The Indo-Pacific had remained somewhat vague in India’s foreign policy conception until Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an official statement about what the term means to India and how it wants to go ahead with the concept in both strategic priorities and regional integration efforts. In his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 1, 2018, he declared that Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is at the core of India’s Indo-Pacific policy. In April 2019, India took another step towards consolidating its Indo-Pacific policy. At the bureaucratic level, the Ministry of External Affairs has reorganised some of its departments and formed the Indo-Pacific division which would promote India’s Indo-Pacific policy.
These initiatives are indicative of two possibilities. First, it demonstratesIndia’s decision to reaffirm the significance ofASEAN centrality. India has made it evident that its Act East Policy is linked to its Indo-Pacific approach. Since the 1990s, it has opted for a regional approach with ASEAN at the drivers’ seat. Barely anyASEAN-India statement has been issued without amention of India’s commitment for ASEAN centrality. Second, India is attempting to disengage the quadrilateral security dialogue from its Indo-Pacific policy. In fact, it is signaling towards the inclusion of more countries so that it is not seen as a move aimed at any third country.
Do the above policy decisions mean that India still shies away from taking a leading role in the region? This may not be a right assertion. India’s regional approach includes contributing towards strengthening the ASEAN as also improving relations with China and this approach is yielding results too. No border stand-off has taken place after Doklam. However, this does not mean that India-China relations are free of boundary disputes and there won’t be border transgressions in future. Recently, Masood Azhar, the chief of the Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-E-Mohammed (JeM) has finally been listed as a global terrorist in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 1267 Committee sanctions list, which China had earlier blocked on technical grounds at least four times.
India is often criticised for not upgrading the India-Australia-Japan-U.S. Consultations on the Indo-Pacific known as the quadrilateral security dialogue to a higher level. While there is no doubt that the four countries are committed towards ‘free and the open Indo-Pacific’, all the four countries have so far been unsuccessful in issuing a single joint statement at the end of the meetings. This shows that they are yet to reach a consensus on their respective approaches.
Considering its past experience in dealing with four-nation coordination, India is cautious. For example, earlier when quadrilateral initiative was proposed for the first time by Shinzo Abe, Australia was reluctant about India while it was open to the idea of working with the United States and Japan.
India is giving significant attention to [personalised] bilateral meetings such as the Wuhan Summit with China and Sochi Summit with Russia. Similarly, it is engaging in trilateral dialogues such as RIC (Russia, India, China) and the Japan-United States-India at the Foreign Minister level; and India-Australia-Indonesia and India-Japan-Australia at senior official level.
In June 2019, Patrick M. Shanahan, Acting Secretary of Defence will be unveiling US Indo-Pacific strategyat the Shangri-La Dialogue. In all probability, his speech would focus on calling for concerted efforts against China’s coercive measures in the region amid the ongoing China-United States trade war. There will again be differences in the vision. While the United States calls for greater cooperation from India to counter the ‘China threat’, India does notconsider it prudent to openly balance China specially when it is not in an alliancepartner of the United States. India’s strategy of engaging China and at the same time, bolstering its Indo-Pacific policy seems to bethe most viable option at the moment.
Existing strategic equilibrium of the Indo-Pacific region is susceptible to unforeseen changes stimulated by China’s rapid rise and more importantly, its efforts to include both the United States and the existingwestern norms and rules of international order. The definition of the Indo-Pacific cannot be reduced to an anti-China platform. It has much more to it. The confluence of geography, strategic interests along with the necessity on part of these countries to protect the liberal and democratic international and regional order are the bedrock of the Indo-Pacific.
Ms Sana Hashmi is with Future Directions International, Perth and is the author of China’s Approach towards Territorial Disputes: Lessons and Prospects.