Indo-Pacific is no more a topic of mere academic debates and deliberations; it has been incorporated into formal discourses and official policy lexicons by foreign policy establishments of different countries, including India. In a way, this acceptance can be construed as a subtle victory for those Indian diplomats and academics who have been promoting this geo-political nomenclature for quite some time. Apart from academic conferences and seminars, Indo-Pacific, instead of Asia-Pacific, is being increasingly used in the official communique, joint statements, press releases, and bilateral meetings. Despite the lack of unanimity on to what constitutes the region, it is fast evolving into one of the defining strategic paradigms of contemporary international relations.
After the US renamed its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command, the Indian government, in April 2019, opened a new ‘Indo-Pacific Division’ in Ministry of External Affairs aiming to “integrate the Indian Ocean Rim Association, ASEAN Region, and the Quad”. The opening of a specific division dedicated to Indo-Pacific signaled India’s intent and determination to play a proactive role in not only pushing the geopolitical construct but also significantly influence the geopolitics in the region. India is moving fast to expand the realm of Indo-Pacific to include the Gulf states and Africa. Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar laid out India’s approach most clearly while delivering the valedictory address at the end of the 6th Indian Ocean Dialogue and Delhi Dialogue XI: “While the nations of the eastern Indian Ocean and States on the connecting seas leading to the Pacific are defining their vision of the Indo-Pacific, there is room for a western Indian Ocean version of this concept too. In line with our own view that the Indo-Pacific naturally includes our western oceanic neighbors in the Gulf, the island nations of the Arabian Sea, and our partners in Africa.” It is noteworthy here that noted strategic expert Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra in a commentary titled “India and the Geographical Space of Indo-Pacific” posted on this website on March 4, 2019, had strongly argued for the inclusion of countries of the Persian Gulf and Africa into Indo-Pacific.
Indo-Pacific-as a geo-political and geo-strategic construct has gained significant ground and attention. While the US, that happens to be among the leading nations to advance the concept, is keen to promote it, India and Japan are enthusiastically pushing the notion so that balance of power could be maintained in the region whereby their strategic autonomy could be protected. In this context, the recently concluded 2+2 dialogue that India had with Japan and the US assumes great significance as they cemented the convergence of strategic interests among these three major powers. The joint statement, issued after the first India-Japan 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial Meeting on November 30, 2019, welcomed the adoption of “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP)” and India’s announcement of “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” and reiterated the commitment of both countries to foster “safe, secure, stable, prosperous and sustainable maritime domain” in Indo-Pacific region. Close on the heels of dialogue with Japan, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar met their American counterparts in Washington on 18 December for the second annual India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. The joint statement issued after the dialogue echoed the Indo-Japanese joint statement pledging support for “ASEAN centrality, the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, and sustainable and transparent infrastructure investment”. It also called for joint efforts for the development of infrastructure and connectivity in the region.
ASEAN is more than willing to work closely with India and Japan to thwart the emergence of Sino-centric regional order in Indo-Pacific, provided its centrality is duly acknowledged and maintained. India and Japan, on the other hand, have been intensively pursuing the agenda of ‘freeing’ the maritime trade routes and zones from overarching Chinese influence and presence with tacit support from ‘friendly’ ASEAN countries. While India has been consistently maintaining that its Indo-Pacific strategy is not aimed against any particular country but rather favors ‘inclusive multipolarity’, the 2+2 dialogue mechanism provides for an excellent opportunity to calibrate a cohesive approach that would not appear unilateral or aggressive. These bilateral dialogues may very well pave the way for a multilateral consensus in favor of an open, democratic, and inclusive Indo-Pacific that would accommodate the interests of all the stakeholders in the region. With India intending to play a major role, as reflected in recent initiatives, the region is set to witness interesting strategic realignment in the future.
*** The author is Director of Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies and currently working as assistant professor of political science at Ravenshaw University ***