October 13, 2019
The visualization of the Indo-Pacific as an arena has broadly taken two dominant forms. In the first sense, it is a highly connected region gaining centrality in global politics because of the sheer growth in trade and connectivity of the constituent states. This growth has made both politics and economics central to the geopolitics of the region, engaging both regional and extra-regional actors. The second conception of the Indo-Pacific is deeply strategic, which has the Sino-US rivalry at its heart. The Chinese growth and the consequent tweaks in regional strategy by other countries, in certain ways, have connected the two oceans. However, Chinese territorial aggression has also raised several questions about the Indo-Pacific security order. Against the backdrop of an assertive China, is the relatively waning but still powerful US along with its alliance partners and friends. The disjuncture between the two visualizations of Indo-Pacific stems from a key phrase – Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).
Free and Open Indo-Pacific, used in the first sense, is synonymous with mutual growth and emergence of a competitive yet cooperative multipolar order. This means that if the Indo-Pacific needs to grow, it needs to be inclusive. However, the use of the phrase relating to the second sense is not strictly a principle but a response. It is widely a response to the growing Chinese advances where it is China, which is altering the rules of the free and open Indo-Pacific due to its disregard for international laws and claims of dispute. This context in use of the Indo-Pacific is often associated with the reason for the US-led balancing done in the region.
The ambiguity in India’s Indo-Pacific strategy is a product of this backdrop. While its initial steps in joining the Quad were reflective of a stance against China in the region, some of New Delhi’s later pronouncements have hinted at a more nuanced approach; one that sides with the first conception sans the involvement in the Sino-US rivalry. What has added to India’s delicate stance on the matter is its own complex dynamics with Beijing due to a complex border and a war history. However, what India has steadily declared is that its version of Indo-Pacific is one that is not restrictive to any state but is inclusive of everyone in the region, a strategy that corresponds with the narrative of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region).
Understanding India’s recent multi-dimensional engagements help in situating India in its new role in the Indo-Pacific. Three recent events are of importance in locating India’s evolving strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. First, the recent summit with Russia leading to the connectivity route from Vladivostok to Chennai will be critical to the Indo-Pacific geopolitics. As and when this route becomes operational, India would need to invest in energy security, possibly translating into India’s security presence in the Western Pacific and adjoining the South China Sea. Second, India’s recent bilateral engagements with Indonesia have highlighted similar commitments in the region. While there has been a convergence in terms of the visions between India and Indonesia, there is a larger overlap between India and ASEAN, which plays a factor in the bilateral relations. This can also be discerned from the trilateral exercise between India-Thailand-Singapore in the Bay of Bengal recently. Thirdly, India has been building on its ties with states of the Far East, Australia, and more significantly with Japan, initiating a 2+2 dialogue comprising foreign and defense ministers. With the Malabar Exercise just concluded in early October, the trilateral arrangement with Japan and the US would further be strengthened.
While these recent turn of events can be seen as bolstering India’s role in the Indo-Pacific in balancing China while increasing its own role, it would be an oversimplification to see India’s intentions as just that. First, India has been reiterating that its stance is not about restricting any particular state, hinting at China; it is rather of inclusiveness in the region. This inclusiveness in terms of a political order is emblematic of multipolarity in the region. Second, India’s stance is reflective of its capacity and resources at hand. While New Delhi is wary of antagonizing China in its backyard, it does not have the political or economic resources to create a counter-strategy. India’s Indo-Pacific vision is hence centered around ASEAN, through the institutional framework of East Asia Forum (EAS). This is because its policy for the region is largely an extension of the Act East Policy, which lays more emphasis on the western sphere of the Indo-Pacific. On the other hand, India does not have an institutional mechanism to isolate China. In a region where Beijing is leading most of the financial institutions against the slide of the US alliance system, most of the constituent states of Indo-Pacific are also cooperating with China rather than contesting it.
As such, India’s multipolar engagement in the region is not any different from that of the major actors of the region. India seeks to involve and engage all major actors in the region as stakeholders.
*** The author is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University. He is a Visiting Faculty at Amity University, Kolkata and a Guest Lecturer at Scottish Church College, Kolkata ***