Decoding the Indo-Pacific and China in Indian Ocean
While acknowledging that India and the US have a shared vision of an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific, Modi made it clear it wouldn’t be “a grouping that seeks to dominate” or “directed against any country”.Updated: Dec 13, 2019 13:36 IST
Over the weekend, India will host a combined session of the Delhi Dialogue and Indian Ocean Dialogue to highlight its open and inclusive approach to working for a cooperative, free and rules-based Indo-Pacific region.
Here is an explainer on its significance:
What is the Indo-Pacific and how did it evolve into a strategic concept?
The Indo-Pacific is essentially a US construct encompassing the region between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and in the American definition, it ranges from the eastern shores of the African continent to the western coast of the US. And while the US policy is widely perceived as a move to contain China, India has adopted a slightly different and nuanced approach.
In June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific while addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore: “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.” He concluded his speech by saying, “India’s own engagement in the Indo-Pacific Region - from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas - will be inclusive.”
While acknowledging that India and the US have a shared vision of an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific, Modi made it clear it wouldn’t be “a grouping that seeks to dominate” or “directed against any country”. This was messaging clearly aimed at China - while New Delhi has genuine concerns about Beijing’s activities in regional waters, it is also interested in achieving a balance instead of antagonising its powerful neighbour.
Why is India invested in it?
India’s focus, it is becoming clear, is more on the Indian Ocean element of the Indo-Pacific, rather than the Pacific Ocean element. It has gone about forging better security and trade ties with a number of key players in the region such as Japan and also members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore. Japan has unveiled its own “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision” and Asean recently announced its “Indo-Pacific Outlook” that envisages a key role for India.
India’s focus on the Indian Ocean element is also evident from the invitees to the Delhi Dialogue and Indian Ocean Dialogue - Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi as a guest of honour, special envoys, deputy ministers and senior officials from Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, the Asean deputy secretary general and the foreign secretaries of Seychelles and the Maldives.
What is often unstated is that these states are all looking at an emerging power such as India to take on a greater role in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight through an order based on international rules in the face of China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, which is most obvious in the South China Sea. Such thinking also dovetails into India’s efforts to emerge as the leading player in the Indian Ocean.
Why has the Indian Ocean become a site of strategic competition?
The Indian Ocean is clearly a key part of China’s efforts to implement its ambitious and strategic connectivity project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Vice Admiral Didier Maleterre, joint commander of French forces in the Indian Ocean, recently noted that China’s presence at a string of civilian and military facilities, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti, has security implications for the region.
From first positioning its warships in the Indian Ocean in 2008 for the ostensible reason of tackling piracy, China has gone on to deploy more assets, including destroyers and conventional and nuclear submarines, which clearly is an indication of its efforts to project its power in the region and dominate sea lanes of communication.
Is China a threat in the maritime domain?
China has, in the past, sent its submarines to the port of Colombo in Sri Lanka and in November, an Indian warship forced Chinese marine research vessel Shi Yan 1 that was operating in India’s exclusive economic zone near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, home to a key tri-services military facility. Former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash tweeted that such a research vessel has to “merely sail through our proximate waters to collect vital data relating to sea water temperature and salinity profiles” that would be vital for anti-submarine warfare and submarine operations.
Most experts believe that China isn’t an imminent threat but its activities in the Indian Ocean and its rapidly expanding naval fleet are of growing concern.
What are the next steps in collaboration on the Indian Ocean?
India’s focus will clearly be more engagement and joint naval exercises with countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia and even a Western power such as France, which has island territories with 1.5 million citizens and 9 million sq km of EEZ in the Indo-Pacific, to forge greater inter-operability and to ensure a rules-based, open and stable trade environment in the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, Indian leaders have spoken of Asean’s centrality in these efforts.
The theme for the Indian Ocean Dialogue on December 13 is “Indo-Pacific: Re-imagining the Indian Ocean through an expanded geography” while the theme for the Delhi Dialogue is “Advancing partnership in Indo-Pacific”, which are aimed at building on the growing recognition of the Indo-Pacific concept in strategic and academic circles within this region and beyond.