The Indian Ocean is quickly becoming the “center stage” for the twenty-first century, and it continues to serve as a venue for the attainment of the military objectives of all regional and global countries. The role of Indian ocean is considered as the most important as it is a new theatre for geopolitical tussle. The new strategic reality of the twenty-first century is represented by the creation of the Indo-Pacific as a new geographical region that joins the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Countries like Australia, Japan, and the United States view India’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific region as being essential. So, the Indo-Pacific represents a new area for India’s participation in international affairs and a change in the strategic environment for New Delhi by spreading its vulnerabilities entirely beyond its continental borders and into its marine domain.
It is crucial to comprehend what the word “Indo-Pacific” actually means and how it came to be used in the global context given the Indo-Pacific’s increasing importance in global discourse. What forces are causing the world to turn to the Indo-Pacific? India’s increasing role in the Indo-Pacific. This commentary will briefly cover these topics.
Growing Relevance of Indo-Pacific Construct
The term Indo-Pacific is an alternative to the long-dominant “Asia-Pacific,” which signified the eastward movement of global events from the Euro-Atlantic component. The two terms, however, are different. The region of Asia that is bordered by the Pacific Ocean is referred to as the “Asia Pacific.” Asia’s Pacific powers, who needed a phrase to define their shared territory, presented and backed the proposal. India does not belong to the area, despite what the terminology may lead one to believe. The Asia-Pacific region is more of an economic than a security-related idea. It has gained popularity as a region of developing markets that has been undergoing quick economic expansion since the late 1980s. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), which excludes India, is the only multinational organisation that effectively represents the Asia Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific, on the other end, unites the Pacific and Indian oceans with the surrounding land masses to form an integrated theatre. Despite the fact that it is still a developing theory, most experts believe it reflects the shift in authority and sway from the West to the East. It is believed to include nations like Japan and Australia and extend from the coast of East Africa across the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. Important marine channels of communication connecting the littorals of the two seas make up this strategic and commercial sector. The Indo-Pacific is often connected with maritime security and cooperation because it is predominantly a marine region.
The Indo-Pacific region’s strategic significance is revealed by the fact that the Indo-Pacific region is home to the most populous democracy (India), the most populous state overall (China), and the most populous Muslim-majority state (Indonesia). The Indo-Pacific region is home to seven of the top ten largest standing militaries in the world, and the South China Sea alone is where around a third of all international shipping passes. The Indo-Pacific is therefore, as the American administration has stated, “the single most critical area for America’s future.”
Another importance factor is that 65% of the world’s population, 62% of the world’s Income, 46% of the world’s commerce in goods, and 44% of the world’s surface area are all shared by the Indo-Pacific Area. The area manages worldwide supply networks in addition to serving as a valuable market.
The region is also having immense quantities of marine resources found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans together include offshore hydrocarbons, methane hydrates, seabed minerals, rare earth metals, fisheries, etc. A competitive environment for the exploitation of these resources has been established by the extensive coasts and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of littoral nations.
Owing to its size, the area confronts a variety of threats that are challenging to identify and manage, including piracy, illicit fishing, human trafficking, terrorism, and environmental dangers. All nations must work together and unify their efforts to combat these challenges.
However, one of the most important factors is China’s expansion in the region. A number of regional and extra-regional nations have expressed concern in recent years about China’s assertive foreign affairs, rapid economic growth, military development, and power projection. These are some things to be concerned about:
- Belt and Road Initative (BRI): A number of nations, including India, have serious concerns about the BRI’s lack of openness and transparency as well as its involvement in reckless financing practises that place unsupportable financial loads on people. This makes it possible to employ these initiatives as strategic military installations and coercive tactics.
- China’s disdain for international laws and customs: China refused to recognise the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision that the South China Sea (SCS) nine-dash’s line claim of “historic rights” was inadmissible under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Instead, in flagrant defiance of the judgement, China used illegal means to seize control of the SCS, including aggressive patrols of the disputed area, militarization of the islands, and expansion of existing features by land reclamation.
- Rising Militarization of the Indian Ocean Area (IOR): In addition to its overseas naval station in Djibouti, China has constructed commercial ports around the Indo Pacific, including Gwadar port in Pakistan and port in Hambantota in Sri Lanka. These ports are strategically significant since they are close to vital choke points, but there have also been rumours that they may be used for military monitoring and reconnaissance operations.
Relevance of India for the Indo-Pacific
The “Indo-Pacific” as a geostrategic concept has gained fresh impetus due to the expanding significance of the Indian and Pacific seas. Some of the greatest economies in the world are located in this region. Given China’s dubious policies and expansionist tendencies, which are putting nearly everyone in the Indo-Pacific region at risk, and the fact that all major powers, including the United States, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom (UK), and the European Union (EU), have made the Indo-Pacific the focal point of their foreign, defence, and security policies, it is obvious that the Indo-Pacific is becoming more and more important. The Indo-Pacific region will serve as a key hub for countries to reorient and realign their policies.
India has been a vocal proponent of an Indo-Pacific region that is free and open. India should have a bigger influence in the area, according to the US, Australia, and the ASEAN nations. For its part, India regards the Indo-Pacific as a geographic and strategic expanse, with the 10 ASEAN countries connecting the two great oceans. “Inclusiveness, openness, and ASEAN centrality and unity” lie at the heart of India’s conception of the Indo-Pacific. India does not view the Indo-Pacific as a plan or a club with a few numbers of members. A shared rules-based order, discussion, freedom of passage, unhindered trade, and the resolution of conflicts in line with international law are all necessary to sustain security in the area. According to India, the Indo-Pacific region should be managed collaboratively by other like-minded nations in order to avoid any single force from dominating the area or its waterways.
During the challenging period in the Sino-Indian relationship, particularly following the 2020 Galwan Valley conflict, engagement with its allies in the Indo-Pacific zone has become essential for India. India increasingly favours issue-based alliances, which is why it has embraced a number of mini lateral platforms that have popped up in the Indo-Pacific, including those with Australia, Japan, the United States, and Indonesia. As China grows stronger and more assertive, nations including Australia, Japan, the US, and the ASEAN are revaluating and reshaping their China policy. India is improving its performance in the Indo-Pacific with its Quad partners. In July 2020, the Indian Navy conducted joint naval drills with the US Navy in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, sending out a clear message to China. India and Australia have signed the Mutual Logistics Sharing Agreement in June 2020; With Japan too India signed the Mutual Logistics Sharing Agreement in September 2020; India and the United States finalised the long-pending Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in October 2020; India, Australia and Japan have unveiled a supply chain resilience initiative in April 2021 with an aim to counter China’s dominance and with a view to eventually attaining a strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth in the Indo-Pacific.
India’s ties with China are expected to worsen as the Quad begins to use its hard force, and New Delhi will likely modify its Indo-Pacific policy with its allies. Also, it makes sense for India to cooperate with the nations of the Indo-Pacific to create alternative supply chains in order to lessen its economic dependency on China, to strengthen its own healthcare system and R&D, and to learn from their reaction to the continuing COVID-19 epidemic. As a logical extension of this idea, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MEA) Indo-Pacific division was established. By integrating the IORA, the ASEAN area, and the Quad with the Indo-Pacific dynamic, this MEA wing gives the Prime Minister’s Indo-Pacific vision a strategic coherence.
It is crucial that the new MEA division develops a more thorough approach to the region’s strategy by going beyond both political and security concerns. If India wants to take advantage of a fresh window for its regional engagement, it must prioritise trade and connectivity. India must carefully plan its Indo-Pacific structure while keeping in mind its long-term economic and geopolitical objectives. India must carefully plan its Indo-Pacific structure while keeping in mind its long-term economic and geopolitical objectives.
Why Indo-Pacific is important for India?
For India, the region holds extreme importance. For India, the region is important as over 50% of India’s commerce is focused on the Indo-Pacific area, while 90% of the country’s trade and energy supplies are delivered across the Indian Ocean. India aims to uphold freedom of navigation, safeguard choke points, mediate disputes, and address novel security issues in the Indian Ocean area (IOR). Also, India wants to increase its own presence in the area, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, and to keep playing the role as a provider of network security. This is also important as India wants to counter China’s presence in the region by also ensuring that China does not gain a foothold in the region. For this India needs to engage more in the region.
Climate change is expected to have a negative impact on India in the future. India supports the region’s sustainable development as a result of the growth of the blue economy. Combating marine pollution, regulating illicit, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, finding deep-sea minerals, and effective catastrophe risk management are some of my other interests.
India stands for a free, open, and rules-based Indo-Pacific as it is important for the economic development of not only the region but also the wider global community. This was stated by Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh during his keynote address at the Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue (IPRD) in New Delhi on November 25, 2022. Shri Rajnath Singh highlighted India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific by quoting Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s statement during Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2018. India supports Southeast Asia’s centrality in the region and believes the ASEAN countries at the center stage of Indo-Pacific.
India also aims for a common rules-based order in the region and aims to focus on values like the equality of all nations, regardless of their size and power, the belief in dialogue, sovereignty, and territorial integrity must be upheld by this form of system.
Another goal India has in mind for the area is to provide equal access to public places in the air and on the water as a legal need under international law. It would call for unimpeded trade, unhindered travel, and the amicable settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.
Another objective in the area is to avoid power rivalries through partnerships, however in order to do so, Countries must be careful to avoid confrontations coming from rivalry and disputes arising from disagreements. India supports regional architecture and groupings as one of the pillars of the new order and looks forward to collaborations based on shared goals and values.
India now has a chance to advance its strategic objectives while adapting to shifting security conditions thanks to the Indo-Pacific framework. The speed of execution and the roadmap for achieving the Indo-Pacific goal remain constrained, notwithstanding political zeal among New Delhi and its allies. Countries must realize that their respective Indo-Pacific ambitions will never be totally in line with one another as the major partners go forward. India should also explore partnerships outside of the ones that are already existing in the region. India should also focus on ASEAN countries as their partnership will help India to gain an even stronger foothold in the region. This will ensure that India is playing a greater role in the region just like India in playing a role of a “Net Security Provider” in the Indian Ocean region close to home. This will also signal as continuing its response to a growing China’s presence in the region. India’s present effort and adjustments in the region signal a change in India’s foreign policy. As a result, the Indo-Pacific region offers an excellent chance to raise India’s visibility and global position. India will continue to encounter geopolitical problems as it balances its old and new relationships as it advances its Indo-Pacific projects.
[Image by Eric Gaba (Sting – fr:Sting), via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Vaishnavi Sharma is a final year student at Amity University pursuing Master’s in International Relations. Her key interest areas are South Asia and Southeast Asia.