(Part I of a two-part series)
India has generally reacted to the new terminology of ‘Indo-Pacific’ with a sense of vindication of the recognition by the international community of its rightful role in the Indian Ocean, and as a security provider and contributor to peace and development on the large canvas of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. As India’s economic and military power has grown over the past few years, so also its responsibilities as a major and credible player in the newly designated Indo-Pacific. India’s Act East policy, a key component of its foreign policy, is centred on this region.
Way back in 2003, during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s time, it was declared that India’s security outreach stretched from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Malacca. This arc is now extended to the South China Sea and the Western Pacific. India’s active naval and economic cooperation with island nations such as Singapore, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Maldives lends itself the Indian Oceanic character. While India’s own efforts to build its maritime capability have substantially increased and its cooperation in the naval field with friendly countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and South Korea is progressing, India is also engaging in multilateral dialogue with Indo-Pacific countries to evolve mutual understanding and cooperation, with a view to maintaining the region free for navigation and open for trade.’
Prime Minister Modi’s proposal ‘SAGAR’ ( Security and Growth for All in the Region) stands for support to the Indo-Pacific states in areas of maritime security and development of ports and other related infrastructure. India has consistently assisted neighbouring Indo-Pacific states whenever they have faced non-traditional security threats such as devastating natural disasters; for example, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand during the Tsunami tragedy in 2004, the Nargis cyclone in Myanmar, or piracy off the Somali coast. India and ASEAN have been working closely on intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism cooperation.
The emergence of the Indo-Pacific concept has brought together like-minded states in re-emphasizing the principles of freedom of navigation and open seas. The establishment of QUAD of four states- the U.S, India, Japan and Australia – in 2017 marks, for the first time, India’s association with three allies in the Indo-Pacific region.
A question comes to mind whether the QUAD sought to adopt an openly confrontational position vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea. India was thus faced with a dilemma. It has however made its position explicit by stating that while India shares the principles on which the QUAD was initiated, it believes in an ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific where there is scope for all countries to come together in a dialogue and there is no ground for any confrontation. Prime Minister Modi’s statement at the Shangrila Dialogue in June 2018 made India’s position very clear with respect to
‘inclusiveness’ and a ‘balanced approach’ in the politics of the Indo-Pacific.
Another issue of primary importance is the effect of the Chinese stand regarding the South China Sea on the unity of ASEAN countries. ASEAN, which has over the past twenty-five years played a stellar and catalytic role in securing the Asia-Pacific from great power rivalry, is today under considerable strain. There is still no Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China regarding South China Sea issues. ASEAN’s unity and stability are at the core of security and peace in the Indo-Pacific. India, for its part, has stood behind the ASEAN throughout the past two decades and firmly subscribes to its unity and centrality in the dialogue processes in the Indo-Pacific.
Just as differing perceptions among major powers about the Indo-Pacific create a new challenge for India, the geopolitical situation in the region also provides a useful opportunity. By adopting an independent yet balanced and mature stand on the question of freedom of navigation, India has already received respect from East and Southeast Asian nations. India’s suggestion of adding ‘inclusiveness’ to the concept of the Indo-Pacific is seen as a sober and balanced position in the current turbulent geopolitics of the region. India’s relations with ASEAN stand on a strong footing with its ‘Act East’ policy constantly exploring new areas of cooperation. In addition to India’s active
Dialogue Partnership and membership of the East Asia Summit, the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) would provide a big boost to the validity of the Indo-Pacific idea.
Finally, the best opportunity lies in India taking its own initiative in building closer relations with Indo-Pacific countries. Requirements of each of the countries would inevitably be different and appropriate timings will also need to be seized. That should be the test for Indian diplomacy in the coming months and years.
(Read Part I of the two-part series here)
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.