Amidst a flurry of government pronouncements, official papers and white papers by quite a few countries outlining their respective Indo-Pacific policy in the past few years, should India consider an official policy document outlining its vision in the Indo-Pacific?
Some intense ongoing debates about what the Indo-pacific means conceptually, geopolitically and strategically, both for respective countries and to regional cohorts with a similar view, has raged on in the past few years. Besides, whether the Indo-Pacific outlook should be a regional ‘strategy’ at all, is also being debated. These debates have caused countries to frame their respective official policy documents. Although the U.S. has emphasized its Indo-Pacific policy through its earlier policies like the National Security Strategy 2017 and the National Defense Authorization Act 2019, its most recent report evinces a more focused approach towards its Indo-Pacific policy. This year alone, few other countries like Australia, France, and ASEAN countries have brought out documents on their Indo-Pacific policies. This raises two questions: Is there a rush among countries of this vast region to officially bring out their Indo-Pacific policy? And, whether there are any advantages of having an official policy outline of the Indo-Pacific policy for India?
The U.S. brought out its updated Indo-Pacific policy report in June this year declaring the Indo-Pacific as its ‘priority theatre’ which harped on four principles: sovereignty and independence of all nations; peaceful resolution of disputes; Free, fair, and reciprocal trade based on open investment, transparent agreements, and connectivity; and adherence to international rules and norms, including those of freedom of navigation and overflight. The three outstanding areas of focus for the U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific have been identified as preparedness, partnership and promotion of a networked region – all of which concerns India. These official policy pronouncements from the U.S. have led other countries and organizations to come out with their policy reflecting their interests in the Indo-Pacific.
France also brought out its own Indo-Pacific report in June this year. Acknowledging itself as a ‘resident power’ of the Indo-Pacific, it has depicted a clear intention to promote regional security and cooperation, fighting terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the law of the seas, fight against illegal trafficking, climate change and commitment for multilateral engagements. Through the Indo-Pacific policy document, France intends to bring its experience as a security partner in the region through its operational know-how, particularly in the maritime security domain, and a major contribution to the establishment of an area of peace and stability, based on the full respect of international law. France has promised support to the regional centers dedicated to the surveillance of maritime spaces and sea lanes of communication of the Indo-Pacific including the Information Fusion Center – Indian Ocean Region located (IFC-IOR) in New Delhi.
Australia put its Indo-Pacific policy in a government White paper in 2017 to include Indo–Pacific democracies of Japan, Indonesia, India and the Republic of Korea as first-order importance to Australia with whom the country seeks to prioritize relationships in the Indo-Pacific. Japan too brought out its official view on the Indo-Pacific policy in April 2017 highlighting key areas of national interest to Japan in the Indo-Pacific region, including international peace, shared value, prosperity, Sustainable Development Goals and revitalization of the region.
Recently, ASEAN Leaders have agreed to further discuss an initiative that reinforces the ASEAN-centered regional architecture, namely, ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. The report clearly states that ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific envisages ASEAN Centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), as platforms for dialogue and implementation of the Indo–Pacific cooperation, while preserving their formats.’ ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific core principles view the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions, not as contiguous territorial spaces but as a closely integrated and interconnected region. This not only overlaps with the Indo-Pacific visions outlined by the U.S. and France but also India.
Amidst this flurry of official reports and pronouncements on individual counties’ Indo-Pacific policy, the question that arises is whether New Delhi should officially consolidate its Indo-Pacific outlook by putting its views in the form of an official document? The closest India gets to an official policy on the Indo-Pacific is Prime Minister Modi’s Keynote at Shangri La Dialogue 2018. There is definitely an increasing desire among major stakeholders of the Indo-Pacific to outline officially what the Indo-Pacific means to them, and while there might be specific benefits for some countries in doing so, India has more advantages in the absence of a concrete official policy in the region. India will have to carefully assess the pros and cons of any such future consideration, as it could cut both ways. Bringing out an official document on its Indo-Pacific policy could restrict its vision, operational partners and especially the necessary navigable space in dealing with countries across the spectrum – especially by creating limitations to an expansive vision that extends from the Gulf to the western shores of the U.S. In the absence of an official policy with concrete guidelines, India has the advantage of broad-basing its agenda – both in terms of countries it chooses to engage with and the basis of such engagements. As a country that harps on the idea of an ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific, India should stay away from any tight framing of regional policy in the Indo-Pacific, as it is likely to blunt its hedging capacities vis-a-vis other countries which it currently employs. Although, an official document limiting its policy choices, specifically including the common grounds on all the above-mentioned policy outlooks as its broad contours, may not be a bad idea after all and could send a message of seriousness apropos New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific policy.
*** The author is a Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. and an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata, India. ***