The Prime Minister has proposed a new initiative to create a safe and secure maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific, indicating India's readiness to play a bigger role in the region where China has been expanding its military assertiveness. PM Modi floated the idea of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative during his address at the 14th East Asia Summit, a premier forum in the Asia-Pacific region dealing with issues relating security and defence. Apart from the 10 ASEAN member states, East Asia Summit includes India, China, Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, United States and Russia. The ASEAN's current chair Thailand and Australia welcomed the Prime Minister’s proposal. Reflecting growing congruence of interests in the region, senior officials of the Quad' countries also held consultations on Monday on the situation in the Indo-Pacific.
Edited excerpts from the Debate:
Question: What has prompted the PM to coin and come up with this new initiative as far as the Indo-Pacific oceans are concerned?
This initiative is in conjecture to the Shangri-La Dialogue (June 2018, Singapore) where India’s vision of Indo-Pacific was spelt clear; that is, of the centrality of ASEAN.
This is an incremental step as we are now actively talking about an initiative in the region.
Happening at a time when the Indo-Ocean construct is not very clear- whether it is a military or an economic construct?
The geographical context of it is different for different countries.
Question: What shape do you see this initiative taking?
In essence it reflects the actualisation and operationalization of the India-Pacific.
India’s position on the Indo-Pacific Ocean region:
Central position given to ASEAN; to given them a comfort that their role is not diluted in the region in any way.
Ensuring freedom of navigation
Freedom of over-flights
All disputes are resolved as per international conventions– UN convention for the Laws of Seas (UNCLOS)
Have a free, open, inclusive and prosperous concept.
‘Inclusive’ in the sense that China can also be a member. Thus not making this an aggressive or exclusive concept.
Safety and security of the region is of paramount importance.
Sustainably utilising the maritime resources of the region - Have partnerships with countries that are interested in having joint projects - natural resource utilisation, disaster management, security etc.
There is going to be a conference in Chennai on ‘Maritime security in the Indo-Pacific’ in 2020. All members of the East Asian states will be invited to it.
ASEAN’s construct of Indo-Pacific agrees to the centrality of ASEAN, and use of already existing instruments like ‘East Asia Summit’ (EAS) to take forward the concept of maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.
It is for India to a take a leadership role in the region and this initiative is a move away from only talking, and doing something on ground.
Question: What about the China question in the Indo-Pacific?
‘Indo-Pacific Initiative’ verses ‘India-Pacific’ is a significant progress. Moving further from a geographical construct to an action based initiative in the region.
This creates hope that we will come up with measures in which we can implement a certain model of security in the region.
There are different versions that the different countries espouse, but essentially there are three models that can be applied on the ground:
India: Inclusive stakeholdership model.
America- Confrontational model, in which it brings into question the predatory economic practices of China in the region in the way it is implementing its ‘Belt and Road initiative’.
ASEAN- Consociational model, which involves sharing power and responsibilities in the commons with all states, including China.
It’s not about China: ASEAN is against any form of rules based model which implicates China of any unfair practices. Though ASEAN is at the receiving end of China’s excesses in the South China Sea, it still does not exclude China from its Indo-Pacific construct.
ASEAN’s scepticism: ASEAN is supporting the Indo-Pacific idea not because it is totally for it, but only to manage its own internal differences in the Indo-Pacific. Otherwise, it was totally fine with the idea of ‘Asia-Pacific’, as ‘Indo-Pacific’ actually mischaracterises its collective identity. So we should not be so hopeful that ASEAN as a bunch will bandwagon with us in this initiative.
India’s rejection of RECP: ASEAN may take this initiative as India’s balancing position against the obstacles it faced in joining RCEP.
India has in past also come out with ideas and visions but it doesn’t really have the resources to match its strategy with the deeds, and there is fear that this initiative can also meet the same end.
Question: For long the US has been asking India to play a bigger role in the region and that is why it was renamed as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ by the US. Can we see this initiative as India being more assertive in the region?
Developments in the US:
In 2006-07 US wanted India’s naval assets to be better utilised in the region.
Obama’s rebalancing towards Asia initiative.
Indo-Pacific first appeared in Hillary Clintons’ speech and was later formally adopted by the Trump administration.
In 2018 the US pacific Command changed its name to Indo-Pacific Command.
Developments in India:
India first wants to safeguard its own interests. It first needs to have its own economic boom and buoyancy in order to sustain its activity in the Indo-Pacific region.
The western powers may have their own agenda of containing China in the region, but India is not looking for that kind of stand-off.
Question: Why has Quad gained more momentum recently?
Quad was launched in November 2017 on the side-lines of EAS in Manila, Philippines.
Initially Quad functioned only at a junior secretary level, but after China’s unfriendly response to India’s revocation of Article 370 and partial abrogation of Article 35A, India upgraded Quad to ministerial level, on the side-lines of UN general assembly.
None of the quad countries have come out with a joint unified statement against China since each of them has very strong linkages with China, each of a different nature.
US – $400 billion worth trade deficit with China
Australia – Coal exports from Australia to China
Japan – Commercial relationship with China
India – Trade and the 4000km long unsettled border.
ASEAN must not be considered a single block but as different countries, since each of them have their own distinct linkages with China, which is why we cannot expect the whole of ASEAN to come together as a bloc to support the Indo-Pacific initiative.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as the Quad) is an informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia and India that is maintained by talks between member countries. The dialogue was initiated in 2007 by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. The dialogue was paralleled by joint military exercises of an unprecedented scale, titled Exercise Malabar. The diplomatic and military arrangement was widely viewed as a response to increased Chinese economic and military power, and the Chinese government responded to the Quadrilateral dialogue by issuing formal diplomatic protests to its members.
Question: Focus of meetings with many other countries has been Indo-Pacific. What kind of concrete support can we expect from these countries?
Most countries support the idea of the Indo-Pacific. They have not hesitated to accept it as a model of both economic and maritime security in the region.
India maintains that Indo-Pacific and Quad are two completely different concepts and should not be conflated. Quad is more of a consultative forum, while Indo-Pacific is more of a platform to bring different parties together.
While ASEAN fears that too much importance on Quad will dilute their importance in the Indo-Pacific region, but fact of the matter is that the four Quad countries are the real players in the Indo-Pacific region and unless they take a hard stand related to the economic and maritime security, there is little that can be achieved as far as maintaining a favourable balance of power in the region is concerned.
Quad is more of a balancing arrangement for maintaining balance of power and anxieties in the region.
It is no coincidence that there is no joint statement of Quad. There is a clear Indian hesitation to move ahead on many of the proposals that the Quad is putting forward.
There is no mention of a “rules-based order”, as usage of this word means a direct indication of an aggressive stance towards China. Each of the four countries are hedging their way around China.
What we really need to do with regards to Quad or the Indo-Pacific, is have concrete measurable areas/terms in which we can actually asses what developments have happened, and what has been our contribution to maritime security.
There is an action deficit, and proposals with no follow-ups will not beget any results on ground.
Conclusion: Depending on what we are willing to implement on ground, will access our seriousness with regard to tactical security, China and strategic security. China has recently talked of a ‘code of conduct’ in the South China Sea in particular, and developments on this line is crucial for the region, and is a way forward for India. India will not be able to play it due role in the Indo-Pacific unless it has a strong economy, and now that we have moved out of RCEP, it is all the more important that we make our domestic economy strong. There is need for internal reforms - capital, land, labour- if we want to make a contribution to the Indo-Pacific region. Quad and Indo-Pacific should present an alternative to the Belt-Road-Initiative in terms of alternate funding and financing on ground. It is important that this alteration happens, as it will be important for the ASEAN countries to find Indo-Pacific Initiative a value concept worth supporting. And since connectivity is as important as security, there is need for resources to help achieve connectivity in the region. Finally, the principle fault-line in the Indo-Pacific is between those countries that support the rule (US, Japan, Australia) and those that support the order (China and some ASEAN countries). India needs to make its position clear on where it stands in this matter, and after that it can decide on what kind of initiative it wants to follow in the region.
Practice Question: Though ASEAN’s stand with regard to Indo-Pacific is similar to that of India, ASEAN as a whole cannot be relied upon for support of the India-Pacific Initiative. Explain.