The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed the concept of the “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” at the 14th East Asia Summit held in Bangkok, Thailand, on November 4th, 2019. In his speech, he opened this idea by highlighting the challenges to achieve a rules-based international order. In the context of the Indo- Pacific, he emphasized the need for the countries to come together to reach common solutions.
Under the notion of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, a safe, secure, and stable maritime domain has been sought in the region. This implies enhanced maritime security, sustainable use of marine resources, and disaster prevention and management. PM Modi also intended to launch a maritime security pillar at the East Asia Maritime Security workshop with Australia and Indonesia in February 2020, which will be hosted by India.
However, before attempting to reach the solutions, it is important to understand how does India perceives the problems, contestations, and differences in the Indo-Pacific region. There may be several definitions and understandings of the ‘Indo- Pacific’, but one element with which most of the stakeholders agree is that there is a more significant role of India towards the developments in the region. In such a scenario, India needs to have its own narrative. Firstly, what does India think about the position of ASEAN in light of these new developments? Secondly, how will India ensure its own maritime security and curb Chinese aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific region? Thirdly, while participating in the shaping of the security architecture in this region, what are the cautions that India should have in mind so that it does not upset China? Lastly, how will India fit itself as a key player in this big picture?
The Indo-Pacific Oceans initiative reiterates India’s idea about the region and the strategy that it seeks to formulate. In all the diplomatic platforms pertaining to Indo-Pacific, India has emphasized on the ASEAN centrality for the stability of the region. India’s Act East policy has been confluent with this idea. In the 2018 Shangri La dialogue, when India openly explained its notion of Indo- Pacific at the State’s position, ASEAN was projected as the most crucial player in determining the future of the region. Placing ASEAN at the forefront of its vision has made India’s involvement in the region more acceptable to other nations in the region and sans any hostility.
Parallelly, since the Chinese involvement in the Indian Ocean has increased drastically in the past few years, India has also engaged itself in various security arrangements. It has actively participated in the Quadrilateral dialogues with the US, Japan, and Australia to discuss the threats imposed by China. India has also conducted various bilateral, trilateral and multilateral military exercises such as Malabar exercise, AUSINDEX, etc., with several countries. It has held many high-level defense talks, especially with the US, such as the 2+2 ministerial dialogues and signed agreements such as COMCASA to bolster safe communications across the maritime space of the Indo-Pacific. These actions have portrayed an anti-China sentiment in Beijing.
Although India has several issues with China, it cannot afford to have outright animosity with China, as it will neither be favorable for India nor for the region as a whole. This is why India came up with the concept of a “free, open, and inclusive Indo- Pacific region” that includes all the nations that are part of the region’s geography, and also the ones that have stakes in it. For India, to come up with a multilateral approach for the region in the form of its Oceans Initiative, with ASEAN at its core, carries more political relevance, especially if it is proposed in a forum like East Asia Summit where ASEAN countries as well relevant stakeholders like China, Japan, and the US are all present. The problem with this initiative and other concepts floated by India is its implementation. ASEAN is not a monolithic entity. Countries like Singapore and Indonesia have good ties with India, while countries like Malaysia and Cambodia are drawn closer to China. This carries the potential of the risk of an inherent division in the ASEAN-centrality vision of the Indo-Pacific. Some of them are even apprehensive about the Indo-Pacific concept. In such a situation, it will be crucial to see how India will be able to concretize its idea. China’s threat is real and expanding for India and many of these countries. Through a maritime security pillar, India can act as a security enabler for the Indian Ocean Rim countries. China’s attempts can be checked only if multilateral platforms are created where the stakeholders can sit together and resolve the disputes under the ambit of international laws without threatening any nation’s sovereignty. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative is a part of India’s comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy. If implemented, it can place India in the position of a responsible player in the Indo- Pacific while contributing to the stability of the region along with ASEAN.
*** The author is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***