- Gateway House - https://www.gatewayhouse.in -

Indo-Pacific, the contested theatre

This is the transcript of a speech that the author gave at an international seminar on ‘Indo-Pacific: Emerging Dynamics’, hosted by the UGC Centre for Maritime Studies, Pondicherry UniversityClick here to view details of the event.

I sincerely thank the UGG Centre for Maritime Studies of Pondicherry University for the privilege extended to me to deliver the inaugural address at this important event.

The host institution’s initiative to organize an international seminar on a subject of immense complexity and growing interest is truly laudable. Its commitment to produce a post-event publication comprising the Papers presented here, will ensure that our ideas will travel beyond this venue, reaching out to a wider audience of scholars, policymakers and the people at large. The location of this city – Puducherry – is also significant; it is a strategic spot in coastal India, looking towards the east, south and west in a holistic endeavour to comprehend the web of happenings in a vast oceanic space.

Indo-Pacific Today

Oceans know no boundaries. Yet, geographers told us as to where the Pacific Ocean ends and the Indian Ocean begins. But now strategic analysts relate to us a different story, conveying that the two oceans form a common space known as the Indo-Pacific. Neither among them nor in the policy community of a large number of countries there is consensus as to where the Indo-Pacific begins or ends or even whether it is acceptable as a strategic concept, construct, or strategy.

Nevertheless, the phrase – and the philosophy behind it – has dominated the strategic discourse in the past decade. Indo-Pacific, as an important intellectual tool as well as a policy imperative, is now here to stay. Hence a debate about its meaning, dimensions, impact, implications and future contours is both legitimate and desirable. We sincerely hope that this seminar succeeds in producing a consensus or a synthesized view among the distinguished participants present here.

On a brief personal note, may I mention that, as the Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), I contributed to the debate on Indo-Pacific by hosting, back in March 2013, an international conference on “Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific Region: Asian Perspectives.”

Since then much has changed, yet much remains unchanged when it comes to inter-relationships among the littoral states of the two mighty oceans. Both geopolitics and geo-economics exert their power to shape these relationships, both in their strategic and developmental or economic dimensions. One fact, however, is no longer contested: the ‘sea-blindness’ for which Indian policymakers used to be blamed in the early decades since Independence does not exist any longer. Instead, India’s rising awareness of the importance of seas has sharpened the oceanic dimension of the nation’s foreign, security, and economic policies in an unprecedented manner.

It is a scholar’s duty to track, identify, study and analyze a plethora of developments in order to help the world understand in which direction it is heading. That is why it is said scholars are experts on the yesterdays, but not on the future. Nonetheless, their research and analysis produce clarity that helps us to understand the likely scenarios in the future. Viewed from this perspective, let me capture a few key trends that lie behind developments in the past decade.

Defining Trends

First, from the 1950s to 1980s, Europe was the main theatre of world politics, whereas in the late 1980s and 1990s, the focus shifted somewhat to West Asia. Now in the early decades of the 21st century, Indo-Pacific – stretching from the Western Pacific to the east coast of Africa, or its core segment extending from Japan and Australia to India – has become the principal global theatre where all the key power centers of the world are engaged in re-defining their roles and relationships as a way to promote their respective national interests – as they see them. This is the platform where the drama of shift of global power from the west and north to the east and south has been unfolding, day by day.

Second, the rise in China’s economic strength, military power, political and diplomatic influence in Asia and elsewhere is now an uncontested reality. This has given birth to aggressiveness and unilateralism by the Chinese government in the South China Sea and increased activism in South Asia as well as the Indian Ocean region in general. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is but a reflection of China’s new strength and desire to be a hegemonic power.

Third, while the U.S. remains the world’s largest economy and the foremost military power in Asia and the world at large, its will to use that power to curb and counter the rise of China remains debatable. America’s policy fluctuations and the mix of inconsistency and unpredictability of the Trump presidency marked by frequent personnel changes in top posts, exist alongside the architecture of new legislative acts and policy declarations and measures by the executive that project the U.S. determination to defend its interest in Asia. The result: deepening confusion and uncertainty in Asian capitals as to whether the U.S. and China are locked in a new cold war, or they could reach a deal in consonance with a new kind of relationship between the two Great Powers – as President Xi Jinping had once proposed to President Obama.

Fourth, the re-emergence of the Quadrilateral Dialogue involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia has been the calibrated response of four democracies in preventing a unipolar Asia. It makes gradual progress because, under pressure from the U.S., China has been making limited efforts to stabilize and improve its relations with India and Japan. Developments in China-Japan ties since PM Abe’s visit to China in October 2018 merit a close watch. Australia has joined India and Japan to act on its hedging strategy. Therefore, it is apt to argue that further development of the Quad may be in proportion to the aggressiveness or conciliation shown by Beijing to threaten or accommodate the vital interests of the other Asian powers.

Fifth, ASEAN – as the grouping of ten resident powers of the region, has become an ineffectual player, despite its assertion of ‘ASEAN Centrality’, to which incidentally everyone else claims to adhere to. Disunity among ASEAN member-states is reflected in its approach on the South China Sea dispute, and on Indonesia’s current endeavour to evolve consensus on the concept of Indo-Pacific and ASEAN’s role in it. Convergence between India and Indonesia on the Indo-Pacific, and Jakarta’s idea of utilizing the mechanism of East Asia Summit (EAS) to address the region’s strategic issues are highly relevant in this context.

Sixth, on the South China Sea dispute, China has largely had its way through the use of force or coercion, much to the detriment of countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The push back to it is in the form of i) the region’s frequent reaffirmations of freedom of navigation and overflights, ii) Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) by the U.S. periodically, and iii) the movement at snail’s pace of negotiations between China and ASEAN on finalization of a binding Code of Conduct. In effect, the situation on the ground has changed to the advantage of China, regardless of what diplomats do.

Finally, in the Indian Ocean component of Indo-Pacific, what is visible is a sharpening of rivalry between the Chinese Navy and the Indian Navy which is backed by the U.S. Navy. Chinese gains on India’s periphery have been quite significant. On the other hand, through pro-active diplomacy centered on Africa and the Indian Ocean states, India has strengthened its position by forging links in the domain of maritime security.

India’s Policy Approach

India’s perspective and especially the government’s policy have assumed a clear shape in the past five years. The nation not only has a well-defined Indian Ocean policy and Act East Policy, it also can lay claim to an Indo-Pacific policy. Researchers will need to trace the policy’s evolution during the 2015-18 period, bookended by PM Narendra Modi’s speech in Mauritius on 12 March 2015 and his address at Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on 1 June 2018. Many of the policy’s elements were reflected in the scores of joint statements that emerged following discussions at the highest political level during the incoming and outgoing visits in the tenure of the Modi government.

At Singapore, the Indian prime minister used the word ‘Indo-Pacific’ again, employing adjectives such as “open, stable, secure and prosperous” to depict it. He delineated India’s vision of a rules-based order and a region comprising law-abiding nations, committed to seeking solutions to developmental challenges rather than caught up in “great power rivalries.” Inclusivity was projected as an integral component of this vision.

The question that arises here is: what is India’s Plan B – in case the real world falls well short of the positive vision? In other words, how does India defend its vital interests if a major power refuses to adopt a peaceful, orderly and cooperative conduct, so essential for the region’s stability? My assessment takes me to the inevitable conclusion: The Quad is India’s Plan B.

Economic dimensions of the Indo-Pacific will continue to receive the attention they deserve. China’s BRI is one option before the stakeholders of the region. It was mostly welcomed and accepted with some enthusiasm, but there is now enough evidence of adverse reaction, cancellation or reduction of projects, and calls for a careful review. Other powers have put forward their ideas on connectivity initiatives, including the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. The coming years will reveal as to what extent these get accepted and implemented for common benefit.

Economic integration, especially through easier trade and investment flows, would remain a common policy goal. Negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are at an advanced stage. Their early conclusion depends as much as on the receptiveness of China and ASEAN to India’s needs and sensibilities as on India Inc’s willingness to confront the challenges of competitiveness.

Blue Economy is another component, apart from connectivity and free trade. If the idea of Indo-Pacific is anchored in the ocean space, it is pointless to restrict debate to security only. The other two pillars of Blue Economy – sustainability and productivity of oceans – too need to be considered and strengthened. Awareness about the challenges and opportunities of harnessing the potential of both mature and new sectors ranging from ports and shipping, fisheries and aquaculture to marine bio-technology, renewable energy and deep-sea mining has increased perceptibly in India. Much has been happening in this domain at the level of academics, business and industry, and government. I am happy to note that this seminar will further enhance that awareness by examining possible convergence of interests in developing the Blue Economy.


In the end, may I raise a crucial question that we need to examine: what do we expect to happen in the region in the next five years? Armed conflict, confrontation, cold war, unbridled competition, unexpected accidents, development of harmonious relations, or some kind of a mixture?

As the concept note of the seminar makes it clear, scholars gathered here will look into all aspects – strategic, political, diplomatic, security and economic – of the Indo-Pacific. By not only sharing our views and research findings but also by being receptive to contrarian viewpoints, I am confident that we shall advance towards a balanced and holistic understanding of the fascinating theme before us.

I wish the seminar optimal success.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House

These remarks were given at an international seminar at the UGC Centre for Maritime Studies, Pondicherry University on February 21, 2019. Click here to view details of the event.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in.

© Copyright 2019 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited