American foreign policy conversations about the Indo-Pacific do not often linger on the Indian Ocean. The priority for the United States government is and shall remain the Western Pacific and the myriad of challenges present in those waters. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) falls further down Washington’s priority list as a result, but the IOR matters because the challenges in the Western Pacific are mirrored throughout the IOR.
As the United States focuses its attention, personnel, and resources toward the Pacific, addressing affairs throughout the IOR will require alternative approaches. These approaches will be experimental, often led by regional actors, and most certainly fixated more commonly on local challenges. United States engagement throughout the IOR can be successful if it follows the region’s lead and prioritizes engagement to fit unique gaps. The United States in the IOR will find partners committed to international rules and norms, developing increasingly sophisticated capabilities, and nurturing an environment where United States aims can find new policy solutions.
A Limited Indo-Pacific Concept
The Indo-Pacific concept followed by the United States is less geographically expansive than most. The general understanding of the Indo-Pacific in Washington is that it, more or less, corresponds to the area of responsibility of United States Indo-Pacific Command. That understanding means that only the eastern reaches of the IOR are included, and even that definition has its critics. This definition of the Indo-Pacific is incomplete, for it does not recognize the necessity of seeing the IOR as a region, which the United States must do in order further its aims in era of competition.
Washington’s lack of engagement with the IOR as a region is nothing new. Engagement with parts of the larger IOR, such as the Arabian Peninsula or South Asia, have been key elements of United States diplomatic and security policy for decades. Yet, these two regions were tied to United States perspectives attached to its own oceanic tradition – the Arabian Peninsula led to the Mediterranean and onward to the Atlantic Ocean, while South Asia bordered the states of ASEAN and led eastward into the Pacific Ocean.
This pattern of engagement has been decried by IOR regional states for a long time, but in this era of the Indo-Pacific, the peculiarities of U.S. engagement lend to advantages for regional states: specifically, the United States’ technological and data analysis ability, networking skill, and capability to strengthen cooperative institutions.
Moving Beyond an Alphabet Soup
The IOR is a region where multilateralism is the de facto mechanism for building cooperation. There are a legion of international partnerships, organizations, and agreements in place that seek to define a common regional perspective on existing challenges. From a maritime-derived understanding of the region, there exist India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), the Indian Ocean Rim Association, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, Combined Maritime Forces, the Indian Ocean Commission, and the Djibouti Code of Conduct (and Jeddah Amendment), as well as various law enforcement, resource protection, and political agreements.
Some of these regional institutions have proven effective in enhancing regional security and encouraging greater international cooperation, but many have become entangled in regional political disagreements, or even become the venues by which regional division is voiced. Critics of the IOR’s tendency to create international organizations have called these collective efforts as nothing more than alphabet soup – a collection of acronym organizations that achieve little, save their own creation.
Such critics have a point. The cumulative IOR was once defined by a lack of trust, a lack of interregional trade, and a lack of political will to work together. The absence of regional cohesion is due to several overarching complications, namely the lack of capacity among many of the region’s developing states to design their own engagement mechanisms and continual and often locally ignorant approaches by major non-regional players.
Things are changing in the IOR, at least in the maritime domain. Emerging powers in the region are levying more of their own national power to enhance regional efforts toward cooperation. Regional institutions are developing their own niche capabilities so that they can focus their mission more precisely. Furthermore, the global economy is not only noticing but starting to latch onto the region’s qualities – namely favorable demographics, increasingly diversified economies, and substantive natural resource wealth. Economic potential has brought increased chances for economic development and new partnerships.
However, these economic possibilities are accompanied by renewed interest among non-regional powers. This is the downside to the region’s various efforts at collaboration and information sharing – the affairs of the IOR will become of greater interest to the global community. Such interest could undermine progress made at regional connectivity if the region does not dictate its own political narrative independent of geopolitical trends.
A Fitting United States Approach
Engagement by the United States throughout the wider IOR has a mixed record at best. Subregions have been focal points of United States foreign policy in the past, but save ongoing interest in the Arabian Peninsula, there is little American policy that alludes to an IOR approach. Today, with the Indo-Pacific becoming the overarching geopolitical narrative of the United States, the IOR remains secondary to the complicated challenge set existing throughout the Pacific. Washington’s attention will remain focused on its engagement throughout East and Southeast Asia, as well as Oceania.
The key objectives of United States efforts in the Pacific are equally relevant in the IOR, but the IOR presents a less contentious, if equally complicated, environment. The missteps and start-stop policy approaches of the past can be learned from without introducing a strain on engagement. The answer is a modified approach of technical engagement, an approach that follows the lead already mapped out by the region itself.
The United States works with a critical mass of IOR states who seek to ensure maritime freedom of navigation, uphold established rules and norms within the international system, and a general leaning toward greater international cooperation. The United States should bolster what is already being built in the IOR: deepen engagement, increase the frequency of senior leader visits, emphasize Indo-Pacific-wide coordination efforts, and retool the interagency to provide specific assistance per requests via a regional, not subregional, approach. This is already being done to a degree. It needs to be more uniform and far more consistent.
An example from the security sphere is technical training tied to capability enhancement. For decades, United States defense outreach was predicated upon capacity building – or expanding the scale, reach, and depth of partner nation defense operations. This often meant providing “stuff” for partners that often quickly eroded in efficacy or even sat unused by the receiving nation. Today’s IOR calls for capability enhancement – improving the efficiency of existing equipment, facilities, assets, and personnel. Thus, calls for cooperation increasingly take the form of requests for defense institution building, joint exercises, trust building efforts, and information sharing platforms. Improving capability, especially in parallel with key partners like France, India, and Australia, proves a multiplier effect that ensures that regional states remain in favor of and diplomatically attuned to a free and open international system. Furthermore, the largesse and publicity-minded efforts of competitors will have a less dramatic effect as the United States focuses on institutions and standing alongside regional actors in addressing local challenges.
With the United States focused on the challenge posed by a more aggressive and capable China, a nimbler and, most importantly, responsive approach to engagement throughout the IOR will allow the emphasis in terms of personnel, assets, and diplomatic pressure to remain centered on the Western Pacific. In the IOR, the United States will not take on a leadership role. The region does not want that. What it wants is a committed partner that cooperates to help solidify the forming quilt of security, diplomatic, and economic efforts that have begun. Put another way, the United States can add energy to push forward momentum by walking alongside our partners.
The peculiarities of U.S. engagement throughout the IOR, which were once decried in the region, today provide a pathway through which the United States can make a real impact. The policy should be formally and loudly stated to be that the United States is committed to helping the IOR become stronger by following the region’s tune. Doing so ensures that the United States will provide essential niche capabilities, all the while helping the IOR to ensure that any other non-regional power will have a far harder course to chart if it seeks to change the region for its own end.