The following article appeared as China-India Brief #141 on 12 July 2019, published by the Centre for Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
India is among a growing number of countries–including Japan, Australia, the United States, France, Indonesia, and now (collectively) the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)–to have officially embraced the terminology of the Indo-Pacific. Essentially, the term recognises the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a single strategic space, emphasises the importance of the maritime domain for commerce and security, and elevates the profile of the Indian Ocean. It reflects a reality in which China is active in and around both bodies of water and where a number of other powers now operate and have strong interests in a wider region. While Chinese officials and analysts have approached the Indo-Pacific concept with a mixture of disdain and concern, India has made an effort to describe it in positive terms: “the Indo-Pacific is for something–not against somebody–and that something is peace, security, stability, prosperity and rules”. Nevertheless, India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific has been subject to a considerable degree of confusion, not just around the world but also in India itself. It is important to address several common misperceptions.
First, for India, the Indo-Pacific is not a strategy. “India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. However, the Indo-Pacific does inform India’s regional strategy, known as the ‘Act East’ policy. Its precursor, the ‘Look East’ policy arose in the early 1990s, with a focus on improving economic links–including investment, trade, and institutional cooperation–with Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. But with the rise of China, weaker regional institutions, growing security imperatives, and deeper interconnectedness in the broader region, Look East has evolved naturally into Act East. This evolution represents the geographical broadening of India’s engagement, the widening of its agenda to encompass security (among other issues), and a greater priority and focus on delivery. Essentially, a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific” pithily describes the objectives and scope of India’s Act East Policy.
Second, India did not adopt an Indo-Pacific framework at the behest of the United States or any other country, but rather because it reflected Indian interests. If nothing else, the chronology bears this out. Indian scholars and analysts such as C. Raja Mohan, Shyam Saran, and Gurpreet Khurana deliberated and wrote about the Indo-Pacific at considerable length between 2007 and 2012. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adopted the terminology in a speech in Tokyo in 2013 (around the same time as it was incorporated into Japanese and Australian official parlance). Modi built upon this, including in a major foreign policy address in January 2017. In fact, among the first uses of the term by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was in a bilateral joint statement with India in June 2017, during which the two countries described themselves as “democratic stalwarts” and “responsible stewards” in the Indo-Pacific. It was only later that year that the Trump administration elaborated upon the concept of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ in a speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, an address by Trump in Vietnam, and the National Security Strategy. Rather than an American concept being foisted upon India, the Indo-Pacific is very much a ‘Made in India’ product.
Third, the Indo-Pacific construct is not empty rhetoric on India’s part, but rather has had real policy implications. One is the creation of a new Indo-Pacific division in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, which is meant to encompass and coordinate multilateral policy related to the Indian Ocean, ASEAN, East Asia, and the South Pacific. The more consequential changes have been in terms of defence cooperation, particularly since 2017. New developments include year-round military patrols in the Indian Ocean, improved maritime domain awareness in collaboration with partner countries, increased Indian military training and technical support for Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mauritius, the Maldives, and others, a proliferation of bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral strategic and defence dialogues, breakthrough military exercises with Japan and Australia, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations as far afield as Mozambique, the Philippines, and Fiji. Indian financing for infrastructure projects has also increased considerably in places like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. However, other dimensions of engagement have lagged, including trade policy and air connectivity.
Fourth, the Indo-Pacific does not necessarily cede the continental space, as many have literally interpreted it, just as a continental appellation such as Asia does not exclude the maritime domain. North-south connectivity is just as important for India as east-west. New Delhi’s outreach to Russia (including on Indo-Pacific affairs), its membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, its inclusion of Nepal and Bhutan in a regional institution to promote Bay of Bengal cooperation, and its development of commercial ports at Chabahar in Iran and Sittwe in Myanmar for improved north-south connectivity are all closely intertwined with Indo-Pacific outreach efforts.
Fifth and finally, India sees the basis of a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific” as very much consistent with ASEAN centrality and unity, rather than a divisive construct. Indeed, in 2018, Modi made efforts to reassure Southeast Asian states on that account. Additionally, while the emphasis on inclusivity was meant for Southeast Asia, India does not see a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific as excluding China. After all, China is a major power in the Pacific, it has a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean following the establishment of a support base in Djibouti, and its regional economic profile is increasing rapidly as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (about which India does harbour concerns). China is among the largest economic and trade partners of almost all countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and India too has invested in deepening its economic and social engagement with China. While the Indo-Pacific concept has been driven in large part by the manner of China’s rise and behaviour, its widespread adoption–including by India–is not about containing China. It is about ensuring transparency, the peaceful resolution of disputes, market-driven trade and connectivity, and strong norms and rules, in an effort to minimise security competition and encourage shared prosperity in an increasingly contested region. Should China embrace similar objectives, it would only bode well for the future of the Indo-Pacific.