(Part I of a two-part series)
At the swearing-in of Prime Minister Modi on 30th May this year, the heads of state and government that were invited as honoured guests were from BIMSTEC countries, our neighbours in South and Southeast Asia. Besides, the Prime Minister of Mauritius was also invited to attend the ceremony. The first country which the Prime Minister visited after assuming the office was Maldives. The newly appointed Foreign Minister chose Bhutan for his first official visit outside India.
These developments clearly indicate that India’s foreign policy interests are focused on its immediate and extended neighbourhood, both on land and at sea, and that India is wedded to securing peace and cooperation with the entire region.
In 1981, I was particularly fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit the room and premises
of Mandalay Jail in Burma (now Myanmar) where Lokmanya Tilak was imprisoned for six long
years. Standing in that sacred place, my wife and I were overwhelmed with deep emotion. We
recalled the tremendous sacrifice and hardship that the great Indian leader had undergone for the
cause of the nation and its people, as well as his indomitable will to write the treatise of Gitarahasya
even while being in prison.
The Mandalay Jail in Myanmar should truly be a place of pilgrimage for every Indian, not only
because of this history, but also because it is an illustrious example of India’s recurring bonds with
Southeast and East Asia. From ancient times, the seas east of India have beckoned seafarers, sages,
princes, and traders from India. The existence of India’s extensive footprint in Southeast and East
Asia even today is a testimony to the longstanding connection that India has had with the East. I had
the privilege of witnessing it personally during my several assignments as an Indian diplomat in
Southeast and East Asia.
Since the end of the Cold War, the situation in Asia has seen major transformation.
While U.S naval presence and its alliance structures with Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia
remain intact, the rise of China and the rapid modernisation and expansion of its armed forces have introduced a significant new factor in the dynamics of the region. China’s assertive and aggressive
position in South China Sea, its unilateral declaration of a nine-dash line and claiming of the entire
sea and the islands as its own, its disregard for the verdict of the U.N Permanent Court of Arbitration
on this issue and its reclamation of and military build-up on some of the islands has caused a radical
and strategic shift.
Moreover, China’s activities under its ‘string of pearls’ strategy of either leasing on long-term basis
or building ports or military bases such as Humbantota (Sri Lanka), Kyapkyu (Myanmar), Maldives,
Djibouti (Horn of Africa), Gwadar (Pakistan) and its new Maritime Silk Road Initiative (as a part of
the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative- BRI) is of critical importance to India.
In this context, the recent U.S decision to designate their Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific
Command marks the recognition of a strategic continuum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the
ushering in of a new global thinking. This decision may have in mind India as a counterweight to
deal with growing Chinese presence and stance not only in the South China Sea, but also in the
Although a clear definition or delimitation of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has still not been spelt out nor
generally agreed upon, the Indo-Pacific as an extended construct of the Asia-Pacific region is being
accepted to include the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean which are connected through the choke
points of the straits in Southeast Asia. Conceptually, the composite area presents an enormously vast
region extending from Northeast Pacific (including China, Japan and the Koreas) to Australia,
ASEAN countries, South Asia, the eastern seaboard of Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Ocean and its
The challenge lies in the fact that individual countries in this huge expanse look at the concept
differently. China does not seem to give it the equivalence it attaches to the Asia-Pacific. Japan has
welcomed the idea in its entirety. In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Abe was among the first when he
advocated in India’s Parliament, way back in 2007, the proposal of a ‘confluence of the two oceans.’
The Japanese vision of the Indo-Pacific also seems to include its quest for the geographical extension
for its Self-Defence Forces beyond the 1000-mile limit. Japanese vessels had already been deployed
in the Indian Ocean in anti-piracy operations. For the U.S which regards its maritime preponderance
in the region as key priority, the initiatives of ‘Pivot to Asia’ or ‘rebalancing’ are centred on the
concept of the integrity of the two oceans or the Indo-Pacific vision.
(Read Part II 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.