December 29, 2017

Why the 2017 idea of the year is the Indo-Pacific

The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on December 29, 2017.

As another year comes to an end, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that political leaders and controversies come and go, but ideas, concepts, and terminology often have a longer shelf life. What were the big ideas of 2017?

Some, inevitably, are the product of technological developments: blockchain (a distributed ledger to ensure secure transactions) and deep learning by machines (a more sophisticated form of artificial intelligence) have been around for some time as applied concepts, but have only recently become a part of popular consciousness. Other notions that have gained salience are political in nature, such as ‘fake news.’ Some are purely linguistic. Online searches for the rather archaic word ‘dotard’ spiked after North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un used it to insult US President Donald Trump.

In the international political realm, I would venture that the idea of the year is the Indo-Pacific. In 2017, with its official adoption by the US, it reached a new threshold, and it may now be with us to stay. The Indo-Pacific is not a new idea, nor is it originally an American one. It actually arises from the natural sciences, referring to a large bio-geographic region of warm water in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its evolution as a strategic concept is a more recent development.

Its origins can be traced to a speech delivered in August 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Indian Parliament. Abe did not use the phrase Indo-Pacific, but rather alluded to a book by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh in describing the “dynamic coupling” of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the “confluence of the two seas.” In October 2010, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the importance of the “Indo-Pacific global trade and commerce.” The term soon caught on Indian strategic circles. C Raja Mohan, in his book 2012 Samudra Manthan, argued that “the seas of the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean must be seen as a single integrated geopolitical theater, the ‘Indo-Pacific’.” The 2013 Australian Defence White Paper led its strategic outlook with an assessment of the Indo-Pacific. And Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referenced the Indo-Pacific in a May 2013 speech in Tokyo.

This year, the idea picked up steam, especially in official circles. Abe’s government outlined a vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper made numerous mentions of it. In his January address to the Raisina Dialogue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India “believe[s] that respecting freedom of navigation and adherent to international norms is essential for peace and economic growth in...the Indo-Pacific.” And, somewhat belatedly, the US described the Indo-Pacific as a priority region in its 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). Trump appears personally seized with the idea, and used the phrase Indo-Pacific numerous times during his November tour of Asia. Thus, Indo-Pacific is now firmly part of the official strategic vocabulary of India, the United States, Japan, and Australia. The coming together of these four countries in a dialogue earlier this year, while still exploratory, also began to cement the idea of the Indo-Pacific as an operational construct.

A common query is what part of the earth’s surface is actually covered by the Indo-Pacific? The US NSS defines it as extending from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India. Japan’s view is perhaps the most ambitious, extending to two oceans and two continents (Asia and Africa). India has not formally defined it, but it is clear that in Indian conceptions it extends from the east coast of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, to the western and south Pacific.

But the exact geographical scope of the Indo-Pacific is almost beside the point. What matters is the shared understanding of the term. Essentially, it is three-fold. One, it implies that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are a single, shared strategic space. What happens in one, has implications in the other. Thus the militarisation of the South China Sea directly affects India, just as developments in the Indian Ocean have immediate consequences for Japan or the United States.

Two, it suggests that geopolitical competition in the broader region will play out primarily in the maritime domain. By defining the region by its oceans, rather than by any continental features (e.g. Asia), it automatically elevates the maritime element of our way of thinking about the region. For India, this means thinking more seriously about maritime trade, the blue economy, and naval requirements and capabilities.

Three, although the “Indo-” in Indo-Pacific refers to the Indian Ocean and not India, it is impossible to think about the Indo-Pacific without considering the role of India. Given its central location, its status as the largest economy, its long coastline, and its blue water naval capabilities, India is the geopolitical keystone of the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the use of the term Indo-Pacific implicitly acknowledges India’s central role in regional security and commercial dynamics.

This shared understanding - and the full significance of the adoption of Indo-Pacific by Indian, American, Japanese, and Australian leaders - has not necessarily been appreciated in capitals around the world, including in New Delhi. But it has been noted in Beijing. Its adoption and acceptance in official circles may have been belated, but it is nonetheless a welcome and important addition to the ideas that shape our thinking about the world.