Indo-Pacific Vision: Contest or Cooperation?

Rushali Saha
September 29, 2019


Image Courtesy: IISS

From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific: US Vision of the Region: 

Asia-Pacific, as a geopolitical construct, has long captured our imagination and was introduced to set up a domain of economic activity and connectivity. The Asia-Pacific region includes much of East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania, China and countries around the Pacific Rim. 

 The Pacific was conceptualized from Euro-American global vision, rather than a construct expressing the diversity of the region which constituted it. The concept of ‘Euro-American Pacific’ gave birth to the ‘Asian Pacific’. However, since its inception, the Pacific economy had a strong Asian orientation due to the presence of the Chinese economy. Thus, a historical understanding of the region reveals the formation of Pacific region through Euro-American activity, but over the course of time, the geopolitical contours of the region have undertaken new configurations – most noticeably in the form of the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific ‘construct’ has managed rapidly shifting contours, straddling both the Indian Ocean Region and the Pacific Ocean. 

The ‘Indo’ in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ refers to the Indian Ocean, and there is little doubt among scholars and stakeholders in the global community that it was expectation and recognition of India to play a significant role in ensuring economic growth and development in the region. However, it should be clarified that ‘Indo Pacific’ is not a neutral term, it is value-laden in terms of its strategic importance and cannot be understood in isolation from the more significant dynamics shaping world politics. Significantly, the broader label surrounding the Indo-Pacific has emerged in the United States foreign policy as a strategic move to manage China’s rise while stabilizing its own role in the region. The United States sees itself as the resident power of the region, and this is undoubtedly being threatened by China as the emerging economic and strategic challenge. 

It would be incorrect to simply see American policies in the region, starting from Obama’s Pivot to Asia as a counter to China. US policies in the region have sought to manage China, maintain coordination with its Asian allies, and sustain multilateralism. Under Donald Trump, who insisted on his Indo-Pacific strategy, the US has built on its power legitimacy in order to reaffirm that the United States is an ‘Indo-Pacific’ power, especially through its vision of “free and open Indo-Pacific” policy. It is noteworthy, that this notion, as compared to Pivot, recognizes India’s role more explicitly, defining the region as extending from “Bollywood to Hollywood.” 

The White House, in its first National Security Strategy report under Trump’s presidency, declared that “We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner. We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.” The renaming of the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command as well as the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act in December 2018 undoubtedly showcases Washington’s intentions for more serious engagement with India.

India’s Vision of Indo-Pacific: 

India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific, in many ways, is an extension of Prime Minister Modi’s Act East policy and its maritime security strategy which expands India’s areas of maritime interest to the western Pacific. Inclusiveness, openness, ASEAN centrality, and unity lie at the heart of the Indian notion of Indo-Pacific. An inclusive definition provides India an opportunity to rationalize its long-standing interest in South East Asia, strengthening its economic cooperation with East Asia, develop its military ties with the United States and overall increase India’s regional net-security-provider role. ASEAN forms the core of India’s Act East policy and is integral to its Indo-Pacific vision. India has for long been looking for greater engagement with the grouping through participation in ASEAN led frameworks such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, and the ASEAN Regional Forum. An inclusive vision of Indo-Pacific would allow it to strengthen this relationship. India is trying to reposition itself from a continental power to growing maritime power, and its geographical location places it in a unique position to choose partnerships to shape developments in the region in the future.

Two Visions: Convergence? 

There is a clear convergence in dialogues between the United States’ and Indian vision of the Indo-Pacific. India uses terms such as ‘balanced, inclusive, transparent, open architecture; ASEAN centrality, greater maritime security cooperation with ASEAN, freedom of navigation, and peaceful settlement of disputes under international law.’ The United States also uses similar terms such as, ‘strengthening regional institutions, stable security environment, economic openness, and peaceful resolution of disputes consistent with international law’. 

However, there are subtle differences between India’s vision and the United States strategy for Indo-Pacific too. A document released by ASEAN entitled “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo Pacific” clearly indicates their stand against any form of great power rivalry in Indo-Pacific, and in seeking “collective leadership” to be an “honest broker” in the region. Several official statements from India indicates the willingness of New Delhi to have ASEAN prominence in regional infrastructure for the region. It is clear that by emphasizing ASEAN centrality, India is clearly trying to reinforce its own image as a regional partner rather than a regional hegemon. Being a part of the Indo-Pacific’s central corridor, India has greater stakes than the United States in maintaining peace and stability in the region.

New Delhi’s position is not clear if its Indo-Pacific strategy is inclusive of China or set against it. India has a long history of multi-layered engagement with China, and it is not easy to place their relationship into neat binaries. Moreover, India has its own independent calculus to address China’s rise, independent of its Indo-Pacific strategy. India will not blindly conform to the United States strategy of being an ally in countering China’s rise in the region and is building its own definition of Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, there remains no doubt that the Indo-Pacific region definitely holds the potential to be the theatre where Indo-US partnership can be realized, especially given the friendly rapport between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi. 

As a Philippian scholar once wrote, geography does not change, but perception does. India’s emphasis on inclusiveness definitely raises challenges for it to maintain the balance between the varieties of stakeholders in the region. Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical construct involves strategies of cooperation and competition, not only among China, India and the United States but a host of other regional stakeholders, which will likely shape the politics of the region.

*** The author is a postgraduate student of Political Science, with specialisation in International Relations, Jadavpur University, India. Her research interests include South Asian politics, specifically Indian foreign policy. ***