Quad can be the anchor for the Indo-Pacific region
That Indonesia, the largest country in ASEAN, has signed on to the concept, will increase its acceptability for othersUpdated: Jun 29, 2018 17:18 IST
The recent Shangri-La Dialogue at Singapore became the platform where India, the US, Australia and Japan, adopted the Indo-Pacific as the organising template for a new security architecture encompassing the inter-connected ocean space of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. If this was meant to impress the Chinese, then Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi suggested quite the opposite. He dismissed it as an “attention grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like the ocean foam”.
Wang Yi had a goodreason to be dismissive. In his speech at Singapore, Prime Minister Modi took the sting out of the Indo-Pacific construct by denying its strategic intent. This is what he said: “India does not see the Indo-Pacific as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means… as directed against any country.”
Even if this were so, should not there be at least an intent to resist a power or group of powers “that seeks to dominate”? What is India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific? During Modi’s visit to Indonesia in May this year, India and Indonesia pledged to realise a “ free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”. Furthermore, the two countries committed themselves to “strengthening the existing security architecture in the Indo-Pacific which is anchored in ASEAN-led mechanisms”.
Does this imply that there is no need for a new Indo-Pacific security architecture since this is already embedded in ASEAN-led mechanisms? And what are the rules being referred to?
There is also the issue of what geography is covered by the Indo-Pacific concept. The joint statement with Indonesia would suggest a more limited theatre, essentially covering the ocean spread east of the India sub-continent, especially if it is anchored in “ASEAN-led mechanisms”. However, on other occasions, Indo-Pacific is said to extend from “the eastern shores of Africa to the western shores of the United States”. This is a more coherent construct because India’s security cannot be compartmentalised into an eastern and western flank. There has been a longstanding Indian Ocean strategy pursued by India covering both its western and eastern reaches. However, with the rapid increase of its political, economic and security profile in Southeast and East Asia, including China, India’s Act East has stretched into what was earlier an Asia-Pacific theatre, from which it was excluded. The change in nomenclature from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific is a recognition of this eastward spread of Indian influence and, to that extent, is welcome.
Where does the “Quadrilateral”, or the Quad, fit into the Indo-Pacific construct? At the second meeting of the revived four nation forum comprising India, the US, Japan and Australia, held in Singapore on June 7, each of the participants spoke of their commitment to “a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region,” as also a “rules-based order”. So the Quad is the anchor for the Indo-Pacific. There was also a reference to “ASEAN centrality” as playing an indispensable role in regional security which echoes the earlier India-Indonesia joint statement. This is important because of the perception lately that ASEAN has already been rendered irrelevant by Chinese power, and that ASEAN centrality is a myth. Southeast Asian countries do not wish to be caught in a crossfire between the US and China, or China and India. But their wariness about China is patent. Reasserting ASEAN centrality is an implicit rejection of Chinese claim to centrality. In that sense, the acceptance of ASEAN centrality gives the Quadrilateral more credibility and legitimacy in the region and makes it easier for ASEAN countries to accept the Indo-Pacific construct. That Indonesia, as the largest country in ASEAN, has signed on to the concept will make it easier for other member countries to accept it. This is potentially an important development.
The partners in the Quadrilateral spoke of an inclusive and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific. Is China willing to be part of a “free, open, transparent , inclusive and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific?” If it is not, then there must be a willingness on the part of the other major powers, including India, to constrain its unilateral assertion of power. Whether the Indo-Pacific dissipates “like the ocean foam” or becomes a powerful wave of resistance to Chinese hegemony depends on the path China chooses to traverse but equally on how the Quad countries strengthen their engagement beyond periodic consultations. The unpredictability and uncertainty unleashed by the Trump presidency has adversely affected the prospects for the Quad. As the most powerful of the Quad countries, the US would have to play a leading role in any Indo-Pacific strategy, but it is unclear whether the US will even maintain its forward presence in the region. As a consequence, each of the countries in the group, including India, is engaged in hedging its bets.
India has maintained various circles of engagement such as the Quad, ASEAN, BRICS, BIMSTEC and now SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and a number of trilateral fora. These give Indian foreign policy a degree of flexibility and room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis major powers and enhance its strategic autonomy. In this period of multiple transitions this may be the best course to follow, but it is the Quad which may eventually emerge as the critical instrument to manage the China challenge.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and currently senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal