An Indo-Pacific Wing to Steer Region’s Policy

Shreya Upadhyay
April 28, 2019

The Indian government’s long-awaited step of an Indo-Pacific wing has been hailed by policy pundits as an oriented policy decision. India in the past was often chastened for not being so ‘pacific minded’ and being the weakest link in Quad. In this regard, the article will look into the following questions: Whether the Indo-Pacific wing is a diplomatic or a military move? What is India’s endgame in Indo-Pacific? What are the challenges in this regard?

Indo-Pacific: A diplomatic or a military move?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Shangrila Dialogue in June 2018 helped in setting the tone of India’s Indo-Pacific approach. It reaffirmed the region’s dynamic security architecture, prioritizing open trade, freedom of the maritime commons and transparent connectivity apparatus. It also signaled to the rest of the countries in the region that India’s approach to Indo-Pacific was broad-based, free, open and “inclusive”.

In this backdrop, a separate division is but a logical step. The division will integrate Indian Ocean Rim Association, the Quad and the ASEAN region to the Indo-Pacific table. It needs to be seen if, in future, existing desks such as the Indian Ocean Region, East Asia, and the Southern Division will also be merged with the Indo-Pacific. With the Indo-Pacific framework getting clearer, it is important to have a unified, cohesive approach to the region. Unlike the US that renamed Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command with obvious military undertones,[1]India’s new division headed by a secretary is a diplomatic move as of now. In the future, it can work alongside the Defence ministry though.

With an Eye on China?

The US has been rooting for an Indo-Pacific strategy to regain its lost supremacy in the region, especially in East Asia and Southeast Asia. China, on the other hand, has been getting more and more powerful in the region. The imposing Belt and Road Initiative aims to connect China to Western Europe and other parts of the world through land and sea. The Chinese navy is rapidly increasing presence in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has further been using economic dependencies with smaller nations to maintain its influence, while military muscle-flexing, such as the Doklam incident with countries vis-a-vis India to display its regional dominance. In this scenario, India’s endgame should be to create geopolitical balances in the region with an eye on China. In the last few years, it has been working on this with priority being given to the coastal zones of Bay of Bengal, South China Sea, creating closer relations with countries like Oman in the Persian Gulf and the Philippines in Southeast Asia. With IORA, India has also been cultivating deeper and all-rounded relations with Iran, South African, island nations of South and Southeast Asia as well as South-West Pacific. It has also placed ASEAN as the center of its policy and plans to engage more with Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia with a view to strengthening maritime cooperation. The re-energizing of Quad will certainly help in greater coordination with the US, Australia, and Japan.

Challenges and Opportunities India’s Indo-Pacific vision

India’s new division aims to integrate IORA, Quad, and ASEAN with the vision of keeping the Indo-Pacific free, open and inclusive. While seeking engagement with China, India has also underscored the need for a “rule-based international order” in a quiet criticism of Chinese policies. While India would want to stop the Indo-Pacific from turning into a Chinese sphere of influence, it lacks the wherewithal to do so just by itself. It does not have adequate financial resources to match the BRI, nor does it have the diplomatic capacity to engage with all the stakeholders at the same time.

Regardless, India aims to selectively develop alternatives to Chinese infrastructure projects. Port projects in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Iran are examples of that. India has also been showcasing its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief preparedness in the region to project the profile of a new India that can come to the help of friendly countries facing large-scale risks. In addition, India has been expanding bilateral maritime-security and defence cooperation with island and littoral states, such as Seychelles and Mauritius. All these have come with their own limitations. For example, relationship with Maldives had hit a dusty road in 2018, when the island nation returned a gift helicopter from India. Change in government has restored some of the intimacy back, though. Similarly, Mauritius and Seychelles both have shown concerns regarding India constructing military facilities at their islands. Sri Lanka is reeling under debt with Beijing. Yet, India continues to strengthen its diplomatic channels. In 2018, New Delhi committed a $100 million line of credit for defence procurement by Mauritius among other things. Thus New Delhi realizes the need for it to have continued engagement with China while also developing strong economic and security partnerships with other countries in the region. Having a separate division is expected to push these overtures in a guided manner.

*** The author is currently an independent analyst of geopolitical issues, was earlier associated with Bangalore-based NIAS, and was also a Fulbright Adjunct Faculty at American University, Washington DC ***