In April 2019, India took an important step towards the consolidation of its Indo-Pacific policy. New Delhi set up a new Indo-Pacific division in the MEA office, to specifically deal with the region’s policies. The Indo-Pacific division will be headed by joint secretary Vikram Doraiswami as an additional charge, along with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Among other responsibilities, the new regional desk will integrate the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), ASEAN region and the Quad to the Indo-Pacific table. The move has been lauded as strategic, given the past inhibitions, lack of clarity, and decisiveness in India’s Indo-Pacific policy.
The idea of a new regional desk serves the important function of bringing the whole region under one umbrella, as opposed to regional demarcations and compartmentalization. This outlook has been India’s consistent approach in the Indo-Pacific region, which perceives the Indo-Pacific as a strategic whole, extending from the Gulf to the Far East. The umbrella approach to the Indo-Pacific region builds on India’s idea of the region enunciated earlier by Prime Minister Modi in his Shangri La Keynote that lays emphasis on the Indo-Pacific as one strategic continuum.
The move to set up a regional desk just on the heels of a new government in New Delhi, sends quite a few messages to regional countries, especially to those that India perceives as partners in its Indo-Pacific resolve. First, the setting up of a regional desk specific to the Indo-Pacific is telling of India’s willingness to constructively be a part of the Indo-Pacific strategy. This, in turn, potentially bolsters the purpose of the Quad as a group, although not necessarily as a security-oriented grouping alone.
Second, the step doubles down on the ‘shared vision of an open, stable, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region’ through ASEAN centrality outlook. India’s umbrella approach to the Indo-Pacific places maritime links with the ASEAN countries at the center of integration of the broader Indo-Pacific region. ASEAN has complemented the expectations emerging from its central role in the Indo-Pacific strategy through its role in the East Asia Summit and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Third, the decision to set up a regional desk is likely to reciprocate seriousness on India’s part to some of the initiatives that were taken by other strategic partners in the region like Australia, Japan, and the United States. For Instance, the decision of the US to rename its U.S. Pacific Command as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Japan’s willingness to work with India on various investment projects as well as better coordination in Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, and the gradual assimilation of Australia within the Malabar series of naval exercise are likely to receive better policy reciprocation from New Delhi.
Simultaneously, the step also deconstructs the narrative built around India’s indecisiveness in the Indo-Pacific, specifically that India is the weakest link in the Quad. In this consideration, the other three members of the Quad, its PASSEX and CORPAT partners like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, besides an emerging Indo-Pacific partner in Vietnam assume particular criticality. The decision to merge the Indo-Pacific desk with crucial neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar is telling about India’s near-abroad balance in its Indo-Pacific policy. China continues to engage with both Bangladesh and Myanmar through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) loop, leading to strategic discomfort for New Delhi. Besides the concern arising from the overwhelming presence of a great power like China at India’s doorstep in the Bay of Bengal, the perennial desire to retain and strengthen its strategic influence in regional orbits is obvious for New Delhi.
While the Indo-Pacific desk will lead to policy centralization and help better decision-making, New Delhi cannot replace concrete deliverables in the Indo-Pacific with promises of potentially result-oriented decisions only. Importantly, India has complemented its decision to set up an Indo-Pacific desk by some of its recent decision in the region which reflects stronger maritime resolve. India’s ships INS Kolkata and INS Shakti recently participated with the navies of the Philippines, the US, and Japan in a ‘Group Sail’ for their first joint naval exercise in the disputed South China Sea waters. This was complemented by the US’ assurance that the US is “banding together” with nations like India, Australia, Japan, and South Korea to ensure the sovereignty of Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, India’s largest maritime exercises MALABAR, SIMBEX, and AUSINDEX have all focused recently on the anti-submarine aspect of cooperation, hinting at combined resolve to tackle growing Chinese stealth presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Besides, the governments of Japan, India, and Sri Lanka have agreed to develop a container terminal at the Port of Colombo, which has drawn huge investments from China under its Belt and Road initiative.
The regional desk is an important step towards realizing the true potential of India’s maritime policy in the Indo-Pacific, while still avoiding confrontation. As such, the step is part of a greater commitment to a free and open order for India. Finally, the consolidation of regional policy of the Indo-Pacific through the regional desk might even help India to overcome strategic cautiousness vis-a-vis China.
*** Vivek Mishra is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata, India. ***