The following presentation was given by Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia at an event hosted by Southeast Asia Research Group on 9 January, 2018.
Indo-Pacific Architecture – Latest Trends
- Much pleased with the shift from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific as the focus on India has intensified. It also denotes a vindication of what ICWA did under my watch as DG, the convening of an international conference on ’Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific Region: Asian Perspectives’ in March 2013. Just five years back, the choice of theme was considered bold and innovative. Now the Indo-Pacific is accepted widely. Even the Chinese seem to be objecting to it less!
- Indo-Pacific has at least two geographical definitions: 1. from the east coast of Africa to the western Pacific, and 2, East Asian region stretching from India to Japan and Australia. Let us concentrate on the latter.
- EAS and other ASEAN-related institutions have striven hard to craft an open and inclusive security architecture, but they have failed so far. Mainly due to one country – China, and largely due its disturbing actions in the South China Sea.
- Hence, the need for alternative security architecture and this is where the Quad comes in. It is a response to China’s hubris. Its trajectory will be largely shaped by China’s actions in the future.
- If China chooses to be confrontational and insists on defying international law and rules-based order, the Quad will gain momentum. If, on the other hand, China takes care to make its rise peaceful, the Quad will be happy to wait and watch.
- These are very early days for the Quad. It is ‘not a silver bullet.’ Nor does it have to be ‘an Asian NATO.’
- But the four Powers (viz US, India, Japan and Australia) should continue doing their homework. In public, they will speak in divergent voices, but internally they should forge – and they seem to be doing so – a common and coordinated position on the line to be drawn for China’s assertive approach on Asian affairs.
Role of Others, esp. Vietnam
- The Quad must engage with all member states of ASEAN, with the exception perhaps of Laos, Cambodia and Philippines – for the present.
- The other seven states are important, but not in equal measure. Perhaps the four most important ones are: Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and Singapore. The other three – Thailand, Malaysia and Brunei – should not be ignored, but they require a different handling.
- Focus must be on Vietnam, and on further deepening the comprehensive strategic relationship between India and Vietnam:
- To Vietnam, India is a time-tested strategic partner. Helps in providing regional balance to Vietnam’s foreign policy which concentrates attention on ties with China, Russia, India, US and Japan.
- To India, Vietnam has been an important friend from well before it even joined ASEAN. It enjoys immense goodwill and admiration for its historic role in defeating a major colonial power (France), a super power (US), and giving a bloody nose to its giant neighbour in the north (China).
- Vietnam’s passionate nationalism, blended with its resilient economic policy, has endeared it to India deeply.
- We should listen to Vietnamese arguments with attention. These are: Vietnam wants ‘more of India in ASEAN’; South China Sea is a ‘common security challenge to all’; and there is ‘a serious disconnect between what China says and what it does.’
Our Expectations from Vietnam
- To share with us its perception where each ASEAN country stands on the road to negotiations for a new COC with China
- To help us reduce the gap existing between ASEAN’s Master Plan on Connectivity and India’s policy approach
- To assist us on RCEP so that it brings a balanced outcome of shared gains
- To take interest in India’s current endeavours to secure an all-round rejuvenation of BIMSTEC. (There is a strongly emerging view in strategic circles that three CLMV countries should become Observers in BIMSTEC, as the fourth country – Myanmar – is already a member.
- To share with us its candid assessments, on a continuing basis, on the strengths and vulnerabilities of China under President Xi Jinping
- There is huge scope for expanding and diversifying bilateral dialogue and mutual cooperation to newer areas
- For this, Vietnam’s image as an authoritarian political system and society needs to be softened. This should be possible by engaging more with India’s civil society, academia and media
- Another effective way is to bring young and hitherto-untouched scholars within the ambit of India-Vietnam dialogue in the future. I am glad to note that SEARG has been helping to do so. Its counterpart institutions in Vietnam can perhaps do more!
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House. A former ambassador to Myanmar, he writes regularly on East Asian developments
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