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With an assertive China and change in global power axis to Indo-Pacific, can India remain a 'mere spectator'?

With the adoption of the term by United States president Donald Trump, the idea of Indo-Pacific has started gaining ground. As some would say that if the 21st century is the Asian century, it is also the maritime century. Indo-Pacific is predominantly a maritime space and the resurrection of the term also reflects a conceptual shift in US' strategy in the region.

The concept of Indo-Pacific expands the region of Asia-Pacific to include countries with coasts on the Indian Ocean. The region, as the US National Security Strategy explains, extends from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India. The two oceans at the core of this concept—Indian and Pacific—are looked as one strategic space.

While some have attributed Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe for the first recent utterance of the word, it was the repeated use of the term by Trump and his administration that lent it the strategic importance with which world leaders view the concept today.

Abe, in 2007, referred to a book by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh in describing the "dynamic coupling" of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the "confluence of the two seas." In a speech titled, Confluence of the two seas, he said that India and Japan have the ability—and the responsibility—to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparency.

He also put forward the idea of the quad in the speech to the Indian Parliament saying, "By Japan and India coming together in this way, this 'broader Asia' will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia."

"Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely."

The concept of an open and free Indo-Pacific has become the fulcrum of not just the US policy but also India’s strategy. Countries are increasingly trying to counter forces that threaten the 'free' movement of goods and ‘open’ trade routes in the region.

Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba, at the Raisina Dialogue 2018, said that there has been rapid and robust economic growth in the Indo-Pacific region and there are factors which make it the nucleus of geopolitics and geo-economic in the 21st century.

Indian Ocean is now the world's busiest trade corridor and carries two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments and a third of its cargo, according to The Diplomat.

In this context, regional peace and stability, freedom of navigation and maritime security have become very important as over 90 percent of the world’s trade by volume is by sea. The region consists of several important choke points for global commerce, including the Straits of Malacca.

The trade passing through the region is one reason for an enhanced interest of European nations in the Indo-Pacific. C Raja Mohan wrote that over 70 percent of Europe's trade passes through the Indo-Pacific. The region is also a major destination for European arms sale.

Further, almost 55 percent of the world's container trade also travels through this region. Nearly 70 percent of ship borne energy transport moves through these waters.

The conspicuous China 

The truth, as some observers say, is that Indo-Pacific has always been about balancing the rise of China. Abhijeet Singh, a senior ORF fellow, wrote Japan had shifted away from the "friendship diplomacy paradigm" with China to a mixed strategy involving elements of realistic balancing as a hedge against future threats posed by China.

New Delhi, meanwhile, has its own set of problems with Beijing. China's ambitious military plans and its border skirmishes with New Delhi has evoked a disconcerting feeling, forcing India to focus its energies on the rise of Beijing and establishing itself in a leading role in the Indo-Pacific.

China has largely been called out for its growing assertiveness and "aggressive" activities in the region. Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the United States Pacific Command called China a "disruptive transitional force" in the Indo-Pacific and owner of the trust deficit in the region.

Without naming China, Admiral Lanba said a high degree of ambiguity in the strategic intention of "some nations" remains a concern. He said, consequently, the region is facing a deficit of trust giving rise to widespread unpredictability and in some sectors, even instability.

China's assertive foreign policy has led to deeper uncertainties among the regional countries about the peace and stability of the strategically important Indo-Pacific region. Since 2012, according to Rohan Venkataramakrishnan’s piece in Scroll, there has been a major shift in how countries view Beijing.

"Xi Jinping’s tenure has seen China go from testing the waters in the region to unabashed expansionism, attempting to impose its will on smaller nations in its periphery and developing grand strategic roadmaps like the One Belt One Road initiative," he wrote.

The panel at the Raisina Dialogue. Twitter @raisinadialogue

The panel at the Raisina Dialogue. Twitter @raisinadialogue

China is also possibly getting ready to overtly "militarise" its island bases in the South China Sea, according to The Diplomat. The country has a maritime dispute in the South China Sea with several ASEAN nations like Philippines and Vietnam. It has also refused to accept the verdict of the International Tribunal.

Australia has also expressed concerns over the "unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities" in the South China Sea. The country’s first foreign policy paper released in November last year raised alarm over China's growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia has accused China of building an influence in the Pacific by currying favour with the region’s smaller nations and funnelling cash into their infrastructure projects, Financial Times reported.

"You've got the Pacific full of these useless buildings which nobody maintains, which are basically white elephants," Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, said.

The International Monetary Fund has also noted that a few countries like Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu all have significant debt to China.

China's investment in the Pacific and its increasing assertiveness in the maritime sphere while ignoring the rule-based order has rattled countries, who are increasingly looking at India to take on a leadership position in the region.

The US National Security Strategy (NSS) also warns against China using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.

Nadia Schadlow, Deputy Assistant to the US President for National Security Strategy, while saying that the Trump administration has a positive vision for America’s role in the world, added that America will lead in the pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Referring to the NSS, she said that the document recognises the centrality of India-US partnership. "India is a pillar of our common vision for free and open Indo-Pacific." The NSS states that the US will support India’s growing relationships throughout the region.

The call for India

BJP's national general secretary Ram Madhav wants India to take a more proactive role in the region. While saying that India needs to re-orient its strategic thinking from a westward thinking nation to an eastward-looking nation, he added that New Delhi does not want to remain a "mere spectator."

He said that the global power axis has shifted to the Indo-Pacific region and while the diminishing power of western nations is a reality in this region, the rising power of countries like China is also a strategic reality.

With rising concerns in India about China’s expansionist plans, New Delhi seems to be up for the task of being in a leading position in the Indo-Pacific.

For India, as AdmirLanba said, the concept of the Indo-Pacific is enshrined in the word SAGAR – security and growth for all in the region. The phrase was first used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and has since then been advocated by Union ministers Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari to articulate India’s vision of the Indian Ocean region.

The ASEAN leaders, during their visit to India to take part in the Republic Day celebrations, also welcomed India’s positive role in the Indo-Pacific and described it as an important factor for peace and stability.

Kentaro Sonoura, the advisor to the Prime Minister of Japan, also reflected on India's role in the region at the Raisina Dialogue. He said that New Delhi's role in the region is extremely important, given that India is a global power facing the Indian Ocean and has strong historical ties with both Asia and East Africa. He welcomed Trump's clear commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and lauded the cooperation between "like-minded" countries.

He talked about the idea of the quadrilateral and said that strengthening bilateral collaboration in the region is important and building on this, cooperation between Japan, India, US and Australia was started last year.

The 'Quadrilateral' quandary

The idea of the quadrilateral was an alignment of countries who are concerned about the rise of China and the potential changing of the status quo unilaterally by Beijing. Inia, Japan, US and Australia came together for the first time in November last year and participated in the first formal official-level discussions. They agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large.

Japan's Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano said at the Dialogue, "China’s military power is becoming powerful and expanding. In the East and South China Seas, China has been ignoring international law. In order to deter Chinese provocations, India, the US, Australia and Japan have to cooperate."

The idea and the need to take a decisive action was echoed by Harris, who said that 2018 is the year to take courageous decisions and to get things done – to finish those things which we began in 2016 and reinforced in 2017.

Amid murmurs that the quad is only an idea on paper and nothing significant will come out of it, Harris told Firstpost that "it is an idea but, it can turn into something significant...our countries are holding military exercises and yes, it can turn into a significant thing."

The gradually increasing relevance of the grouping has also rattled China. From issuing demarches to each participating country and asking for the reason behind their meeting, it has started having concerns about the quad turning into an 'Asian NATO'.


Updated Date: Jan 31, 2018 10:38 AM

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