What is Indo-Pacific and what is it not?
“The Pacific is likely to take the place of the Atlantic in the future as the nerve center of the world. Though not directly a Pacific State, India will inevitably exercise an important influence there.” India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said this in his 1944 book, The Discovery of India.
In 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe portrayed why it might have been time to start looking at this issue more closely when he addressed the Indian Parliament during his earlier stint as Prime Minister in a speech titled Confluence of the Two Seas.
A decade later, as the US President Donald Trump used this phrase in his speech, the reality of Indo-Pacific hit home, at least to the outsiders. Trump’s statement marked a desire for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
On the other hand, India has consistently argued that the division of the Indian and Pacific oceans is artificial and also not consistent with reality. India has high interests in the developments in the maritime order of Asia. More than 50 percent of Indian trade transits this region and a lot of Indian and international flag carriers have Indian nationals working on them.
This is just the tip of what interests India in the region. India thus sees itself not just as norm taker but a norm developer, by consensus and consultations. At the same time, India’s desire is also not hegemonic and it does not seek to be a unilateral norm maker or enforcer. While speaking at the 2017 Raisina Dialogue, Prime Minister Modi had said that India did not take an exclusive approach and that it aimed to bring countries together on the basis of respect for international law.
This is what the Indian statement on the quadrilateral consultations between India, Australia, Japan and the United States focused on. It said, “A free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large”.
Indo-Pacific, then, is not a statement of alliance but a statement of the fact that the challenges as well as concerns of all the major actors in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans overlap. Piracy, terrorism, non-state actors, accidents and oil spills and management, and depletion of natural resources as well management of a rules based order in the region, are common challenges and shared approaches are the only way possible to overcome those challenges.
India as a major actor in the region has consistently fulfilled its role as a security provider on all of these issues for a long time now. Most recently, India evacuated a significant number of foreign nationals alongside Indians there when the conflict broke out. India is also playing a significant role in capacity building in these sectors in its extended neighborhood.
Therefore, to treat the usage of the notion of Indo-Pacific by Trump as an invitation to India in the Pacific affairs is doing disservice to the idea of inclusiveness. Is it a sign of post-American world order? May be it is.
As the US role as a provider of regional security changes, the regional security order faces the heat of the potential anarchy and lack of consultative mechanism that includes all the actors who believe in and act according to international law. Therefore, order and respect for law, not dominance, are the key to the future of the Indo-Pacific.
India’s discussion with the three other countries including Japan, Australia and the United States on the sidelines at Manila are exactly what the statement referred to it as; “consultations”. Also it will be anchored in India’s Act East Policy which was said is the cornerstone of its engagements in the region.
India’s pragmatic foreign policy is based on the principle of not entering into alliances but rather developing interest based cooperation and dialogue mechanism wherever necessary. It is noteworthy that on this the Indian statement is rather conservative compared to other three dialogue partners’. It does not list freedom of navigation as one of the objectives, which all others did mention.
On the other hand, while the three countries mentioned North Korea, the Indian statement spoke of “challenges of proliferation linkages” hinting at the course of history of proliferation in Asia.
Smaller countries in the region in particular have been worried about the anarchy and its future manifestations in the Indo-Pacific. Particularly, how America first and reduced American role as well as questions over its future role in Asian security are of concern. ASEAN centrality has also been challenged more often than not in the recent past.
Openness and inclusiveness is the only way forward in order to calm the muddy waters of the Indo-Pacific.