The nomenclature Indo-Pacific has gained traction since China aggressively began to reclaim land to enlarge the shape of features in the South China Sea and subsequently threw to the winds, the ICJ judgement on the Scarborough Shoal. Commonly, Indo Pacific is seen as maritime entity since it involves confluence of two oceans (Indian Ocean and the Pacific). Geographically it extends from east coast of Africa to west coast of USA, effectively what was under watch of the then Pacific Command of the US and now renamed Indo-Pacific Command. If the geographical expanse be the defining factor, then littorals of Indo Pacific are inclusive. But the problem of inclusivity of China divides the opinion on Indo-Pacific amongst its stakeholders. ASEAN has not embraced the term and addresses it as Asia Pacific as it has done since World War II. ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific has often been spoken about at various forums. ASEAN also does not wish to annoy PRC by calling the area Indo-Pacific, given its proximity and economic dependence.
During the Presidency of Mr Obama a rebalancing of US Forces was announced wherein 60% of US assets were to be deployed in the Indo-Pacific to tame assertive posture of China in the South China Sea (SCS). However, with the change of guard at the White House, the appreciation seems to have undergone some changes. While the pivot remains Asia, US has begun to withdraw from multilateral fora and look more inwards, though without any let up on the overall security posture. President Trump expects its allies and strategic partners to contribute larger share of security burden. It wants to increase the capability of its partners and allies, which is its larger agenda of business for America’s weapon industry. It is also aimed at its partners to become part of its security network to resist China’s assertive behaviour. In that sense the QUAD (grouping of US, Australia, Japan, India) and JAI (grouping of Japan, America, India), should be seen as two subsets of larger Indo-Pacific construct.
QUAD, formed by US, India, Japan and Australia is in its infancy, but examined microscopically, it reflects threads of three regional or middle powers, all democracies, in three distinct geographies within the larger Indo-Pacific. If one has to put substance to the definition it would point at Indian leadership in the IOR, Japanese leadership along with Indonesia, Philippines and possibly Vietnam in the South China Sea/ East China Sea and lastly Australia with New Zealand in the Pacific. The three are subsets of the Indo-Pacific and backed by the US’ interoperable network.
The model of JAI, ie, Japan, America and India has been articulated by the three Heads of Government in two successive G 20 Summits. This combination has the economic and military might to ensure freedom of navigation, adherence to international laws and rule based order in the Indo-Pacific. With the possibility of inclusion of France, it could be yet another QUAD. Contrarily, India’s stand is that in a rules based order of Indo-Pacific, there shouldbe no exclusions. Theoretically, China could participate if it abides by international laws such as UNCLOS. In a sense it would marginalise China’s claims in SCS. Similarly, QUAD appears to be four important pillars of resident powers in the Indo-Pacific. This could later include France, Indonesia and Vietnam to make SEPTA. These three nations have significant economic and military power with the desire to resist an assertive China.
What is in India’s interest? PM Modi has very clearly spoken of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region). India’s economic prosperity and security is dependent on the entire region. SAARC,not having yieldedresults due to Pakistan’s objections, Indian Government has rejuvenated BIMSTEC in the last five years. Connectivity has been the theme for India’s Act East Policy. India’s share of trade with SE Asia has been minuscule given her overall standing in the world. Also, India’s North Eastern states require greater participation in the overall scheme of development of the government. It is in this context that BBIN and BIMSTEC +2 becomes very relevant. Therefore, while larger canvas of Indo Pacific calls for partnership in security architecture, India’s own very immediate economic development is linked more to littorals in the Indian Ocean Region. It’s connectivity (road, rail, sea, air, digital etc) with the region is intrinsic to both, economy and security.
To a maritime observer Indo Pacific does not seem to address security concerns of India in the Western Indian Ocean. Majority of world’s trouble spots reside in this zone which is also the energy lifeline of the developing countries. Af-Pak, Iran- Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia and the Gulf do not seem to be networked with Indo-Pacific framework. SAGAR probably encompasses this entire region in which India’s leadership is well accepted. It is probably time for India, which has demonstrated overwhelming support for PM Modi in the recent elections, to deconflict the overarching concept of Indo-Pacific and shape SAGAR for the IOR.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM and Bar is the former Commander in Chief Western Naval Command & former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. He is presently Chairman, Board of Trustees, India Foundation.