Till recently, discussions on the Asia Pacific covered the region between Southeast Asia and the US west coast. India was not included. APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), which was created in 1989, still does not include India. India was not an original participant in Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 1996. It was admitted only in 2006.
This anomaly seriously prejudiced the outcome of discussions on security and economic cooperation in the region. India is Asia’s second largest country, with a population of 1.3 billion and an economy of $2.6 trillion. It is strategically located on the busy maritime corridor of the Indian Ocean, through which the bulk of global trade passes. Protection of these sea lanes is of vital interest to the region. India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands extend to the Malacca Straits in Southeast Asia. India “belonging” to Asia Pacific is, therefore, a geographical fact and economic reality.
Today’s Indo-Pacific concept recognizes this reality. Though it covers the entire space of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, this analysis focuses on its eastern flank – Asia-Pacific plus India – since issues in its western part are different.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the Korean crisis have taught some lessons about security in the region.
One, today’s security architecture dates from the Cold War, when a US “security umbrella” was a protection from a Soviet threat, with China being a somewhat passive observer (from the early 1970s). This is unsustainable for obvious reasons. The economic and military rise of China is one. The rapprochement of Russia and China is another. Further, political and economic interlinkages between countries have blurred the divides of the Cold War. So, just tweaking this obsolete architecture will not achieve any results.
Two, an Indo-Pacific strategy is often described as containing or confronting China. This is flawed, because every country in the region has strong political and economic engagement with China and no interest in confrontation. The effort is to achieve mutual accommodation on legitimate interests and concerns. To take an example, on the Belt and Road Initiative, to encourage consultations to ensure host countries’ national objectives, debt sustainability and project viability, even while welcoming investment in much-needed connectivity and infrastructure.
Three, countries need bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral efforts to jointly create collaborative initiatives for an open, inclusive, rules-based order. As Prime Minister Modi said in an address in Singapore in June, competition is normal, but cooperation is essential. Contests should not become conflicts and differences should not become disputes.
Four, militarization in the region is a concern but should be addressed with sensitivity to security interests of all countries. Balance of power doctrines are outdated, but extreme asymmetries of strength are also destabilizing. Military ambitions of regional countries should be seen in this light.
As for India, its approach to promote secure Indo-Pacific involves internal capacity-building, as well as bilateral and plurilateral initiatives.
The Indian Navy defends a 7500 km coastline on the Indian Ocean. Security of the sea lanes is crucial, since 95% of India’s foreign trade comes by the Indian Ocean. Its marine and mineral resources are important to India’s economy. Terrorist movements, smuggling, piracy and human trafficking need constant addressing. The Indian Navy’s expansion plans are primarily in response to the growing challenges for India’s defence in the maritime domain; not to further interests of any third power, as is sometimes alleged.
Joint exercises with foreign navies – Russia, US, France, UK, Japan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, among others – help enhance the Navy’s capacity.
India’s efforts for Indo-Pacific cooperation and security are reflected in its “Act East” policy, strengthening strategic partnerships in the region. The unique presence of the heads of all 10 ASEAN countries in New Delhi, to celebrate India’s Republic Day and 25 years of India-ASEAN dialogue, showed the importance they attach to India’s presence in the region.
Fresh momentum has recently been imparted to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) (including Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand) for enhancing cooperation for connectivity and maritime security in this enclave of the Indo-Pacific, which stretches from the Malacca straits to India’s east coast. An annual BIMSTEC National Security Advisors’ dialogue discusses security cooperation. The profile and effectiveness of this grouping would, of course, be enhanced if Malaysia and Indonesia joined it – the region is in their backyard and is important for their economic and security interests.
Bonds are being strengthened with Japan, Korea, Australia and others, based on convergent perspectives. Prime Minister Modi has had frank and detailed discussions with Presidents Putin, Xi Jinping and Trump on Indo-Pacific security and cooperation. These discussions, particularly those in Sochi and Wuhan, have enhanced mutual understanding of perspectives.
Discussions on Indo-Pacific structures are a work in progress. Every participant country has its own interests & concerns. The ultimate objectives may be broadly common – political equilibrium and sustainable security architecture – but there are widely differing perspectives about their content and the path to achieving them. A common strategy, therefore, still requires painstaking diplomatic efforts to reconcile divergent or conflicting perspectives.