Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative: Ideational Continuity with Challenges Ahead

Udayan Das
Decemeber 8, 2019


Image Courtesy: Tehran Times

In the recently conducted 14th East Asia Summit, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi floated the idea of an Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative for the region. In what could be India’s first institutionalized policy initiative for the strategic arc stretching across the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, the idea of the initiative touches three essential tenets – enhancing maritime security, sustainable use of the marine resources, and disaster prevention and management. 

Regions are social constructs that are furthered by political practice. Policies of a state towards a region can be held to be a product of broadly two factors. First, how a state imagines the region and situates itself is a key factor. What stems from this is how a state can produce a policy that overlaps with its identity and interests and at the same time, can legitimize it in its domestic milieu. The second factor is, to some extent, external to the state in understanding how and what is actually playing out in the region in terms of political, social, and economic aspects. Navigating through these factors, the state has to react and put forward its policy that overlaps with its imaginations, perceptions, and interests.

Where does this policy initiative fit in for India and the Indo-Pacific? To begin with, India’s approach to the region has been consistent on some key aspects. Coming from the East Asia Summit (EAS) forum, it validates the ASEAN centrality that India has talked about when it comes to its Indo-Pacific outlook. There are no second thoughts on the fact that the thinking on the Indo-Pacific is anchored around an extension of India’s age-old “Look-East” Policy. It has maintained that unlike a political strategy, Indo-Pacific is a region to New Delhi. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative also underlines other core components of this strand of thought in two ways. First, India’s model for the Indo-Pacific argues for a multipolar region. It has maintained a balance in the region that seeks to be adversarial to none. To its advantage, its approach has been credited as non-confrontational and inclusive. The nature of its footing helps India in arguing for a region devoid of hierarchical tendencies. Second, it fits with India’s aspirations in the region. Reflective of its recent stance in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi has argued for Security and Growth for All in the Region, coined as the SAGAR. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative talks of a similar network of engagement with stakeholders that would be beneficial, keeping in mind the issues of security and sustainability. 

While it seems a smart move on New Delhi’s part to put forward the proposal of a security order in the region that shapes politics on more normatively desirable terms, its viability is more clouded. There are two sets of issues that India has to deal with if a proposal like this has to gain steam. The first set of issues dealing with India’s own limitations while the second is related to the politics of the region. 

Focussing on the first, one can raise an important question as to whether India has the potential to back up this idea with political will and resources. A debate on the gap between theory and practice of India’s actions in such spheres is not new. For instance, Project Mausam is yet to take off and become the counter to the Chinese Maritime Silk Road that it intends to be. India’s area of interest also lies largely between the Straits of Hormuz to its West and the Strait of Malacca in the East. Thereby, it has little interest and presence beyond this region. Similar to how the US strategy in the region is lopsided towards the Western Pacific, India’s thrust is on the Indian Ocean. This is also one of the reasons why an effective collaboration of US-India interests does not meet in the region despite the utterances of the joint vision. 

The second set of challenges is equally problematic. The central question that follows is: does such a security order resonate in the region with other players? The prospects for that are gloomy in this case, as different stakeholders are interpreting the region differently, and their security interests might not converge. Furthermore, India’s balancing act has also been problematic, and it has been hedging between the US and its allies, China, and Russia. India’s own engagements in the region have taken a new turn with its fallout from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which might unravel with its own set of consequences in the long term.

While the idea behind India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative seems a product of the ideational continuity of India’s policies in the region, its future relevance is subject to political will, resource backing, and a fair share of policy imagination and diplomatic maneuvering.

*** The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. ***