India in Indo-Pacific amidst emerging developments.
“What has become of the Indo-Pacific?” is the question many are grappling to comprehend with. The new and renewed interest of major powers to assert their supremacy corresponds to the fact that Indo-Pacific is and will be detrimental to the international politics in the coming years. With China flexing its muscles across globe in general and South and East China Sea in particular via its ambitious project -BRI, the new found interest in the region is hardly anyone can miss.
The Indo-Pacific is emerging as a new geopolitical hotspot with enormous economic and demographic potential, emphasizing India's opportunity to play a vital role in this region. With countries like Australia, Japan, UK and the United States forwarding their own vision for the Indo-Pacific, this region will become the new hotspot for dominant and emerging powers in the future. This construct automatically position India as a key player in implementing respective strategies for their Indo-Pacific vision, which is based on the rule based international system, free trade and freedom of navigation.
The Indo-Pacific region encompasses four continents: Asia, Australia, Africa and America as well as two of the world's great oceans: the Indian and Pacific oceans. It is one of the most economically active regions which is home to 60% of the world's population. This region accounts for two-thirds of global economic output, establishing it as an emerging global economic centre. Due to crucial sea lanes of communication passing through it, this region is also of critical importance for the movement of goods and people.
The Indo-Pacific region is a relatively new addition to the geopolitical landscape but India's relationship with this region dates back many centuries. India has cultural, maritime and economic linkages with this region. Smaller island nations and littoral states such as Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka are also located in this region. The geographical significance of these states which had been forgotten in the post-Cold War world have resurfaced in current strategic thinking of various countries. In the post-war period, the geopolitical vacuum has led India to become a net security provider and the first responder to humanitarian crises in the region.
India has recalibrated its foreign policy with changing geopolitical conditions in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. With its growing influence, China has emerged as an alternative security provider posing a threat to India's position as the primary regional power. China has offered lucrative infrastructure projects and aid in the form of ambitious projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, which has been welcomed by several countries in India's neighbourhood. The lack of infrastructure and an alternative option has led to China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific which has challenged the stability in the region.
The changing geopolitical order in its vicinity has prompted India to recognize the need for a framework for its Indo-Pacific strategy. In fact, Prime Minister Modi presented India's vision for the Indo-Pacific at the Shangri La dialogue in 2018. Modi's address confirmed that India's geographical definition of the Indo-Pacific stretches from the western coast of North America to the eastern shores of Africa. In his address, he emphasized the role of cooperation and collaboration for New Delhi's vision for the Indo-Pacific. India advocates an open and balanced international trade regime in the region.
India has been actively collaborating with other countries like Japan, Australia and the United States to counter the rapidly emerging security dynamics as a result of Chinese growing presence in this region. New Delhi engages with its Indo-Pacific partners through bilateral and multilateral platforms in areas such as blue economy, maritime domain, disaster management and high impact capacity- building projects. The establishment of an Indo-Pacific wing in the Ministry of External Affairs in 2019 signalled India's strategic thinking in the maritime domain. SAGAR which stands for Security and Growth for All in the Region has provided the framework for New Delhi's approach towards the free and open Indo-Pacific. The 'Indo- Pacific Oceans' initiative (IPOI) was launched with ASEAN as the primary platform to implement the vision of SAGAR. India has also attempted to increase its diplomatic engagement with Indo-Pacific islands countries by establishing the Forum of India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).
India is also a member of QUAD -a coalition of four like-minded countries with converging Indo-Pacific interests. The member countries -India, Australia, Japan, and the United States are all democracies with liberal market economies and pluralistic societies advocating free and open Indo-Pacific. The framework for QUAD has become active and serious with the regular meetings of officials and foreign ministers. The QUAD has adopted a constructive approach aimed at the well-being of people in the Indo-Pacific with initiatives on climate change, vaccines and developmental projects.
The emergence of Indo-Pacific allows India to broaden its geopolitical interests while countering Chinese threat in its neighbourhood. India's engagement within the region remains limited and lacks a coherent policy framework. India needs to explore new partnerships based on shared mutual interests. India needs to take a stand by considering its geopolitical interests with the changing security architecture in the region. India has a comparative advantage due to its civilization ties with the countries in the region and there is a need to engage more on a people-to-people level in the Indo-Pacific. The engagements could include health, higher education, security and defence, research and development among others. India can also consider engaging with non-traditional allies like Canada and New Zealand to expand its interests in the Indo- Pacific. For an effective collaboration among QUAD member, countries need to understand their converging interests and priorities in the region.
The Indo-Pacific will continue to offer India an opportunity to play prominent role and to secure its geopolitical and strategic interests. India’s actions and its partnerships will determine the role which it will play in the international order. The maritime domain has played a significant role in shaping the emerging global order throughout history. The Indo- Pacific will be the starting point of many challenges and it will shape the future global order and security architecture not only in the region but beyond.