With the rise of Asian economies like India, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the emergence of Africa as the new continent of economic growth, the centre of gravity of global commerce has shifted from the Atlantic to what is now described as the ‘Indo-Pacific’. The significance of Indo-Pacific today has its roots in the Indian Ocean becoming the crossroads of global commerce (again).
Today, the Indian Ocean is one of the most critical and busiest naval transportation links in the world. Almost a hundred thousand ships pass through it in a year, carrying about half of the world’s container shipments, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of the oil shipments. Home to major Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) and strategic choke points of major economies, Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has gained the importance of power projection arena over last few decades.
The Indian peninsula is the biggest landmass jutting into the Indian Ocean, and in that respect, the Indian Ocean is a symbolic acknowledgement of India’s role in the IOR. While the attention of other countries towards the IOR is fairly recent, India has maintained trade and civilisational links with many countries in the region long before it was a colonial lake.
In present times as well, India assumes a significant role in the IOR in terms of mutual growth under secured environment as is evident from its inclusive vision ‘SAGAR’ (Hindi for ‘sea’) which stands for Security And Growth for All in the Region. This vision was underlined by Prime Minister Modi in March 2015 at Mauritius. Over last few years, the seas between the two oceans i.e. Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean has seen too much of turbulence. The concerned nations have realised the need of merging the waters as their mutual interests merge towards peaceful growth and hence the strategic concept of Indo-Pacific has taken significant shape.
While the importance of ‘Indo’ as well India in the Indo-Pacific can never be undermined, with the shifting focus of geopolitics and geo-economics, the notion of ‘Indo-Pacific’ has assumed a new rallying point for major stake holders—the US, India, China, Japan, Australia, ASEAN and others to articulate their strategic postures.
The emerging strategic articulations are important as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has emerged as the hub of global trade and energy supply. The two-third container trade of the world passes through this region. The region comprises at least 38 countries that share 44% of world surface area and 65% of world population, and account for 62% of world-GDP and 46% of the world’s merchandise trade.
Over the period, with increasing globalisation, trade dependence, the seamless connectivity of the maritime domain and the changing nature of the maritime threat becoming more transnational in nature, physical boundaries have become blurred and awareness of the importance of ensuring secure seas for the unhindered movement of trade and energy has increased. This has also coincided with the remarkable and historically unprecedented rise of China, in sheer scale and ambition. It’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, belligerence in the East Sea and rapid advance into the Indian Ocean through ambitious strategic and economic initiatives like the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) have challenged the established international rules-based system which respected the oceans as the common heritage of mankind.
India’s Indo-Pacific vision
To understand India’s Indo-Pacific vision it is important to understand why India defines it in its own way. During the Cold War, the Indo-Pacific was sliced and diced into different spheres of influence and military theatres, and made submissive to alliance ideology. To India, this made little sense. Whether it was the forces of nature—the monsoon winds for instance—or maritime and trading history, India found it impossible to see the Horn of Africa and the western Indian Ocean on the one hand and the Straits of Malacca on the other as disconnected.
For India, it has always been a seamless whole. It is because the Indian peninsula, which thrusts into the Indian Ocean as the biggest jetty and gives it two magnificent coasts and near limitless maritime horizons to both east and west.
Monks and merchants, culture and cargo have travelled from India on those waters in every direction. India is a country with an intimate maritime history in the Indo-Pacific. It was a major origin of trade, commerce, religions and cultures much before the Pacific and Atlantic countries and thus was the most prosperous Indian Ocean country with its cultural influence also reaching all parts of the world. Some of the oldest and most impressive Hindu temples are found in Vietnam, remnants of the Cham kingdom.
A thousand years ago India’s greatest coastal empire, the Cholas, sent maritime expeditions and trading ships as far east as Sumatra, to ancient China, as well as to the Abbasid empire in what is today’s Iraq. Another empire, the Pallavas, had a flourishing trade relationship with Southeast Asia. Sea-borne trade with Africa and with the Gulf states have been constants of Indian economic life. As the history brings out, India has been an important economic and cultural hub not only for IOR but also for what is today called the Indo-Pacific Region.
India’s definition of Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific construct means different things to different people. For the US, it extends up to the west coast of India which is also the geographic boundary of the US Indo-Pacific command whereas for India it includes the entire Indian Ocean and the western Pacific as highlighted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his keynote speech at the Shangrila Dialogue in 2018. For India, the Indo-Pacific is that vast maritime space stretching from the western coast of North America to the eastern shores of Africa and ninety per cent of India’s international trade travels on its waters.
For India and many others, the shift in the economic trajectory from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific has been hugely consequential. The ‘SAGAR’ vision depends on securing end-to-end supply chains in the region; no disproportionate dependence on a single country; and ensuring prosperity for all stakeholder nations. An Indo-Pacific guided by norms and governed by rules, with freedom of navigation, open connectivity, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states, is an article of faith for India.
India’s Role in Indo-Pacific
In 2019, at the East Asia Summit in Bangkok, prime Minister Modi took the idea of SAGAR further and announced the Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative. Using this initiative, India plans to support the building of a rules-based regional architecture, resting on seven pillars which are maritime security, maritime ecology, maritime resources, capacity building and resource sharing, disaster risk reduction and management, science, technology and academic cooperation; and trade connectivity and maritime transport.
India has acted on these principles through both thematic and geographical initiatives. To strengthen security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, India is becoming regional security provider—for instance in peacekeeping efforts or anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
By sharing equipment, training and exercises, India has built relationships with partner countries across the region. In the past six years, India has provided coastal surveillance radar systems to half a dozen nations—Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh. All of these countries also use Indian patrol boats, as do Mozambique and Tanzania.
The frequency and number of defence training programmes have also increased. Mobile training teams have been deputed to 11 countries, from Vietnam to South Africa, as well as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar (in India’s immediate neighbourhood). The Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) which is located just outside New Delhi, has enhanced maritime domain awareness among partner countries.
In the area of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), India has not only built robust capacities it has also established itself as an instinctive and unstinted early responder and a credible friend. Notable HADR missions in the Indo-Pacific in recent years have included Operation Rahat in Yemen in 2015 – when India rescued and evacuated 6,710 persons, including 1,947 citizens of over 40 other countries. Whether it was the cyclone in Sri Lanka in 2016, the earthquake in Indonesia in 2019, Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, or the flooding, landslides, deaths and large-scale displacement of people that occurred in Madagascar in January this year, Indian assistance was just a call away.
As the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world earlier this year, India did what it could to support its friends. This being another catastrophic situation for the country as well as the world, the IAF, along with Indian Army and Navy, rose to the occasion and has been providing the required ‘speed’ and ‘mobility’ to efforts of the government.
As early as in February 2020, the IAF had swung in action to help the government in tackling the pandemic. On 26 Feb 2020, 76 Indians and 36 foreign nationals were evacuated from Wuhan (China) in a C-17 aircraft. The other people were from Bangladesh, Madagascar, Maldives, Myanmar, South Africa and the USA. The aircraft had also carried medical supplies as symbol of goodwill to China. The IAF brought back 58 Indians from Iran on 10 March 2020, who were stranded there due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Through the lockdown, food supply lines also were kept alive for the Gulf nations as well as for smaller island states such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros.
India has also promoted and contributed to infrastructure, connectivity, economic projects and supply chains in the region, always prioritising the needs of the host community and the ethic of equity, environmental sustainability and social viability. While doing so India has been careful to avoid over-indebtedness on the part of the recipient countries and to ensure transparency and sustainability. It is against the principal of debt-trap and believes in mutual growth.
Moving further, India has created partnerships and mechanisms with countries from the Pacific Islands to the archipelagos of the western Indian Ocean and off the eastern coast of Africa, which share same opportunities, concerns and stakes. Networks such as Quad, with India, the United States, Japan and Australia as participants, and the India-Japan-US, India-France-Australia and India-Indonesia-Australia trilateral arrangements offer cases in point.
India has also promoted and contributed to infrastructure, connectivity, economic projects and supply chains in the region, always prioritising the needs of the host community and the ethic of equity, environmental sustainability and social viability.
Military and HADR exercises, whether bilateral or multi-country, open avenues of coordination for secured seas. So does cooperation on the protection of global marine commons as well as on issues such as illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing – very damaging to the ocean’s ecology. The Mauritius oil spill of August 2020 saw India and France responding together to assist local authorities. Also, by inviting Australia in Malabar exercise 2020, India has firmly augmented Quad’s strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific.
The decision to add Australia has made the upcoming iteration of Malabar the first exercise to include all four states since the grouping’s reconvening in November 2017 after a decade-long hiatus. Along with the Quad, India has also renewed its focus on enhancing its relationship with ASEAN countries. India has emphasized the centrality of ASEAN in its Indo-Pacific framework and India’s ‘Act East’ policy provides strategic direction to several initiatives aimed at increasing its cooperation with ASEAN members. With all these steps, India is gradually assuming the responsibility to be the net security provider in the region.
Whatever the navigation map, the fact that the Indo-Pacific is the 21st century’s fulcrum of diplomatic, economic and security concerns, of growth and development, and of technology incubation and innovation is indisputable. To avoid the power projection competition in the region, there has to be a shared commitment to maintain and strengthen a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in which all nations can remain strong and become prosperous. For a free, open and inclusive region that fosters mutual respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight and sustainable development, it is necessary for all the responsible nations to cooperate and have a clear vision for the region—a vision like India’s SAGAR.