"Seeing" the Indo-Pacific and Questions of Strategic Judgement

How does one ‘see’ the Indo-Pacific amidst the multiple strategic configurations that the Ocean is witnessing? This is a question that India is/will be grappling with, in the near future. Given the salience of the issue, which is dynamic and indeed wrought with competing narratives, interests, and versions, it is important that one reckons with some essential building blocks for debating the Indian approach.

I offer three building blocks for revisiting the Indian strategic approach- which perhaps need some reflection. These are partnerships, principles, and purpose.

Partnerships: It is increasingly clear that multiple network-based alliances are emerging in the Indo-Pacific. Termed as minilaterals and plurilaterals and driven by issue-based interests, India needs to focus on how these multiple issue-based alliances can be translated from mere declarations to substantive diplomatic action, both for itself and South Asia. New Delhi needs to go beyond the comfort-zone of  believing that these partnerships alone will ensure stability in the region. On its part, the US perceives these as the building blocks as a part of its grand strategic design where the primary end goal of these partnerships is to build a deterrence against China. While India has shied away from endorsing this view, it nevertheless has accepted the idea of a broader Asia, which started from the narrative of bringing together the “seas of freedom and seas of prosperity”, but over a period of time has transformed into a broad Indo-Pacific partnership. While Ambassador Shivshankar Menon has emphasized on the term Asia-Pacific rather than Indo-Pacific, India needs to recognize that the costs for India and East Asian countries could be potentially high. Deterrence to China will be a tall order, given its well-entrenched economic networks in the region, particularly Southeast Asia. Besides, China will respond to this issue by distracting concerned partners in these alliances, as has been well evident in her claims around South and East China Sea and Northern borders of India. China can also open multiple fronts to exercise psychological pressure on ‘Asian states’, creating increased  emphasis on  bilateral engagements, which can impede multilateral spirit for cooperation in the region.  Given that India is China’s immediate neighbour, it is important that it refrains from walking a tight rope and is flexible and adaptive in responding to the emerging situation. Facilitating its own interest demands that the principles around which it frames its position is aligned to its ideational values.

Principles: One approach which India has chosen to respond to the uncertainty and unpredictability in the Indo-Pacific is the articulated position of Prime Minister Modi expressed through the Security and Growth for All (SAGAR) speech delivered in 2015 at Mauritius.  In recent years this discussion has centred on order, rule of law and multilateralism - terms that are not alien to traditions associated with India’s strategic thought. Significantly, in the last two decades with the rise of Asia, academic debates on alternate ways of thinking have gained steam in IR. It would be useful to dwell on the meanings of ‘order’ and how it can be evolved/interpreted, particularly given the distinct insights from the cosmovision of ‘dharma,” a distinct aspect associated with the syncretic Indian tradition! Such ideational positioning and theoretical conceptualization have been clearly missing. If India wants to become an Asian power of some reckoning, it is high time that such ideational discourses are foregrounded in the vocabularies of not just academic journals but the broader International Relations & foreign policy communities.

Purpose: John Lewis Gaddis has noted athat a strategist needs to be both a fox (a tactician who is opportunistic and pro-active) and a hedgehog (a grand strategist who is driven by achieving goals) – i.e., one who can see both the forest and the trees together. For India, the quintessential question is therefore, what is the purpose of our engagement and what implications does this have both for India and its neighbours? Is it just stability in the Indo-Pacific (or Asia Pacific), or is it strengthening its efforts towards climate diplomacy, sustainable development, preservation of marine resources and fight against piracy and terrorism?  Some of these interests have found expression in its projects such as Project Mausam, Deep Ocean Mission amongst other. Given that these concerns overlap with other South Asian neighbours, India should see the imperative of taking the South Asian states along. There is perceptible shift from a land-centric understanding of South Asia to maritime South Asia. Within this understaning is an expressed desire to emphasise ‘connected histories’ of South Asian ports and strategic choke points. Given this, India should start investing in the idea of maritime South Asia, where ways of emancipating the agency of SAARC nations should be weaved into the Asian regional vision. India will have to walk through South Asia to become a power of diplomatic reckoning. The purpose of a maritime South Asia serves the Indian concerns well. South Asia is an interconnected ecological space, located at the networked confluence where the Himalayas meet the Ocean.

James Alex Michel noted, perceptions (i.e., the way we see things) determine how we act. It is rather high time, as he points out, that we call ourselves islanders, and go beyond land-centricity. In fact, rather than ‘seeing the land bordered by sea, one should see the sea with land interspersed.’ This is a statement that resonates well with the idea of maritime South Asia.

* Dr. Medha Bisht teaches International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi, India