India on its part, has demonstrated its ability to play a dynamic role in the region.

The advent of Indo-Pacific era and the dynamic role India needs to play in this regionFile photo: PTI
Voices Diplom@ease Sunday, July 31, 2016 - 09:15

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe in his address to the Indian Parliament in 2007 referred to the formulation of the “confluence of two seas” (futatsu no umi no majiwari) in what was perhaps a reference of the Indo-Pacific region which resonated widely in the policy discourse as well as in strategic circles globally.

However, the term Indo-Pacific has been generally used in the past, but with differing contexts. This term was often used in Australian foreign policy debates between the 1950s - 70s. In 1948, while creating a regional council on fisheries, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations named one as the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council. Foreign policy scholars have been using the term to generally define a region encompassing the western portion of the Pacific and the eastern part of the Indian Ocean.

The term has found place in US naval maritime strategy report; in the US Marine’s ‘core vision’ document as well as in Australia’s Defense White Papers. Since 2000s, there has been an American acknowledgement about India and Pacific Oceans constituting an interlinked geopolitical space, not only because of its importance to global trade and commerce but also because they impact on strategy. 

The wider Indo-Pacific region is home to nearly 3 billion people and has a combined Gross Domestic Product of nearly $20 trillion. It has three of the four largest economies in the world i.e. China, India and Japan. It is in this context that the strategic import which the Indo-Pacific region holds cannot be missed. This can be best described by some of the findings of Australia’s Defence White Paper for 2016. The paper in specific has termed the Indo-Pacific as a new region where by 2050; almost half the world’s economic output is expected to come from.

The document has stated that the Indo-Pacific countries are estimated to spend heavily and strategically on building defence capabilities: “Within the broader Indo-Pacific region, in the next two decades, half of the world’s submarines will be operating in the region. Within the same period, at least half of the world’s advanced combat aircraft armed with extended range missiles and supported by highly sophisticated information networks will be operated by Indo-Pacific countries. Some regional countries will acquire longer-range precision-guided missiles, including ship-based missiles. Advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, including both space and high altitude capabilities, will be prevalent, reducing the effectiveness of stealth capabilities. The region will see more autonomous systems, such as unmanned combat vehicles, in operation in the sub-surface, surface and air environments.”, the document noted.

The US on the other hand has reached out to the ASEAN to build an Indo-Pacific region and has also talked about India’s desired role to preserve maritime transportation routes in the Indian Ocean. “As a regional power that is committed to advancing the rules based international order, India has become a key and important player in advancing maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.”, said Nisha Biswal, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, to an American think tank in Washington which preceded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in April 2016.

In 1992, when India was facing an uncertain future on the foreign policy front with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its foreign exchange reserves dwindling precipitously, it recognized the need to promote economic growth; this was done through the Look East Policy under the leadership of then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. ‘Look East’ was further enhanced when it was understood that India is expected to play a significant role in upholding the security and stability of the region, that is when under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India evolved from Look East to ‘Act East’.

This is discernible through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Australia; the visit was the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 28 years; Fiji (the first visit in 33 years) and Mongolia, which hosted the Indian Prime Minister for the first time ever. By aligning India’s Act East Policy with the U.S. through a Joint Strategic Vision, India seeks to expand its geo-strategic space.

During his visit to India in January 2015, President Obama implicitly endorsed the Indo-Pacific concept in the formulation of his joint statement with Prime Minister Modi, which recognized “the important role that both countries play in promoting peace, prosperity, stability and security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.”

India’s non – exclusionary approach to the region was articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Indian Ocean Yatra in March 2015, to quote him, “While the Indian Ocean littorals have the main responsibility for what we call – Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)”

To counter this narrative, in 2013, China under President Xi Jinping promoted the Maritime Silk Road also known as the One Belt One Road initiative also known as the Belt Road initiative as a way to define its economic and diplomatic engagement across the Indian Ocean and beyond.  A commentary in Global Times, a Chinese daily which is also the mouth piece of the Communist Party of China advocated the need for China and India to overcome both foreign and domestic problems so that “Indo – Pacific era” can commence.  It further said that, this can happen with the pursuit of the “Indo-Pacific” geo-economic plan that includes the establishment of the Silk Road economic belt, as well as the complementary 21st Century Maritime Silk Road aimed at the massive Asia-centred development of Eurasia. The daily also observed that Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BIMC) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are part of this grand inter-continental plan.

China’s Defence White Paper for 2015 clearly signalled China’s ambition to become a maritime power and one not confined to East Asian waters. “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned,” the document noted. It is in this context that in the region, the United States and China and the relationship between them will continue to be one of the most strategically important factors.

To substantiate that the Indo-Pacific region is no more a foreign policy lexicon, prominent think tanks in Japan and USA have begun to call for a Maritime Security Coalition Architecture in the Indo-Pacific region. They believe that once Japan, India, and the United States establish such a structure, other countries like Australia, Vietnam, Singapore etc might join as possible participants.

India on its part, has demonstrated its ability to play a dynamic role in the region. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in the first ever meeting of foreign ministers of India, Japan and USA held in September 2015 in New York articulated the import of the region, to quote,   “For India, the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region is strategic to our security and economic interests. The sea lanes of communication in the region are the lifeline of India’s trade and commercial externalities. A substantial part of our energy and goods trade passes through this region.”

The fact that how eager India is to be at the forefront of the Indo-Pacific region was clear when the country’s defence minister Manohar Parikkar stated at recent the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that the Indo-Pacific region will remain the driver of global prosperity for decades to come. As the region’s fastest growing economy, he said, India will be a significant factor in ensuring this.

With this it would be safe to say, that the Indo-Pacific era has begun!

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