Thumbnail images: 

The Indo-Pacific is the new geopolitical construction that has emerged to symbolise the seamless contour of the Indian and Pacific oceans. This construction has replaced the Asia-Pacific in 2011 and has been given as a self-evident reality that has embraced the Western Pacific, the Eastern Pacific and the Eastern Indian Ocean rim. The construction has also been defined as a region that envelops a wide area from the Western Pacific to the Western Indian Ocean reaching the East African shores. The term Indo-Pacific was elucidated by the geopolitics scholar Karl Haushofer coining the term as ‘Indopazifischen Raum’. Haushofer termed it as the ‘dense Indo-Pacific concentration of humanity and cultural empire of India and China, which are geographically sheltered behind the protective veil of the offshore island arcs’. During the Second World War, the term Indo-Pacific was used to connote the seamless maritime theatres of war operations by the Allied Powers. Until recently the term Asia-Pacific was used in the literature that denoted the continental and maritime littoral of this vast region. The Indo-Pacific has been a re-invention due to the high visibility and strategic foot print of United States, China and India with their expanding economic and strategic presence and the new realignments that have been taking place.


India has been expanding its maritime profile steadily since 2001, with its growing trade with Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific regions. The expanding trade profile had also witnessed the growth of its strategic capabilities specifically its naval expansion that has come with modernisation and expanding operations. India’s expansion in its ‘Look East Policy’ has however gone three stages. In the late 1990s, it saw India’s direction of policy with a Southeast Asia focus resulting in the consolidation of its interests; with expanding economic ties and the institutionalisation of India-ASEAN engagement. It witnessed the growing economic interdependence, trade ties, diaspora connections and defence diplomacy. The following decades saw the expansion of India’s Look East Policy further eastward with Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States even as India’s economic ties swung eastward along with its strategic bilateral and multilateral exchanges. India’s continued east-ward focus has also been solidly based on its maritime footprint and its expanding ties brought it with its engagement with Australia. In 2007, India was engaged in its Malabar Exercises with the US, Japan, Australia and Singapore signifying this expanding reach. India’s Maritime doctrines 2007, 2009 has espoused this enlargement in terms of engaging with the Pacific nations with a prominent presence in Southeast Asia. What are the defining criteria of geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, what are India’s interests in the region? How does India define it in terms of its strategic autonomy are some issues that need to be analysed.


The Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific


The Indo-Pacific has been a term that was been used in the classical geopolitical construction in the 19th century and later to denote the operational theatre during World War II when the allied powers had laid out their war strategies against Japan. During the post-War period, the Indian and Pacific Oceans have always been compartmentalized and the strategic literature had connoted it distinctively. The Indian Ocean had always been an area of strategic neglect after the British withdrawal East of Suez 1972, while the Pacific Ocean featured a high degree prominence owing to the presence of the three great powers of the United States, Soviet Union and China. The Pacific Ocean was the critical maritime basin that featured forward deployments of navies and of economic interdependence. Asia-Pacific was the common denominator of the academic and strategic literature that had a wide usage. India in its quest for its Look East Policy was focused more on the Asia-Pacific as a single entity for economic exchanges and interdependence.


The new vista of the Indo-Pacific has been an American invention that tended to integrate the two oceans as seamless. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the term to emphasise the prominence of the “Indo” in the binary concept of the Indo-Pacific. From an Indian viewpoint, it is debatable whether the politics of this term ‘Indo’ refers to India in the Indian Ocean context or is it a American stratagem to build coalitions that would involve India as the fulcrum in the new architecture that the US intends to build vis-a-vis China. The politics of this usage has evoked some debate in India on its given stance. The issue is should India act in its strategic autonomy to build its own conceptions of the emergent security architecture in the region or follow the great power alliances led by the US.


A second strand of the geopolitics of the region that evokes the strategic debate is the triangular strategic transactions between United States, China and India in the region. With the US hinging its strategic pivot in the region by way of deployments of its naval and air forces and the economic re-engagement in the region, it is acknowledged that the US is responding to the economic and strategic assertion of China in the region, responding to the concerns of its allies. The US re-balance is also seen augmenting its resources to the region in an era of its relative decline. The Indo-Pacific geopolitical construction provides to the US, the means to bolster its presence and also engage in coalition building, strengthening the existing hub and spokes alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia. The US also wishes to engage in strategic partnership with India to provide a hedge against China in the western flank and Japan on the eastern flank. The orchestration of the Indo-Pacific and the strategic engagement of India are seen as a catalyst to Indian proaction in the region at the US behest. India needs to assess at this juncture how its strategic interests would be promoted and to what extent its strategic autonomy would be preserved. Given India’s engagement with the Pacific powers through naval diplomacy, Is India working for the US architecture to contain China or is India balancing its interests evenly is to be assessed.


The third strand of the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific is the oft-talked Asia Pivot. Given Asia’s economic rise and the strategic competition that is now ensuing in the region, Great powers are creating their pivots in the region. The US re-balancing of its forces and the economic initiative of the Trans Pacific Partnership intends to establish a US Asia pivot. China on the other hand has been strengthening its economic engagement with the East Asia Summit and has been deepening its economic exchanges with Southeast Asia. China’s Asia pivot comes in the form of its expanding naval modernisation and the desire to expand its zone of influence and control through its second and third island chains into the Western Pacific and also into the Indian Ocean. China’s disputes with Japan and its South China Sea disputes with its Southeast Asian neighbours have been marks of its expanding strategic footprint that has come in the form out of area deployments in the Indian Ocean and its strategic naval capabilities expanding in the South and East China Seas. In this context, it is essential to infer what would be the pivot that India is determined to establish and pursue. Would it be as part of the coalition building with US leadership or is India determined to pursue its autonomous interests in the region.


The fourth strand of the geopolitics of the region is the strategic proaction of the emerging powers of the region Japan, South Korea and Australia. The US led alliance system ties the emerging powers with the United States in the hub and spokes model. US security guarantees with these powers is bolstered with extensive economic interdependence and trade. In the face of the assertive rise of China, the emerging powers are pursuing their agendas of strategic modernization with US encouragement and support. India has growing and deepening economic exchanges with the emerging powers of the Pacific and reciprocally the emerging powers have been investing in India and have also limited forward presence in the Indian Ocean. India’s economic and strategic exchanges with the emerging powers positions India into the Indo-Pacific as part of its extended neighbourhood.


The fifth strand of the regional geopolitics is the evidence of Power transition in the Indo-Pacific. Power transitions between the US and China is hastening the military competition between China and US and it has increased the regional concerns of the states responding to the power rise of China. Power transition is the process that commences with the dissatisfaction of the rising powers towards the dominant overlay of the regional and global hegemon, whose economic and security guarantees to the region could be challenged by the rising power dissatisfied with the system. The balance of power in the Indo-Pacific has been evident in the naval and air forces modernization and the revamping of their capabilities of the regional states and the extra-regional powers.


With the above geopolitics that is evident what are India’s stakes in the region? How would India navigate the turbulence and the promise of the region that is rife with several challenges?


India’s strategic engagement with Indo-Pacific


India’s Look East Policy is expanding and consolidating beyond Southeast Asia with its reach with Japan, South Korea and Australia. Economic exchanges and trade with the three powers have increased in a colossal manner. Similarly, India’s strategic engagements with the three Pacific powers have been increasing. India’s naval footprint has reached the Eastern Pacific and it has resulted in the institutionalisation of bilateral exercises with these powers.


With these developments, the moot question that is raised Is there a niche ‘for India in the Indo-Pacific region? This is often queried in the strategic and policy community in India and the region. India’s interests could be termed in terms of the concentric layers of its presence and engagement. In the near term, India’s interests are in its own backyard and the Indian Ocean. This is pivotal as its engagement in the immediate neighbourhood is vital. Given the prospects of challenges and threats from Pakistan and China in the region, India’s focus has been to secure its flanks as well as work out its naval diplomacy and build in benign naval capacity with the smaller states in the Indian Ocean like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius. Since 2001, India’s economic and strategic engagement with Southeast Asia has expanded incrementally with closer interdependence and strategic partnership with several Southeast Asian states like Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines. India’s ‘Look East’ Policy had incrementally expanded into East Asia with its partnerships with Japan exemplified with its salient economic trade and commercial partnerships. Since the NSG waiver for India, India and Japan have been closely looking into bilateral strategic partnerships and naval exercises in the East Pacific. India’s engagement has also been expanding with South Korea in various areas of engagement that has resulted in greater strategic partnership between India and the East Asian powers. India’s engagement with the East Asia Summit has been an important milestone as economic interdependence expands. Hence the economic rationale for strategic partnerships has been the primary energising source for India’s expanding role in the region.


Yet another debate in the strategic community within India has been about how India should shape its eastward engagement in the context of its strategic autonomy that dictates that India should stand for its independent policy and should shun dependence on other powers or being dictated by other powers in terms of its foreign policy and security policy. There is considerable divide in this regard of how the Indian strategic community prefers to posture this question. However, strategic autonomy choices in the region feature the regional perspective of how rising powers could envision their role and scope of engagement in the region. The Indian perspective the Indo-Pacific is not yet clear. There is a divided opinion over the expansive engagement in the Indo-Pacific even as it is engaging the neighbourhood in Southeast Asia. The linking of Indian and US interests is seen in the convergence for the Indo-Pacific, There is however certain sections of the Indian strategic community that view the necessity of an Indian approach to the Indo-Pacific as independent of other approaches.


Even as this remains an important factor in India’s engagement, there has been a steady increase of India’s strategic initiatives that have come in recent years. It has been exemplified in the expansion of its naval diplomacy in the region. India’s naval diplomacy and its symbolic forward presence has been the singular factor that has shaped India’s Indo-Pacific operational picture.


India’s naval initiatives and extended naval footprint


India’s maritime strategy has been evolving to a definitive Eastward focus since 2007. The release of its capstone maritime doctrine of Indian Maritime Doctrine INBR 8 (April 2004) was the basis of India’s naval activism. This was followed by other statements viz the Indian Navy’s Vision Statement (May 2006), Roadmap to Transformation (October 2006). The Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy (IMMS) (September 2007) was the benchmark document that provided the initial impetus of a new Indian vision of articulating its eastward focus. Several platform and infrastructure developments attribute to the growing interest of India for adding sinews to its eastern fleet that is gaining momentum with hosting and conducting fleet exercises with the Southeast Asian navies and with the Pacific powers like South Korea, Japan, United States and even Russia.


Deployment of taskforces has been a frequent event with the Eastern Fleet even as the Navy had dispatched taskforces into the South China Sea and extending it to the Pacific. In June 2012, the Eastern Fleet task force of four warships embarked on a visit to East Asia carrying out exercises with the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force. En-route to the north-eastern Pacific, the ships made port calls in Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines. The task force on return journey had also embarked on exercises with the PLA-Navy. The deployment of annual task forces to Southeast Asia and the Pacific signifies India’s intent and capability to retain and sustain the economic and energy interests in the Sakhalin and the strategic stake of the Navy in the Pacific.


The deployment of taskforces and the expeditionary capability reflect the Indian Navy’s objective of “desired power projection force levels, undertake military operations other than war and the ability to influence events ashore.  The deployment of the taskforces have been sustained with various tiers of exercises with Southeast Asian navies and the Pacific navies of South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States demonstrating the capacity and varied complexity of the platforms with various naval forces. The deployment of taskforces and the exercises symbolise the Indian Navy’s sustained intent and capacity for closer naval partnerships with the Southeast Asian navies.


Expanding great power naval engagement India joins the great power concert in Southeast Asia with its maritime forward presence. India features as a major power along with Japan and South Korea in terms of economic and strategic engagement. India’s naval engagement in the region would continue as a significant factor even as the PLAN naval expansion and its surge into the Indian Ocean region continues. India would see it as a strategic engagement in its ties with Southeast Asian navies and a counter-bulwark to the PLAN expansion in the region. Even as India expands with its naval engagements with the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Australia in the Eastern Pacific as well as in the Indian Ocean region, India’s role as a significant actor in the region enhances in its credibility. India’s gradual increase of the size and the sophistication of its warship dispatches into the region and the increasing complexity of its naval exercises with Pacific powers of Japan and South Korea; its participation in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium and the enlargement of the Malabar series within Indian and the Pacific waters burnishes India’s credentials to an important benchmark of its power status. With the Indo-Pacific gaining its significance in the context of the new power alignments with the US rebalancing to the Pacific, the US access to Darwin in Australia all raise the prospect of India’s greater naval involvement in this theatre


Increasing importance to interoperability The Indian Navy’s exercises with Southeast Asian navies have varied levels of scope with the different naval forces of the regions. Indian naval operations have the objective to develop capacity for interoperability with the various Southeast Asian navies although each force varies in terms of different operational capacities and platform capabilities. Interoperability may not be feasible with the vast differences in training, operations and platforms, yet the exercises with each of the navies provide the Indian navy familiarity of operations and development of capacity. Although the exercises cannot accrue real offensive capability, the scope in terms of cooperative and constabulary elements remains high. From the Indian Navy’s point of view, these exercises enhance maritime domain awareness, sharing of maritime intelligence and enhance the benign scope of ties. India’s hosting of the MILAN and IONS reciprocally brings in the Southeast Asian navies to Indian waters for similar exercises that serve to enhance interoperable features of the various operational capacities of the different navies with the Indian Navy. Interoperability serves as the benchmark of the closer degree of naval cooperation and operational capacity. The Indian Navy’s operational capacity and its doctrinal focus endeavour towards greater cooperative capacity between its force and the navies in the region.


Sustaining naval footprint would be a strategic priority for the Indian Navy even as it adds new platforms into the Eastern Fleet. India’s nuclear submarine platform is deployed in the Eastern Fleet and the addition of the INS Vikramaditya India’s next aircraft carrier to the Eastern Fleet would significantly enhance carrier air power. With the increase of the frigates and destroyers to the fleet that comes by way of the carrier task group; it would provide the lateral platform expansion that comes along with the new combat capabilities. The newly inducted ‘Shivalik’ and ‘Teg’ class ships are a manifestation of the navy’s desire to acquire strategic assets. The INS Teg was inducted in May 2012, followed by the INS Sahyadri, commissioned a few weeks later are the two latest multi-purpose frigates to have joined the Fleet  The frigates are tasked  for a broad spectrum of maritime missions that adds to the  ‘strategic posturing’ and deployable for long-term maritime missions. India’s support ships like long range oil tankers are being added to the fleet that would provide the fleet longer legs and would sustain the naval footprint in the region. India is also negotiating with Russia for three additional frigates of the Krivak-IV class that would serve to increase the platform numbers and enhance combat versatility of the fleet deployments.


In summation, the analysis on India’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific has been premised on India’s growing economic trade, commercial investments, economic and trade interdependence that has directed the strategic engagement with the region. India’s role in the region is expanding in terms of how its presence and partnerships could shape the Asian security architecture that has important strategic implications. India’s imperatives lies in sustaining its economic development and growth that are sustainable and are competitive with strong proaction in economic, commercial and technological partnerships with Southeast Asia ARF and with Japan, South Korea and Australia. The scope and sustenance of enduring partnerships with these powers encompassing a crucial system-shaping diplomatic synergy of India is extremely vital for India to be seriously reckoned in the region.


India’s crucial balancing role in a prospective US-China duopoly of the Asia-Pacific regional order would serve to enhance its presence and would augur a meaningful role to its power. With the discontents of an assertive China and a dilemma ridden American power, India’s role and stabilizing impact would build the sinews of strength of a regional order that is not entirely swayed to the ruthless hegemony of China nor suffer from the pangs of the US strategic dilemma of staying engaged in the region. In an obvious power transition, India’s normative leadership backed by its pragmatic calculus of economic strength and strategic capacity would provide the necessary foundations of India’s proaction in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.