The Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean are both parts of the geopolitical region known as the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific territory comprises 24 countries that stretch from the West coasts of India and the United States. It includes the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Oceans, and the seas that join them in the general area of Indonesia. Major world powers have recently shifted their focus from other hotspots of war to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This is partly because of the Chinese presence in the South China Sea, which defies established UN agreements and international maritime regulations by asserting hegemony over the entire ocean.
The Indo-Pacific area is currently experiencing severe irritants that are destabilizing the region’s geopolitical climate. To ensure that all nations have equitable access to global commons as a right under international law, it is necessary to develop shared norms that will serve as the foundation for future greater integration.
Importance and Challenges in the Indo-Pacific Region
With 2 billion people living under democratic rule, the Indo-Pacific area is home to more than half of the world’s population. Three of the United States’ most significant allies: Japan, South Korea, and Australia are also present in this region. More than one-third of the global foreign trade also happens in this region and it is home to significant economies, such as China, India, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Several nations have adopted aggressive policies, putting pressure on East Asia in particular and the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. North Korea frequently threatens South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons and missiles. In addition to ignoring maritime regulations internationally in the South China Sea, China is also at odds with Japan over the Senkaku Islands conflict. The Spratly Islands are a subject of a dispute as well between six countries, including China and Taiwan, and are said to contain enormous oil and natural gas deposits. Some of the disputed isles, islands, and coral reefs have been heavily militarized by China, which makes nations like Vietnam and the Philippines anxious.
However, some nations lack the will to act against China. Since each nation in East, Southeast, or South Asia has a distinctive connection with China, they will want to join the economic or strategic anti-China bandwagon. Despite being a member of solid American security and strategic cooperation, South Korea and Japan might be desperate to maintain their economic position with China, affecting the ASEAN Nations. India may be a member of the Quad, but it is well aware that it is the only nation in the alliance to share a contentious land border with China.
The role of the Quad
The Quad grouping has emerged as a potent player in the Indo-Pacific and one that India gives much importance to. The prospect of a free and fair Indo-Pacific is important for India’s maritime presence and strategic positioning as it allows for India to project force, and carry out its economic activities without the threat of disruption. Further, the focus of the Quad on a wide variety of issues, such as health, cybersecurity, trade, climate change, strategic stability, etc. is also helpful in terms of enhancing India’s overall power. India maintains important strategic relationships with its members individually and emphasises the importance of military interoperability through exercises such as the Malabar and Tiger Triumph. Overall, there is huge strategic importance according to the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean. The special status of the Strait of Malacca in the event of a potential conflict with China has always been a part of India’s strategic calculations. This is because an overwhelming level of Chinese trade, and energy passes through the Strait. If this nervous system is cut off, it could provide India with a lasting advantage in such a situation.
India’s Interests in the Indo-Pacific Region
Vasudhaiva Kutumbhakam, which translates to “the world is one family,” has been a central tenet of Indian foreign policy. Of course, realism and willingness to use force are strategic considerations in any perspective for foreign policy. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed his nation’s interactions with other Indo-Pacific nations at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, saying “to the East, the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea connect India to the Pacific and most of our major partners – ASEAN, Japan, Republic of Korea, China and the Americas…Our interests in the region are vast, and our engagement is deep.”
India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific is influenced by a new strategic context brought about by China’s growth, particularly in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Beijing’s growing influence throughout the Indo-Pacific region poses a common strategic issue for Canberra, New Delhi, Tokyo, and Washington, despite their agendas and capabilities continuing to diverge. India established an Indo-Pacific strategy to handle the rising Chinese presence in the area and strengthen alliances to address a new security environment as it started to face these issues in the Indian Ocean and South Asia. In doing so, India has to strike a balance between its rekindled alliances with the West and its burgeoning geopolitical rivalry with China. Nearly every country in this region of the world is aware of China’s assertiveness and hostility. At the most recent Quad Summit in Tokyo, the US introduced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to cope with China and provide the region with greater options for achieving its developmental objectives. The IPEF will focus on improving four important pillars: fair trade, robust supply chains, standards and regulations for digital trade, and green energy commitments. It has become crucial for India to operationalize its Indo-Pacific policy since the phrase “Indo-Pacific” has acquired popularity and major regional actors like the US, Japan, and Australia are outlining their regional visions (in addition to using this word in their official policy declarations). As an extension of this idea, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Indo-Pacific division was established. By incorporating the IORA, the ASEAN area, and the Quad with the Indo-Pacific dynamic, this MEA wing gives the Prime Minister’s Indo-Pacific vision a strategic coherence.
Although India has been actively addressing the Indo-Pacific since 2015, it has taken a while to be included in its policy framework. India’s strategy up until the speech at Shangri-La (2018) was primarily in terms of common values and interests, highlighting the potential of an Indo-Pacific theatre. Regarding the outlook or framework of its policies, there was little clarity. By March 2020, India’s Indo-Pacific vision had a defined structure and a top priority as an opportunity theatre. The MEA states that India “envisions a stronger role for itself in the wider region through the Indo-Pacific construct.” India’s interests and priorities in the area are centered on this.
It is crucial that the new MEA division develops a more thorough approach to the region’s strategy by going beyond security and political concerns. India must prioritize trade and connectivity if it is to take advantage of a new window for its regional engagement. It will be difficult to achieve a balance between the interests of all players, even if India has continuously emphasized “inclusiveness” in the Indo-Pacific architecture. The main proponents of the Indo-Pacific share the same understanding of the principles that should be upheld in this region, but they have different ideas about how to go about implementing these ideas. However, New Delhi will continue to encounter geopolitical problems as it balances its old and new partnerships and advances its Indo-Pacific projects. India will have to deal with difficult issues as Southeast Asian countries and smaller island nations continue negotiating the Chinese-American rivalry. New Delhi’s present initiative and adjustments signal a change in India’s foreign policy. The Indo-Pacific region, therefore, offers an excellent opportunity to raise India’s visibility and global position.
Research Intern at CPRG