The Indo pacific construct has been gaining in lexicon, thinking and strategy of states around the world. For India, the US India joint strategic vision for Asia pacific and the Indian Ocean regions agreed in January 2015 constituted a huge jump in geo strategic thinking. India has important political and economic interests in the east and South East Asia. The Malacca straits connect the Indian ocean to the South China sea, and over 40% of our sea borne trade passes through it. ASEAN is one of our largest trade partners. India however, is primarily an Indian Ocean country. Like Malacca, the straits of Hormuz, critical for unimpeded energy and trade flows are of operational concern to the Indian navy. For India, the Indo Pacific as a concept always stretched from the East coast of Africa through the Indian Ocean till the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
Prime Minister Modi had clearly articulated India’s vision of the Indo Pacific concept at the Shangri-La dialogue in May 2018. This vision stands for free, open inclusive region, which embraces all in this geography as well as beyond who have a stake in it. ASEAN has been and will be central to its future.
A common rules-based order for the region and its applicability to all individually as well as to the global commons, which believes in sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as equality of all nations, irrespective of size and strength, based on faith in dialogue without dependence on force was articulated.
PM Modi also stated that when nations make international commitments, they must uphold them and that we must have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. India, he stated, will support a rule based, balanced and stable trade environment in the Indo Pacific region and the connectivity initiatives in the region must be based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability. They must empower nations, not place them under impossible debt burden. Importantly, he stated that India’s own engagement in the Indo Pacific region, from the shores of Africa to that of Americas will be inclusive.
India will promote a democratic and rules based international order in which all nations, small and large, thrive as equal and sovereign. We will work with others to keep our seas, space and airways free and open, our shores secure from terrorism, and our cyber space free from disruption and conflict.
In March 2015, PM Modi also spoke about his vision for the future of the Indian Ocean region when he elaborated the concept of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) while commissioning the first Indian Offshore patrol Vessel built for export, the Barracuda, into the National Coast Guard of Mauritius. Broadly speaking, SAGAR has five goals: seeking a climate of trust and transparency in the Indian Ocean Region, respect for international maritime laws, promotion of sensitivity towards each other’s interests, peaceful resolution of maritime disputes, and increase in maritime cooperation. Technical teams from India have been working on the installation of Coastal Surveillance Radar systems in countries like Maldives, Sri lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles. India has set up an Information Fusion Centre in Gurgaon for the Indian Ocean region in December 2018 which shares real time maritime information with friendly countries of the region.
PM Modi also announced India’s Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative in November 2019 at the Thailand Summit with ASEAN. The Initiative focuses on seven pillars, namely Maritime Security, Maritime Ecology, Maritime Resources, Capacity Building and Resource sharing, disaster risk reduction and management, science, technology and academic cooperation, and trade connectivity and Maritime Transport. The idea is that one or two countries could take the lead in driving work on a particular pillar thus creating a cooperative network.
Meanwhile, this region has faced the brunt of Chinese aggressive policies. It has continued to occupy, rebuild, militarize and populate a number of disputed islands in the South China Sea. It is seeking bases and resources in the Western Pacific. It has stepped up its naval activities around the Senkaku islands of Japan, in the Taiwan straits, and has shown intent to alter the status quo unilaterally on the line of Actual control and the border with India. Australia has faced trade retaliation. Its naval activities in the Indian ocean have continued to grow. The port facilities that China is obtaining or building in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan are of growing concern.
The Quadrilateral dialogue for Security Cooperation (Quad) between USA, India, Japan and Australia has been resurrected in 2017 mainly due to the aggressive Chinese policies but is primarily a consultative mechanism of like-minded democracies with considerable naval power and priorities focused on the region. Its aim is to reinforce the existing rule based regional order, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation. A Quad plus grouping with the addition of New Zealand, Republic of Korea, and Vietnam has been working to coordinate positions on combating the pandemic successfully.
PM Modi’s forward looking and cooperative vision for the future of the Indo Pacific is attracting more countries. In May 2018, France announced the “French Indo Pacific strategy” whose core aspects are: settling regional crises, protecting shipping routes and fighting against terrorism, radicalization and organized crime; strengthening strategic partnership with regional partners like Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and also with China. France has also been working closely with Asean as the core of inclusive Indo Pacific strategy. France is committed to digital technology and quality infrastructure in the region. Germany shared a policy guideline to associate with Indo Pacific countries on 1 September 2020. Importantly, the German vision also supports rules based free trade; ensuring the enforcement of rules and norms in the region while being committed to the ASEAN centric security architecture. Germany’s vision has called for diversifying supply chains and markets.
An indication of the likely shifts in the post Covid global economic order in the region is visible from the Resilient Supply Chain Initiative (RSCI) proposal mooted jointly by Australia, india and Japan. India should work with Quad countries on infrastructure projects as an alternative to the Chinese BRI by pooling resources for few model projects as capability demonstrators. The Blue Dot Initiative which aims at Quality Infrastructure, can work out a concrete corpus for funding projects as an alternative to the Chinese BRI.
India will need continued focus on creating lasting defence and economic interdependencies with countries of the region, and similar likeminded countries like France and Germany, thus ensuring a stable and peaceful external environment for its own economic development.
(The Author is a former Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs, and has served as Ambassador to Italy, Thailand, Oman and Poland. Views expressed are personal.)
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