Why India needs to up its game in the Indo-Pacific region

| Viswapramod C
  • The geostrategic weight of the 21st century rests in the Indo-Pacific, and India would be geo-politically, geo-strategically and geographically sitting at the crossroads of Eurasia, North East Asia, and the Asian continent to dominate the region.
  • Americans believe that the Indo-Pacific region is economically the most dynamic region which stimulates the growth and development in the region to become a Geo-economic power house of the world.
  • The EU identifies the need to work with the Indo-Pacific on a competitive scale, which would enhance the strategic ties and would help build partnerships to contain the global hegemony by any single superpower.
  • India needs to bring out its own policy white paper on the Indo-Pacific region focusing on its national interests and national security priorities.
  • Despite all the shortcomings and challenges, India is developing a well calibrated strategy bringing together the nations across the Indian Ocean and parts of the Indo-pacific

The Indo Pacific region has been a subject of discussion and debate in most parts of the world including the USA, Europe, Asia, China, Australia, and off late in Africa too.  The geostrategic weight of the 21st century rests in the Indo-Pacific, and India would be geo-politically, geo-strategically and geographically sitting at the crossroads of Eurasia, North East Asia, and the Asian continent to dominate the region. Indo Pacific is largely a bio-geographic region of the Earth’s seas, comprising the Indian Ocean region starting from the east of African coast, including the western and central Pacific Ocean, along with the larger Indonesian territorial waters, and the Island countries in this ambit. This region is host to almost three-fifths of the world population, being a central zone for the transit of the global supply chains and amounts to nearly sixty percent of the global GDP. It is quite fascinating to know the fact that Asia, for the first time in 200 years has the PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) GDP, which is higher than the world. From agendas of mutual interests between allies to partnership development with favorable terms of trade, there are challenging security and economic scenarios which are arising because of the growth of Chinese dominance in the region. Despite all these impediments and challenges, India will remain in the centre and central to the strategic development of the Indo-pacific region in the 21st century.

Varied interests of the USA, EU and their Partners

Americans believe that the Indo-Pacific region is economically the most dynamic region which stimulates the growth and development in the region to become a Geo-economic power house of the world. They point out growing challenges between the free and repressive regimes, obviously referring to China and North Korea, and stress upon the growing need to counter Chinese economic aggression and geopolitical hegemony. If adequate steps are not taken to create a strategic counterbalancing in the region, the regional prosperity and stability would be hampered, in the American view. The main issues of concern for the Americans happen to be threats to Sovereignty of the Indo-pacific countries, freedom of navigation and overflight claiming the free airspace, pragmatic reciprocity in trade and investment, Individual rights, rule of law and transparency. To achieve these objectives in the long run, the Quad framework appears to be an important strategic tool in materializing their Indo-Pacific strategy. Former US President Donald Trump said in a summit held in Vietnam in 2017, “This entire region has emerged as a dominant force at the world stage, and it is still emerging as a beautiful constellation of nations, each its own bright star, satellites to none. And each one is flourishing with its people, its culture, a way of life, and a home”. This demonstrates the confidence that the Americans have developed on the prospects of the emergence of the Indo-Pacific region. 

However there are concerns of the ruthless Air and Maritime doctrine of China which they have recognized well. The Americans believe that Asia’s institutions are not prepared to bear this massive economic upsurge, both in terms of the scale and magnitude of economic growth. It is politically more fragile than Europe with its loud and expansive politics, with concerns of democratic freedoms and human rights issues, which might be debatable to a large extent. But one thing becomes quite evidently clear that the multilateral institutions, arrangements, and assumptions of the past are ill-equipped to handle the tumultuous challenges posed by the dynamic economics, loud politics and an uncertain future with systemic fault lines. To bridge the existing gaps, there needs to be greater dialogue and nuanced diplomacy with an intricate negotiation process to build more formal institutional frameworks which are well equipped to handle the disruptions of the future. Overall the focus of the Americans in the Indo Pacific is security oriented, and which is a natural phenomenon given their power competition with China.

The focus of the Americans in the Indo Pacific is security oriented, and which is a natural phenomenon given their power competition with China.

However the EU (European Union) has a different approach towards the region, which is quite different from the USA. The EU identifies the need to work with the Indo-Pacific on a competitive scale, which would enhance the strategic ties and would help build partnerships to contain the global hegemony by any single superpower, which is a clear indication towards their multipolar world view. But working with China on the one hand and partnering with the US, Japan, Australia and India has become a realistic challenge for the EU nations. 

The EU has a three way approach toward China in the Indo pacific – a) As a Competitor b) As a Partner and c) as a Systemic rival. This approach does not perceive the Chinese as an aggressor or a potential enemy completely, but neither does it give validation to China as its strategic ally, by somewhat adopting the midway balancing approach. The EU believes in working for the collective Interests as its cardinal objective towards the Indo Pacific. The EU is not solely oriented towards the security approach and follows a diversified aid and partnership strategy. It contains issues such as Climate change, environment and biodiversity conservation, protection of the oceanic environment, health issues, economy, trade and connectivity issues, addressing concerns of standard of living, quality of life, disparities in income and wealth distribution etc which becomes a multi-dimensional approach towards the Indo-pacific.

The French ambassador to the Indo-Pacific said in one of the international conferences recently, “The EU offers the people living in the Indo-pacific, an increase in the stability of the region by the promotion of multilateralism, of rule of law, transparency, of higher standards in economy and trade, strong social and environmental standards. In achieving this objective the digital partnerships with Japan, South Korea and Singapore would stimulate the connectivity leading to the enhancement of the strategic partnership in the region. The EU is aiming at advancing a greater degree of bilateral relationships in this region through political, economic, and socio-cultural partnership and the exchange of ideas. Like the USA, the EU too understands the need for a dedicated dialogue process and stable Institutional mechanisms. They understand that the politics of the Indo-Pacific plays a critical role in the development and sustenance of the liberal world order.

The focal point of IOR and India’s strategic interests

The maritime activities involving US, India, Japan and Australia have increased in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) region and the larger Indo-pacific. This is the area which has become a playground for big contests, and the strategic great game of the 21st century is actively picking up in the region. India’s policy since 2015 has been comprehensive; it is inclusive as it’s designed to bring together various interests in a network of economic and development partnerships.  The Vanilla islands, the Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Comoros has received huge Indian aid and assistance in developing their ports and facilities, along the coast and other development initiatives taken by India has enabled them to raise their development activities in the region, assuring in some security measures. Similarly India’s outreach to Africa i.e. most significantly the Eastern Coast of Africa and the Horn of Africa region has received the highest assistance from India. Efficient Training is being given to the intelligence agencies, armed forces, along with assistance in their natural calamities, environment and wildlife protection, food security and water security. Indian aid of providing Covid vaccines and other health care assistance has helped Africa rejuvenate and bounce back to normalcy to a great degree. India has built a network based on the premise of consultation and cooperation. India is seen as a non-threatening and a value based partner in the IOR region. Nations even in the South China Sea and North China Sea are looking up to India for its help and support to bring about the regional stability and peace which would be critical for their holistic growth and development, which again has the undercurrent of Chinese aggression and deterrence strategy to its policy outlook. In this context it’s important to understand that the Chinese territorial expansion has a pattern.

As India is not a treaty bound security ally (with the USA) with definite security guarantees like Japan or Taiwan, India cannot expect a military intervention by the Americans in a potential war with China. 

In the 1950’s when the French withdrew from Vietnam, China occupied almost 50% of the Paracel Islands, in 1970’s after the Vietnam War, US withdrew from Vietnam which allowed China to occupy the other half of the Paracel islands. In 1980’s when the Soviet troops reduced their number in Vietnam, China occupied almost 60% of the Spratly Islands. In the 1990’s when the US withdrew from the Philippines, China occupied the mischief reef. This has been the long drawn historical pattern, which has been followed by the Chinese. But since 2013 China has aggressively started building artificial islands in the South China Sea, which escalated the tensions in that part of the maritime region and its security situation. In fact, the Chinese defence spending is so high that the Quad members will have to integrate their capabilities and move in the direction of a security alliance in the future. The US lead military alliances in Asia since the cold war are now dramatically changing in response to the Chinese aggression and its security threats. The integration of non-military efforts to counter the Chinese belt and road initiative (BRI) needs to be explored on the economic front by stimulating the trade and commerce between the potential partners in the region.

Threats from China in the Indo-Pacific

It is important to understand that the security concerns and dynamics, and threats faced by India from China, is different from what Japan and Australia faces from the Chinese as they do not share a long disputed border with China unlike India. As India is not a treaty bound security ally (with the USA) with definite security guarantees like Japan or Taiwan, India cannot expect a military intervention by the Americans in a potential war with China. This increases the compelling need for India to develop a coherent deterrence mechanism and security framework to counter the aggression and belligerence of China.  Development of interoperability and synergy between the defence forces of the IOR & the Indo Pacific countries becomes highly critical in order to build a coherent and effective deterrence response team and counter the Chinese aggression when the need arises.

When it comes to specific Indian strategy in the Indo-Pacific, other than championing the cause of free and open Indo-pacific and working with like minded partners in the region to cooperatively manage a rules based multipolar regional order, which is common to US and EU, no clear policy doctrine has been adopted by India. India needs to bring out its own policy white paper on the Indo-Pacific region focusing on its national interests and national security priorities.

Despite all the shortcomings and challenges, India is developing a well calibrated strategy bringing together the nations across the Indian Ocean and parts of the Indo-pacific, with external support from the USA and Australia, but India must institutionalize these processes for them to be sustainable in the strategic sphere, and bring about the desired results. By taking on the role and the mantle of being a net security provider of the Indo-pacific region, it’s time for India to send across a strong response to China and its hegemonic character.

(The author has an MA in International Affairs)

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