SPEAKING FREELY India puts the Indo in 'Indo-Pacific'
By Rukmani Gupta
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Recent developments signaling the United States' continued commitment to
maintaining a presence in the Asia-Pacific have been seen as marking a turning
point in the history of the region. The reasons for this are two-fold. First,
references by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to an "Indo-Pacific"
presence for the US are believed to reflect the recognition of India's
importance in the region. Second, US President Barack Obama's announcement that
American Marines would be stationed in Western Australia is perceived as a
definite challenge to China's
aggressive posturing on issues, maritime disputes in particular.
On both these counts however, the optimism generated in some quarters requires
tempering. While sketching the contours of an "Indo-Pacific" presence for the
US, Clinton had re-emphasized Obama's assertion that the "relationship between
India and America will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,
rooted in common values and interests".
The identification of India as the linchpin of the US's Indo-Pacific policy is
seen by many in India as adding to its consequence. The pre-eminent power's
interest in affording India a greater role conceivably implies that a
reinvigorated American presence in Asia would carry India along - towards a
more prominent position of leadership in Asia. For some, an adoption of this
terminology by India is advisable because it is seen as paving the way for a
more expansionist view of Indian national interest. Presumably because the term
is " Indo-Pacific", India will be justified in claiming a national interest
across the region and can then tailor policies accordingly. The question this
begets is whether identifying with the change in American terminology brings
benefits for India.
The adoption of this terminology by India would suggest a closer alignment of
interests with the West and as such send a signal to China. While such
signaling may not be bereft of some utility, it would be more authentic were it
based on assurances of some sort by the US. Signaling based on the assumption
that this changing terminology portends a new chapter in US-India relations
seems quite hasty.
Would India be nudged along a path it may not be ready to follow by identifying
too closely with American interests? After all, not adopting the term does not
imply that India has no interests in the greater Asian region. India's foreign
policy will continue to be defined by its national interests. Its foreign
policy matrix does not (and should not) change dramatically in response to a
change in terminology by the United States. On the whole it would appear that
the change in terminology does not bring with it any patent advantages. Its
adoption by India would be unnecessary.
In fact, to read the "Indo" in "Indo-Pacific" as referring to India, is in
itself somewhat premature. If it is Clinton's references to the partnership
with India that have encouraged the belief that "Indo-Pacific" is so coined as
to facilitate Indian ascendance in the region, it would be prudent to look at
the other "Indo" repeatedly mentioned by her in the same piece - Indonesia.
Maintaining and upgrading relations with the world's most populous Muslim
country has been a task the Obama administration inherited and has continuously
worked towards. Indonesia is important not only as the heart of the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations but also for its location at the entry to the South
China Sea from the Malacca straits and its potential in limiting Chinese
projection beyond the first island chain. Could "Indo-Pacific" thus reflect the
important position Indonesia may occupy in US strategy to deal with China in
the South China Sea and beyond?
As a term for a geographical space, "Indo-Pacific" (referring to the Indian and
Pacific Oceans) certainly seems more expansive than the term "Asia-Pacific".
Presumably, it is more rational in so far as it adequately reflects changing
American priorities in the region. One would do well to remember that it is an
acknowledgement of the importance acquired by the Indian Ocean maritime sphere
in American geopolitical considerations, and therefore, by extension only, the
increased utility of India.
This brings us to the announcement that US Marines will be stationed in Western
Australia. In the face of perceived Chinese aggression, with this one move the
US has supposedly thrown down the gauntlet. But this is only the latest in a
series of US actions. Building military-to-military relations with Southeast
Asian countries, strengthening the alliance with Japan, actively engaging in
regional forums, the US has continuously sought to maintain its presence in the
region and squeeze the space China may have to carve out a leadership role for
That 2,500 US marines will be stationed in Western Australia to utilize the
extensive training facilities is not all that exceptional. It does not
fundamentally change the American position on the South China Sea disputes. The
US does not take sides on the territorial disputes, has not committed to
intervening militarily on the issue, continues to call for multilateral
negotiations and is for promoting the American interpretation of "freedom of
navigation". How useful the stationing of US marines in Australia may be in
settling issues in the South China Sea thus remains to be seen.
Although military ties between Australia and the US have deepened, it has not
all been plain sailing. Domestic criticism over the failure to bring home
Australian troops from Afghanistan persists as does caution in some quarters
over closer ties with the US. If the "Arc of Democracy" proposal floated a few
years ago is any indicator then Australia will not be comfortable with any move
that is considered blatantly anti-China. Recent news reports suggest that
Australia felt no qualms about providing China access to a space-tracking
station in Western Australia without seeking American advice on the matter.
Australia is clearly committed to managing its relations with both China and
the United States so as to further its own priorities - a position that cannot
It is in the improbable event of a military conflict between the US and China
that Obama's announcement would have acute relevance. 2,500 US marines by
2016-17 on rotation in the Darwin area and access to Australian air and naval
bases would potentially provide the stationing of assets outside areas most
vulnerable to anti-access measures by China, thwart the creation of a
successful second-island chain anti-access capability and provide a sizable
number of highly trained personnel in times of crisis. Even in peace time this
would be an especially useful deterrent to China's aggressive moves on Senkaku
or Okinawa as a whole (which the US does consider a part of Japan).
While developments in recent weeks may help reassure those afraid of an
American withdrawal from Asia and consequently a free-run for China, these do
not reflect a fundamental change in the US policies for the region. They also
do not seem to have a direct bearing on two issues repeatedly underlined by the
US - the role that India, as an increasingly important member of the global
community, can play; and the South China Sea disputes.
Rukmani Gupta is currently an Associate Fellow at the Institute for
Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed herein are
the personal views of the author and are not intended to reflect the views of
(Copyright 2011 Rukmani Gupta.)
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