India and the “New Imperatives” for Regional Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region

Dr. Nalin Kumar Mohapatra
January 10th, 2021


Being a major global power along with  Indo-Pacific actor, India, should take the lead in creating a new regional security structure by involving countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Russia, Kazakhstan and the Philippines.  This can serve twin purposes. These are: this regional grouping can facilitate growing economic cooperation among them and at the same time can provide a forum which can checkmate the hegemonistic tendencies of China in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S, Australia and Singapore can also be engaged with this grouping for promoting peace and security of this region. While Strategic Quad covers broader security issues this regional grouping if formed can address regional problems particularly economic issues in a better way. It can also if formed, can provide an alternative to Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)

Image Courtesy: SIR Journal

The year 2020 can be considered tumultuous as far as the question of the developments that are taking place in the Indo-Pacific region is concerned. The onset of Covid 19 pandemic and its subsequent impact on geopolitical rhetoric propelled a new kind of geopolitical realignment in the Indo-Pacific region. While some scholars perceived it as the phenomenon of “New Cold War” others have looked at the emergence of “rimland geopolitics” in the global geopolitical map. However, whatever strategic imbroglio might have happened during the last couple of years (especially after 2015) it showed that global politics is based on a more competitive geopolitical logic.  The emergence of the Indo-Pacific concept is one such example. 

The post-Cold War logic of power dynamics has a new set of actors in the global arena along with new challenges.  The Indo-Pacific power matrix is one such example where India, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and to some extent Eurasian countries like Russia (despite its aversion to the concept of Indo-Pacific) and Kazakhstan can play a major role in defining the   Indo-Pacific structure. In this regard four common elements which can bring these countries together are: a) need for sustainable economic development; b) harnessing the natural resources in a more equitable manner; c) building a new security framework based on mutual cooperation and trust-building processes d) growing cooperation with ASEAN and strategic Quad.

These four logics should define the contours of new regionalisation process involving (India, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Russia and  Kazakhstan) in the Indo-Pacific region.  A question that naturally occurs to one’s mind that since there are a host of regional organisations are there what is the logic for carving out a new regional security structure in this part of the world. In this regard, one can underline four basic postulates. These are: a) all these countries are rising powers having the potential to determine the future international order; b) a  new kind of regional demand and supply chain system can be created through active collaboration among these countries; c)  creating a new cooperative regional order in the Indo-Pacific region based on equity and respecting each other’s sovereignty; d)  checkmating the imperial and the nefarious intent of  China in this region.

 These four postulates can provide a new understanding to the existing Indo-Pacific order. What is required for these countries are building a necessary trust among themselves that can facilitate building up of a new regional organisation.( This can be understood in the context of existing perception of Russia towards this region) It needs to emphasise here that looking at some of these arguments it appears  “futuristic propositions” but in the longer-run this will be a  reality because of geopolitical complexity. 

 In this regard, it is pertinent to mention here the fact that efforts have already been initiated through strengthening the bilateral relationship among these countries though not through a regional framework. In this regard, it is pertinent to highlight recent India’s initiative for forging partnership with some of these countries.  It may be underlined here that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Russia in 2019 to attend the Eastern Economic Forum can be considered as a historic along with a symbolic movement as far as India’s Indo-Pacific strategy in the context of Russia is concerned.  In Vladivostok Prime Minister Modi pitched for “Chennai-Vladivostok” connectivity project. If these sea linkages operationalise between India and Russia, this will contribute to a new beginning in the relationship between the two countries especially in the Indo-Pacific region. As has been observed by policymakers and analysts this oceanic connectivity will also help India to reach out to the Siberian and Far Eastern part of Russia and its natural resources like energy. This will also pave the way for joint cooperation in other areas of mutual interest.  It may be recalled here that both India and Russia, keen on forging partnership in the Indo-Pacific. This is happening despite the fact that often few Russian policymakers (not by President Vladimir Putin) gave adverse statement on Indo-Pacific largely due to pressure from China.     

Similarly, India and Japan have also forged a new kind of partnership in recent years which will add new dynamism to the existing geopolitics of Indo-Pacific. It may be recalled here that both New Delhi and Tokyo are also part of the strategic quad which came up as an important forum to enhance security in the Indo-Pacific region along with checkmating China which is posing threat to the Indo-Pacific countries. India and Japan in recent years have also elevated their ties to “Special Strategic and Global Partnership”. It may be underlined here that both the countries signed a military pact which will facilitate cooperation like “accessing each other’s port for logistic support”.  This military cooperation can be seen in the context of annual military exercises conducted by quad countries including the recent “Malabar Exercise 2020”. Similarly, these countries are also part of “Tsunami Core Group”. 

India in recent years has also strengthened its relations with Vietnam. The recently concluded virtual summit between India and Vietnam is a step the direction of forging a strategic partnership between the two countries.  It may be underlined here that three common factors which bind the relationship between New Delhi and Hanoi. These are: a) a common economic agenda; b) checkmating the hegemonic tendency of China in the Indo-Pacific region so also in the South China region; c) revitalising energy cooperation between the two countries. In the recently concluded virtual summit between India and Vietnam titled “India – Vietnam Joint Vision for Peace, Prosperity and People”, emphasised the need to further existing bilateral ties. The “Joint Vision” highlighted “the important role of their cooperation amidst the emerging geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape in the region and beyond, the leaders agreed that enhanced defence and security partnership between India and Vietnam will be an important factor of stability in the Indo-Pacific region”. Similarly the “ Joint vision statement”  underlined  on cooperation in “economic  relations” , “science and technology, health, energy, military”  and  other areas of “mutual interest. It may be added here that Vietnam because of its location in the Indo-Pacific Region can play a major role in navigating the geopolitics of the   Indo-Pacific region

 India’s relations with both South Korea and the Philippines are also going stronger day by day. An interesting aspect of India-South Korea relations is that economic relations are not only booming day-by-day even in the field of defence cooperation there is a growing surge in the bilateral relations. One may underline here that the South Korean defence conglomerates are showing keenness to participate in the “Make in India programme”.  It may be recalled here that some of the major private players from South Korea are also showing keenness to pursue joint ventures with India. During his visit to South Korea in February 2019 Prime Minister Modi in his address to the “India-ROK Business Symposium” set a target of “50 billion dollars by 2050”.

  As discussed above, as with the other Indo-Pacific countries, India is also forging a partnership with the Philippines, which is located at a vantage point of Atlantic Pacific. It may be noted that like the Indo-Pacific countries, Manila is also apprehensive of China’s imperial overture. Over the years India and Philippines are shaping the relation both in a bilateral and multilateral format. It can be recalled here that visit of Prime Minister Modi to the Philippines in 2017 added a new dimension to the relationship between the two countries.  It may be added that there is a growing maritime cooperation between New Delhi and Manila in recent years.

 India’s relations with Kazakhstan are also growing at a faster pace. Though Kazakhstan is a Eurasian country it can be stated that because of its location, resources along with future economic potentiality it can play a major role in  the Indo-Pacific region. One factor that needs to be kept in mind is that it is located in the vicinity of China at the same one can notice growing irredentism in their bilateral ties in recent years. Over the years both India and Kazakhstan are striving to strengthen their bilateral ties to a new momentum. Energy is one of the major factors which can play a major role in cementing the relations between the two countries.  In this regard, the upcoming INSTC route along with the recent Chabahar connectivity (if Kazakhstan joins) can facilitate transportation of energy to India. At the same time pipeline connectivity to Russia’s Far Eastern ports  from  Kazakhstan and there to India  through  the Indo-Pacific Ocean  can facilitate export of energy from Kazakhstan to India. 

What are the inferences one can draw after thoroughly discussing India’s relations with some of the Indo-Pacific and Eurasian countries? It may be highlighted here that one common aspect which binds India’s relationship with these countries is the traditional and civilizational connectivity which can be rooted in history. This provides a foundation stone for synergising relations with these countries. Secondly, there is a more or less similar perception to the global geopolitics. It may be recalled here that a common factor which can bring these countries together is that they are quite apprehensive of China’s aggressive move in the Indo-Pacific region.  Interestingly, China has disputes with each and every country in the region including Russia and Kazakhstan. The Chinese military scale up in the Indo-Pacific region is another concern for these countries.  It is in this context these Indo-Pacific countries should strengthen their cooperation in a multilateral format. It is true that India, the US, Japan and Australian formed a strategic quad which provides a comprehensive character to the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region, however, some of these counties as mentioned above are not members of Quad. If cooperation among these above mentioned countries through an institutional format took place it can give greater teething to the regional security architecture of this region.  There will be also a better synergy between this regional grouping of these countries if formed and the existing Strategic Quad.

One major factor which can provide a strong impetus for the growing cooperation among these countries is in the field of energy cooperation. For instance, Vietnam, Russia and Kazakhstan can be benefitted immensely by exporting energy to major energy consuming countries like India, Japan and South Korea.  A new kind of “complex interdependence” as enunciated by neo-liberal institutionalists like Robert Keohane, can be evolved in the Indo-Pacific region also. That will to a greater extent help the energy producing countries like Russia and Kazakhstan to improve their domestic economy even as studies suggest for trilateral cooperation among India, Russia and Vietnam. If this materialises then it can give a big jolt to China which is currently monopolising the energy trade with both Russia and Kazakhstan. In this regard, this will help to a great extent the oil producing countries like Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and Russia who are struggling due to recession in the global energy market due to the occurrence of Covid 19 pandemic. As reported, there is some misgiving about India and Japan on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).  India withdrew from the RCEP in 2019 citing “China factor”. However, Japan is insisting on an active role from New Delhi to checkmate Chinese unilateralism. At the same time, India and Japan can promote Free Trade Agreement through forming a regional bloc by involving the above mentioned countries. In this regard, it is pertinent to mention here that this will hit the Chinese supply chain system in the Indo-Pacific region. One may add here that these are ambivalences on the part of Russia in strategizing its policy towards Indo-Pacific. This partly stems from its relations with China.  Once policymakers from Moscow fully understand the real intention of Beijing in the Indo-Pacific then the former will pull out from the latter’s “orbit”. Hopefully, in the near future, Russia will realise its strategic mistakes and will join the Indo-Pacific region as an equitable partner. 

 India can take the leadership of bringing Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the Philippines and Kazakhstan into a common table for forging a common security bloc which will deepen the securitisation process in the region.  In this regard, it is pertinent to mention here the statement made by Prime Minister Modi at the “Keynote Address at Shangri La Dialogue” in June 2018 where he emphasised on substantive regional cooperation. He stated: “We are advancing a comprehensive agenda of regional cooperation through the Indian Ocean Rim Association. And, we also work with partners beyond the Indian Ocean Region to ensure that the global transit routes remain peaceful and free for all.”

 In this scheme of regional cooperation, the US, Australia and Singapore can play a pivotal role through security dialogue and cooperative partnership. One may recall here that post-2015 a “tectonic shift” is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region largely due to joint cooperation between New Delhi and Washington which in fact are the rallying point for countries of this region in building a new kind of security architecture. The US over the years is also cementing its partnership with these countries. This is despite the fact that both Washington and Moscow are on a different footing over the years. Hence, one expects a fruitful and effective partnership among these countries with the United States. 

 Though forming such type of regional organisation involving India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Russia and the Philippines appears quite difficult but it requires political will among the leadership of these countries. In this regard, India can provide the necessary leadership to these countries. Another aspect which provides the basis for such kind of regional cooperation is there is a need to checkmate the hegemonic and imperial policy of China which is posing a threat to these Indo-Pacific countries. In this regard cooperation with the US can prove fruitful. Even Singapore can join this regional bloc. India can pursue a proactive policy in the Indo-Pacific region to create a new kind of “regional security structure”.

**The author is Assistant Professor, CRCAS, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.**