The government of India is evincing its growing seriousness towards engaging with the concept of the Indo-Pacific, readily mulling over it and eventually embracing this strategic conception. Last week two significant events took place in New Delhi. The External Affairs Ministry, along with the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, as its knowledge partner, hosted the 6th Indian Ocean Dialogue, the 25th Indian Ocean Rim Association Academic Group (IORAG), and the 1st Expert Group Meeting on Science and Technology Cooperation (EGMASTC) on December 12-13. This was followed by the Delhi Dialogue XI on December 13-14, along with the Delhi-based Research and Information System (RIS) as its other knowledge partner, with one set of events seamlessly flowing into the other at the Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra in New Delhi.
These sets of events are important from the point of view of assessing the Indian government’s concretizing views on the Indo-Pacific region and its embrace of the strategic concept. Interestingly the central themes of both these events were tethered to the evolving conception of the Indo-Pacific. The 6th Indian Ocean Dialogue was importantly themed, “Indo-Pacific: Reimagining the Indian Ocean Through an Expanded Geography”. The discussion under the 25th Indian Ocean Rim Association Academic Group (IORAG) was carried on three important sub-themes; regional concerns around as well as responses to the issue of Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU); issues of marine litter and debris and; harnessing seas for water security. The broad canvass of issues laid out India’s seriousness in partnering with IORA member countries for a concrete and cooperative framework on the issues central to developing a robust Blue economy. The discussions in the 6th Indian Ocean Dialogue included discussions on three important sub-themes; Indo-Pacific: Seamless and Collective; Maritime Connectivity and Infrastructure and; Delivering public goods at Sea. These discussions in the 6th Indian Ocean Dialogue were followed by the adoption of the “Delhi Consensus”, bringing a consensus among IORA members over the issues discussed. The document also laid out the themes outlined and provided a roadmap for the group going forward.
These events were connected by a joint valedictory with the Delhi Dialogue XI and were attended by the Minister of State for External Affairs, Shri V. Muraleedharan, including a dinner hosted by the External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar. The Delhi Dialogue XI was aptly themed, “Advancing Partnership in the Indo-Pacific”. The Dialogue held its discussions on the following topics: Building Bridges in the Indo-Pacific; Indo-Pacific Construct: Emerging Architecture; and Regional Connectivity in the Indo-Pacific. As such, it was a rare set of events at the level of the government which focussed on the Indo-Pacific in its entirety. The importance of the visiting delegations, the participating nations, and delegates to these sets of events was evident in the seriousness of the topic being discussed and the common themes running across all the events i.e., the Indo-Pacific. In many ways, these events showed India’s increasing seriousness in its engagement with the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ and its evolving nature.
India’s focus on the ASEAN-centrality was evident in the choice of invitees, which included the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi. The Indonesian Foreign Minister focused on India-ASEAN connect and laid out that ASEAN and India share the responsibility to ensure maritime safety and security in this vast and common region. She also emphasized the importance of maritime economic cooperation between India and ASEAN so that the Indo-Pacific resolve moves towards a win-win agenda and not become a zero-sum game. Leading the ASEAN narrative, the Indonesian Foreign Minister also urged India to have a relook at the benefits of RCEP towards boosting the combined resolve of India and ASEAN. Besides, speakers and delegates from all 22 IORA countries participated and deliberated in these events. India led through the 1st Expert Group Meeting on Science and Technology Cooperation (EGMASTC) by providing a Work Plan for the group to function for the next two years, even as India took over the Chairmanship of the IORAG.
One of the important themes coming out of these series of IORA related events and the Delhi Dialogue was the broad consensus that it suits India’s current interests and global position to maintain a degree of “fuzziness” in its understanding/defining of the Indo-Pacific. The Australian delegate also agreed on a similar outlook for Australia, even as countries try and find a solid footing on their outlooks in the Indo-Pacific region. It was pointed out that one of the important underpinnings for this deliberate fuzziness is the inability of the countries having stakes in the Indo-Pacific region to distinguish between doctrine, outlook, vision, and strategy pertaining to the Indo-Pacific. The broad consensus that emerged out of these meetings was that there should not be an urge to parse the nature of the Indo-Pacific and distinguish it into the aforementioned categories. After all, for some nations, all the four categorizations merge in the Indo-Pacific, while for others, none of them exist.
*** The author is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. He is Assistant Professor, International Relations at the Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata (en lien). He was a Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War & and Peace, School of International Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York for the academic year 2015-2016. ***