Since its first mention in an official policy document by Australia in 2013, the idea of Indo-Pacific has steadily gained prominence amongst the polity and commentariat in several countries. The concept, which acknowledges the salience of economic and maritime connectivity of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, has more recently acquired a complex political dimension as well. The rise of Asia generally and China in particular has dramatically altered the geopolitical contours of the region and are now implicating the larger world order itself. The Indo-Pacific as a political lexicon is an acknowledgement of the importance of these changes underway and captures the anxieties and perspectives of ‘a’ set of actors.
India, Japan, the US, Indonesia, France and ASEAN have all articulated their respective visions for the Indo-Pacific. For the US, it encompasses a region stretching from ‘west coast of the United States to the western shores of India.’ With the aim of containing China and retaining its position as the preeminent actor in Asia, the US has labelled China as a revisionist power in the Indo-Pacific.
However, the Indian vision has been expressed differently, with the top leadership clearly noting that it is not directed against any country with a reiteration of ASEAN centrality. It is instead looking to manage China’s political expansion while benefitting from it economically and has thus refrained from making the Indo-Pacific articulation the sole fulcrum of its policy towards China.Geographically, India sees the region as stretching from ‘from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas.’
ASEAN, which seeks to retain its centrality in the region as the shift from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific takes place to avoid becoming just one player amongst many, has called for a ‘region of dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry.’ This is being done with the aim of keeping the grouping together and avoid being divided due to great power competition. Also, ASEAN would like to manage China’s political rise even as it remains economically enmeshed with the rising power.
Japan, one of the earliest proponents of Indo-Pacific, includes the eastern coast of Africa as well in its vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. It seeks to link the two continents and the two oceans with ASEAN as the nodal point.
The French, describing the region as stretching from ‘coasts of East Africa to the American shores of the Eastern Pacific,’ has expressed its interest citing economic interests as well as presence of 1.5 million citizens in the area. It is clear that the regional and non-regional actors involved in the Indo-Pacific do not have a complete consensus on either the approach or description of the region. This is not surprising, given that the process of formulating a clearer vision of the Indo-Pacific is still ongoing and is by no means settled. But the actions of these various states is a clear indication of the willingness of the stakeholders involved to respond to regional changes in a manner that best suits their interests.
1. It is an artificially imposed concept.
2. It is aimed at containment of China.
3. Indo-Pacific implies region’s division into blocs.
4. Indo-Pacific undermines ASEAN’s role when in fact there should be a focus on ASEANcentrality.
The wariness to the idea has to a significant extentderived itself from the specific American enunciation of the concept, which in its 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report characterized China as a revisionist power and Moscow as a ‘revitalized malign actor.’ The US also sees itself as engaging in ‘long term strategic competition’ with both Russia and China. This has led to concerns about Indo-Pacific being a ‘multilateralized’ format ‘directed again towards containing China and Russia.’ Instead, President Putin has called for a focus on efforts to integrate existing mechanisms and concepts to reach a ‘large Eurasian partnership.’
While the US might not have coined the idea of Indo-Pacific, it has since become its leading proponent. The renaming of U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has been the most visible sign of its engagement with the idea.
Given the current state of relations between the US and Russia, it has only created heightened suspicions between the two former Cold War rivals. Even though Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has noted that they are ‘eager to listen to the ideas that do not rely on bloc mentality,’ it is clear that Russia prefers the term Asia-Pacific despite the fact that the term is also an ‘invented framework’ as is Southeast Asia.
As the region has witnessed rise of China alongside other middle level powers, as well as a relative decline in US prowess since the high point of the end of the Cold War, ‘political geography’ is once again changing ‘depending on political circumstances.’ Amidst this, the rising Russian dependence on China has led it to be cautious in embracing any vision that the rising power perceives as a threat.
Along with an insistence on ASEAN centrality, Russia has repeatedly called for establishment of a common security architecture in Asia-Pacific within the contours of the existing multilateral mechanisms. With regard to the latter, it presented a ‘proposal for a framework of principles on strengthening security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region’ in 2013 with China and Brunei at the East Asia Summit. But since then, it has been unable to convince other regional states to move forward with it.
While Russia has argued that Indo-Pacific undermines ASEAN centrality, the regional organization in June 2019 embraced its own vision of Indo-Pacific that is at variance with Russia’s understanding. This stance by Russia impedes Moscow from becoming an active participant in a critical ongoing regional debate, raising the possibility of being late to the game and then having to ‘adapt to someone else’s concept.’Russian reservations could also stem from its limitations as a maritime power, a domain that has not been its traditional focus in the post-Soviet period. This owes as much to geography as to the perceived nature of land-based threats that Russia believes are most critical for its security.
Japan has expressed willingness to join the Belt and Road Initiative while India has simultaneously pursued plurilateral engagement in the JAI (Japan, America, India) and RIC (Russia, India, China) formats. Given the deep seated economic linkages China has across the Indo-Pacific and the need to preserve regional security, the hedging being undertaken by regional states over the past years, seems set to continue.
The Russian president himself noted that the Asian states do not want to get embroiled in conflict between any states - and do not have an incentive to antagonize the rising power in their backyard. Through Indo-Pacific, the attempt is more to ‘dilute’ the Chinese rise rather than contain it. The changing regional order has also meant the regional states see the US as playing a crucial security role. As Russia seeks to expand its influence in the region, it will have to contend with concerns of the smaller players regarding China and the role they envisage for its former Cold War rival.
This becomes important as Russia is not a completely disinterested player in the region, having already announced its pivot to the East as well as a Greater Eurasian Partnership that together encompass vast territories of what is considered as the landscape of Indo-Pacific. Given that the Eurasian landmass is bound by oceans – the Arctic, Pacific and Indian – which interact dynamically with each other; the importance of the maritime dimension cannot be underestimated.
Russian participation in Indo-Pacific is important, for the preeminent reason that the idea will have an indispensable impact on Eurasia – a landmass that is central to Russian positioning in a multipolar world. Beyond the success of its Greater Eurasia initiative, Russia also understands the strategic importance of the region towards which the geopolitical and geoeconomic prowess of the world is ‘shifting.’
In this scenario, it is important to ask if dismissal of a concept gaining prominence in a region of Russia’s interest is the best strategy. Especially given that Moscow is no longer the preeminent rule-setter in the region. As Russia and China comes closer, particularly after 2014, a complete backing of Chinese position on Indo-Pacific would also imperil Russian ambitions of positioning itself as an independent player. Russia is still in the process of diversifying its relations with other East Asian and South Asian countries. Already, the China tiltin its foreign policy is evident, leading to necessity of creating a balance.
The regional states are not averse to Russian presence in the region. On the contrary, ASEAN has focused on locking-in as many states as possible in the region with a view to prevent conflict through increased interdependence. For its part, India has indicated that it would be glad to engage with its special, privileged and strategic partner on the subject. However, as Indo-Pacific is understood at the moment, it is clear that there are significant divergences in the understanding the two countries.
Table 1: The differing understandings of the Indo-Pacific
Artificially imposed concept
Indo-pacific is a natural region
Containment of China
Not directed against any country
Divides region into blocs
Not a strategy or a club of limited members or a grouping that seeks to dominate
Undermines ASEAN centrality
Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity
As the Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar has noted, India’s economic interests have been shifting towards the East of India towards the Pacific, which has led to Act East policy maturing into Indo-Pacific. India is also looking at this concept as a continuation of its historical presence in the region - a process that was disrupted by colonization and then national projects - instead of being an artificial development. Given that 95% of Indian trade passes through Indian Ocean which constitutes 68% of trade by value, New Delhi has been more than willing to embrace a concept that links two critical areas of interest.
This has given a new-found agency to middle level powers in Indo-Pacific in pushing for their vision. For instance, India has called for a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’ while ASEAN looks at it for establishment of a ‘region of development and prosperity for all.’ Even the Quad - formed by India, the US, Japan and Australia - has spoken of ASEAN centrality, deeply aware of the need to carry the Southeast Asian states along for the success of their policy. India has taken consistent steps to manage its relations with China through peaceful means, instead of trying to contain it, whether through bilateral formal/informal summits or through regular engagement at multilateral forums.
As of now, it remains to be seen if India and Russia will be able to bridge the gaps in their respective understandings of the Indo-Pacific. While India has to a large extent sketched the broad contours of its policy, leaving enough room for manoeuvre, Russia hasn’t officially unveiled any such doctrine.
There are some positive signs, with Putin calling for creating an environment of friendly cooperation in Asia together, singling out India as one of the countries closest to Russia. However, this would be difficult to achieve if Moscow completely dismisses the idea of Indo-Pacific without considering its need for India and other middle level regional players. If it does not want to be seen as a Chinese ally, it would benefit from being a participant in the debate around the concept. This would also buttress its ambitions of building a mutlipolar world. Its deteriorating relations with the West do Russia no favours in the ongoing flux, as it faces the danger of becoming too dependent on China. In a region where it already has limited influence, this can potentially further undermine its credibility.
Putting all its eggs in the Chinese basket can also be dangerous, especially in the case of a rapprochement being achieved between the US and China. Neither will the Indo-Pacific states be enamoured with a Russia that is too close to comfort for China and is locked in a conflict with the US, especially as they attempt to walk a tightrope between their economic and security interests. A more active engagement with Indo-Pacific will allow Russia to formulate an obtuse China hedge strategy and enable it to work with India but not necessarily against China.
How Indo-Pacific pans out is still open for debate and will depend on how the various stakeholders respond to the changes underway. Russia can choose to be a part of the formation of the concept or it can stay away, but its actions will have an impact on its position in the Indo-Pacific.
Underlined by fluidity of concept and focus onconnectivity, Russia will find that Eurasia is the complement to the Indo-Pacific.’ Moscow has a history of coming up with ‘unexpected and unconventional initiatives,’ as has been witnessed in the Middle East. A similar pragmatic approach in the Indo-Pacific can help it improve its relations both with India and the wider regional stakeholders.