map that has gained currency in recent times. Like every imagined space, there is disagreement over what characterizes the space and who imagines it. In terms of geo-spatiality, the Indo-Pacific is broadly to be understood as an interconnected space between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Its expanse is debated to be ranging from the eastern shores of Africa to the western coast of the United States, albeit with variations in definitions depending on each actor and their own geographic positioning in the vast expanse. In a more functional understanding, the interconnectedness and the interdependence of the two oceans is a product of growing forces of globalization, trade and changing equations between various actors which has broken down older boundaries and opened up new avenues. Growing mobility across the oceans has helped formulate an integrated approach. Given that it contains the world’s most crucial sea routes, the world’s most populous nations fueling high energy demands on its rims and a stretch encapsulating finest global commons, the Indo-Pacific is adjudged to be the center of the globe in terms of politics and economics.
Strategically, the Indo-Pacific has been seen as a continuum across the two oceans joined together by its main trading channel, the straits of Malacca. Two broad reasons explain the rise of a strategic imagination of the Indo-Pacific. First, the growing footprint of China across the length and breadth of the region and second, the relative decline of the U.S. alliance system and its strive for resurgence.
Beijing’s maritime advances have sprawled across the two oceans in a bid to secure its energy requirements and boost its trading ties. China’s rise has taken multiple forms. In the South China Sea, its irredentist claims have been showcased through territorial advances. Its growing strides in South Asian waters alongside the “string” of port facilities across the Indian Ocean is likely to make it a resident power. In terms of connectivity and infrastructure, the Belt and Road Initiative puts forward the Chinese-led plan to bind the geopolitical space. Economically, China is a crucial trading partner for all the major states in the region and also taking active interests to lead the economic partnerships of the region.
The rise of China is to be read alongside a relative decline of the U.S. presence in the region. While the United States still is a net-security provider in the region for its allies and possesses the most potent navy, its strategies have left the door open for China in some cases and harmed its own allies in the rest. Although the United States has accorded renewed importance to the Indo-Pacific by a significant renaming of the U.S. Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific command, its unilateral withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and continuous calls for equitable burden-sharing for its allies has left its alliance system in limbo. Added to that, it has been unable to blow steam into the Quad grouping of like-minded democracies, comprised also of Australia, Japan and India in order to build the much touted “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The U.S.-China conflict at the heart of the Indo-Pacific has also led to contested imaginations from other littoral actors. Australia, which was one of the first nations to discuss the idea of Indo-Pacific through its defense white papers, has implicitly argued for a balance between the United States and China. While it is a part of the U.S. alliance system and favors its large scale presence in the region, Australia is also aware of its gradual decline. Simultaneously, Canberra neither can discount the economic gains served by China and the possibility of deepening ties with other important actors like Japan, India and South Korea in the region which would be vital for its strategic future. Reflecting on the spirit of the “confluence of two seas” first espoused by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s idea of the Indo-Pacific overlaps with the U.S. vision but with a strong emphasis on promoting infrastructure, beyond East Asia into Middle East and Africa. Placed centrally at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN nations have taken a more functional outlook towards the Indo-Pacific, basing its strategy on four aspects – maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and economy.
India’s imagination of the Indo-Pacific is an extension of its advances in the east through the Look East Policy, now the Act East Policy. While the United States has pushed for a more active Indian role in the region, India’s Indo-Pacific strategy has been more about dodging than distinctiveness. New Delhi, arguing for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and siding with the Quad nations initially, has been unable to determine whether its Indo-Pacific strategy is inclusive of China or set against it. While it echoes the concerns of the U.S. alliance to bring about a rules-based order characterized by freedom of navigation and settlement of disputes through dialogue, it has also mentioned that its idea of the Indo-Pacific is not about restricting a particular state, hinting China, and also a parallel focus on its Security and Growth for All in the Region approach, coined SAGAR.
Like every imaginative space, the Indo-Pacific is a construct of contested interpretation, necessitating warring visions and constructs likely to be wrestled out between opposed strategic stakeholders in the region. A rising China, a defiant United States, and a host of other regional actors in the ongoing Indo-Pacific are likely to define the politics of the region, which is open to multiple possibilities.
Udayan Das is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, India