India & Geographical Space of Indo-Pacific

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
March 04, 2019


Indo-Pacific has become the new buzzword in the discourse on international relations. The United States and the European powers are deeply interested in engaging with this region, whereas other influential countries are resident powers in this region—India, Japan and China.

While the geopolitical construct of “Indo-Pacific” has become part of the lexicon in international relations with the US National Security Strategy Report, issued by the Donald Trump Administration, legitimizing it and the Pentagon having replaced its Pacific Command by the Indo-Pacific Command, there are no agreements yet among countries over the exact geographical space that spans this region.

The United States considers the entire space starting from the West Coast of India until the West Coast of the United States as Indo-Pacific. This no doubt serves American interest best. Some consider Indo-Pacific as erstwhile Asia-Pacific plus India and the eastern Indian Ocean.

The geographical space that spans Indo-Pacific can be flexible. And there is nothing wrong in it.  Is there a clear geographical definition of the “West”? Where did the “Asia-Pacific” region begin and where did it end? When Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was created in 1954, it included Pakistan. Under that logic, ASEAN could have been expanded to, at least, include Bangladesh! Afghanistan at one time was considered part of Southwest Asia until it became part of SAARC.

Strategic planners and thinkers are free to demarcate a geographical space keeping in mind their country’s foreign policy goals and security interests. Indian foreign policy pundits and strategic studies intellectuals should do the same. The government of India, particularly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has clearly hinted at the geographical space that Indo-Pacific region should encompass. In his address to the Shangri La Dialogue on 1 June 2018, organised annually by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies at Singapore, Modi concluded his speech by saying, “India’s own engagement in the Indo-Pacific Region – from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas – will be inclusive.”

While the Prime Minister dealt at length on India’s relations with Southeast and Northeast Asia and said very little on the country’s ties with coastal Africa along the shores of the Indian Ocean and the countries of the Persian Gulf, he signalled that Indo-Pacific region should include countries along the “shores of Africa to that of Americas.”  And that simply means even the Persian Gulf countries should be considered part of the Indo-Pacific region.

India has shown deeper interest in promoting economic and technological development in Africa and the Modi Government has done wonders in engaging the Persian Gulf countries despite regional instability and rivalries of all kinds. Symptomatic of India’s traditional approach towards international relations based on the fundamental principle of non-alignment, which meant friendship with all, Prime Minister Modi was able to positively engage the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli Government, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Iranian President.

All these exercises were significant in view of the strategic, economic and cultural stakes that India has in the Persian Gulf. First of all, developments in the Gulf region have direct bearing on the safety and security of millions of Indians who work in the region. India had to airlift thousands of them from conflict zones in the very recent past.

Secondly, India’s economic growth can be arrested without uninterrupted oil and gas trade with this region. Despite our efforts to diversify our sources of energy and improve our energy mix with renewable sources of energy, the Gulf region will continue to be significant for India’s energy security into the foreseeable future.

Third, about seven million Indians have got employment opportunities in the region by lessening burden at home and simultaneously remitting more than fifty per cent of all foreign exchanges India receives from overseas Indians living in different parts of the world. Both the families of people working in the Gulf and the nation benefit due to foreign exchange remittances.

Last, but not least, India does more trade with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council than with the member countries of the European Union or ASEAN.

Thus the foreign policy vision of India, national security decisions of the country and foreign economic engagements of the Indian business community and industrial houses should factor the Persian Gulf, not as separate sub-regional entity, but as an integral part of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

A balanced approach coordinating India’s Act East Policy with Link West Policy alone can serve India’s interests best. Compartmentalization of strategy will be counter-productive. India must have a defence white paper and foreign policy vision document to chart out a clear cut strategy to promote a rule-based, transparent, inclusive and development oriented architecture in the Indo-Pacific region. The Ministry of Defence, Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Commerce should coordinate and combine their efforts to bring out such documents.