The term “Indo-Pacific” has featured during the just-concluded G20 summit as well as during US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s recent visit to Delhi. Geographically, the Indo-Pacific refers to the Indian and the Pacific Oceans between the east coast of Africa and the American west coast and their several littoral countries. As a term to denote an economic and strategic community, it has been in use among scholars of international relations and geopolitics since the first decade of this century, around the same time as China’s rise. The earliest it was noticed was in a paper written by Gurpreet Khurana, an Indian naval officer, on the congruence between Japanese and Indian strategic interests in protecting sea routes for energy security. On a visit to India in 2007, Japanese Prime Miister Shinzo Abe did not use the exact term, but spoke of a “broader Asia” in the “Confluence of Two Seas”.
“The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A ‘broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form. Our two countries 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 transparence,” Abe said then.
It was as Australia began reimagining its security and trade polices through a new regional lens in 2011-2102, that Indo-Pacific became its way to position itself to play a larger role in Asia, as an ally of the US and Japan, and as a country with friendly ties with China, India, Indonesia and South Korea among others. At the end of 2012, the Julia Gillard government brought out a White Paper on ‘Australia and the Asian century’, following it with a national security policy document, ‘Strong and Secure – A Strategy for Australia’s National Interest’ at the beginning of 2013. Both dealt in detail with the term Indo-Pacific. This is what the White Paper had to say about it: “Some observers have raised a new ‘Indo–Pacific’ conception of the Asian region. Under such a conception, the western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean would come to be considered as one strategic arc. This conception is being driven by the increased economic interaction between South, Northeast and Southeast Asia and the importance of the lines of energy supply to Asia from the Middle East.”
Though Australia embraced the term wholeheartedly, its widespread use in international diplomacy came five years later, after an October 2017 speech on US-India relations by former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who spoke of a partnership between the two countries in the interests of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. He spoke of India as more reliable than China: “We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity— so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics.”
India lavished praise on the speech, delivered at the height of the Delhi-Beijing tensions over several issues – the Doklam military standoff, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor running through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, and more generally over the entire Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.
By the next year, Indo-Pacific was being used more frequently by the Trump Administration, entirely replacing the earlier “Asia-Pacific”, a move recognised by analysts from Delhi and Beijing to Tokyo and Canberra as redefining the region away from China’s economic and strategic dominance.
Already in the US National Security Strategy of 2017, the Indo-Pacific had been described as a region where “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place” – China and North Korea on one side and all others on the other.
The move away from Asia-Pacific also seemed to elevate India to a position of prominence in the region, as a US ally that would help to contain China’s dominance. Towards this end, the adoption of the term also appeared to challenge India to play a larger role in the region, for instance in the Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that informally brings together for strategic talks and military exercises, the US, Japan, Australia and India.
But India, quite aware of the inherent dangers of posturing in the region, has sought to bring its own vision to the definition of Indo-Pacific.
In June 2018, at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “The Indo-Pacific is a natural region. It is also home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges… The ten countries of South East Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilisational sense. Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific. India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific Region is, therefore, a positive one.”
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s statement, during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Delhi earlier this week captured some of that caution.
“On the Indo-Pacific, the point — the big point — I made was that the Indo-Pacific is for something, not against somebody. And that something is peace, security, stability, prosperity and rules,” Jaishankar said in his opening remarks at the joint press meet with Pompeo in New Delhi Wednesday.
It is unclear if India and US are on the same page on the definition of the Indo-Pacific. In the last US National Security Strategy document, in 2017, the Indo-Pacific is described as the region from the “west coast of India to the west coast of the United States”. However, India looks at it as a wider region, which extends all the way to West Asia and and the east coast of Africa. For India, as important as securing the east, is its western maritime security, where the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea meet – aside from the hostility with Pakistan, India’s energy sources are all in west Asia, where Delhi’s friendly ties with Tehran US-Iran hostility. Nor does the US definition take into account India’s robust engagement with the Indian Ocean Rim Association countries.