Indo-Pacific and India’s Prospective Role

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The term Indo-Pacific travelled a long way from Ocean biology to the political and diplomatic sphere; i.e., from utter clarity to complexity and ambiguity. Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical construct is confirmed with a wide gap as to what Indo-Pacific will comprise of. Interestingly while the mapping of Indo-Pacific is still going on; the stakeholders of Indo-Pacific like the United States, Japan, Australia, ASEAN and India were enthusiastically defining the region focusing on their centrality. With so many vying for centrality, institutionalisation of Indo-Pacific and the conception as a region becomes problematic. Hence to study Indo-Pacific as a construct, a concept or a region individual country’s perspective had to be considered. Certain questions emerge eventually, Is Indo-Pacific essentially a US strategy towards Asia to contain China and to evaluate its declining hegemony? Can Indo-Pacific regionalism take place and sustain? Can the geopolitical construct of Indo-Pacific be socially and culturally constructed in order to become a region? Will Indo-Pacific regionalism resemble East Asian regionalism or will it have unique characteristics contributing to World Order? The attributes of a region is to be collaborative, interactive, cooperative and contributory in nature not necessarily aiming at security and economics alone. Questions galore, nevertheless Indo-Pacific is certainly taking the form of a region with more and more littoral countries acknowledging the region as one entity.

Indo-Pacific has not emerged from a vacuum, the two-ocean theory have been floating in the region from as early as in 1980’s (especially in Australia). Many attempts were made to bring the region together, Mahathir Mohammad, the Prime Minster of Malaysia called for a ‘East Asia Economic Caucus’ in 1997 which was not accepted and later in 2008 Kevin Rudd, Australian Prime Minister had proposed for ‘Asia-Pacific Community’ which was also rejected by the regional countries. Japan had for long initiated the idea to thwart Chinese threat. By 2012 ‘Indo-Pacific’ clicked, it may be due to the fact that US proposed it and also because its purpose to balance China has been acceptable to all. While Australia and Japan are clear as to what their role in Indo-Pacific will be and are even trying to institutionalise the concept; India is still contemplating, and US under Donald Trump and his policies has slowed down ‘Indo-Pacific’. Indo-Pacific can gain momentum only when it is bound by institutions with definite agenda, structure, mode of operation and the will of the rising powers of the region. Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA) is one such institution which requires being much more effective to the regional demands. India’s effort through Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) could also be viewed from the same perspective with a maritime focus. Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) is another initiative to enhance the sense of regionalism between India and Japan on the one hand and formalising the scope of Indo-Pacific by involving African states in cooperation and development. Institutionalisation is complete only when the region gains a concrete definition and mapping with borders and full conviction of the regional countries. Mark Beeson, in his article on ‘Institutionalisation of Indo-Pacific…” mentioned that “institutions have the capacity to guide and shape behaviour through the logics of appropriateness and consequences.” Such a process to occur requires leadership and the question is which country/s or which existing institution would take the lead.

The quadrilateral arrangement between US, Japan, Australia and India could possibly take the initiative in institutionalisation but ‘Quad’ is still an idea, while Japan and United States were enthusiastic about it India and Australia are apprehensive to their expected role. Malabar exercise sans Australia is a case in point. Both fear Chinese wrath but also want to contain China at the same time. Instead of a quadrilateral alliance, a trilateral cooperation is rather successful ex; India-Japan-US trilateral ever since 2011 and the latest in July 31, 2018, US-Japan-Australia trilaterally signed MOUs to support investment in infrastructure and promote economic development in the Indo-Pacific region. Donald Trump’s domestic and foreign policy approach made the friends and enemies look alike making the future of Indo-Pacific rather bleak. Quad is not moving at the moment in any desirable direction that could have helped Indo-Pacific. Moreover ASEAN is left out of this group which is a natural Indo-Pacific partner. The next best thing could be India taking the initiative to institutionalise the region. Since India was given the role of a ‘net security provider’ of the Indo-Pacific and also because India considers itself to be the protagonist on the Indian Ocean.

India has to acknowledge the role it could play and an opportunity it should not miss. India’s assumption of Indo-Pacific is wider, engulfing the Bay of Bengal on the eastern Indian Ocean and stretching towards Malacca Straits and the Pacific Ocean including the Pacific Island nations and the Arabian Sea on the other side of the Indian Ocean thus bringing forth the countries from the western choke points like Strait of Hormuz and Bab el- Mandeb. This makes the institutionalisation process more complex but then these countries are members of IORA as well and hence bringing all the countries under one banner for cooperation and sustainable development would not be difficult. India’s plurality will help further in bringing the region together. Institutionalising Indo-Pacific will build a strategic and institutional landscape to maintain a code of conduct of the Sea Lines of Communication and work for freedom of navigation and movement on the sea-air spaces and to prevent the region from being dominated militarily and economically by any single country. The concept is not just to understand, check and balance Chinese rise but to enhance regionalism in the world of interdependence. How well India will fair depends upon how fast Indian policy makers respond to ‘India’s role in Indo-Pacific’. India has no official statement or document defining Indo-Pacific strategy till now is a matter of concern.

The Indo-Pacific region is one of the largest entities of growing economies and political perplexities. The tall order for Indo-Pacific is to have its own security regime to thwart civil wars and ethnic cleansing while dealing with hunger. Indo-Pacific is the region where 2/3rd (may be more) of world’s poor living with lack of proper governance mechanisms. Can India frame the security architecture and build a security regime in Indo-Pacific and control arms race, prevent formation of clusters which could hamper Indo-Pacific regionalism? Does India’s material capability and diplomatic capacity allow it to take a leading position for such a big endeavour? Regionalism in the present times involves ‘economic globalisation’ and pluralism while ‘contributing to the World Order’. India’s ‘exceptionalism’ in its foreign policy making could be of help in understanding the region. Though India was one of the founder members and having a leadership position in Non Aligned Movement (NAM) India failed to be a facilitator. India’s role in Indo-Pacific will be quite different from NAM (except for strategic autonomy) with alliances, cooperative security, sustainable developmental measures, economic transactions and educational and cultural exchanges. Once again greatness is thrust upon India and India’s slumberous poise is yet to be deciphered. India has a tremendous potential to be a constructive player of the Indo-Pacific and the policy makers need to take heed of it.

Dr. Shubhamitra Das

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