“Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative”: A Benign Grand Strategy in Making?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Thailand to participate in ASEAN related summits including the ASEAN-India Summit, East Asia Summit and a meeting on RCEP negotiations. There couldn’t have been a better way for New Delhi to engage with ASEAN nations in its bid to underscore its resolve and seriousness for its evolving Indo-Pacific vision.

During the visit Prime Minister Modi also tied the importance of his ASEAN-related summits and meetings to India’s Act East policy and stated “ASEAN is the integral part of our Act East Policy and will always be. An integrated and progressive ASEAN will favour India. We want to strengthen our partnership on maritime security, blue economy and human co-operation on several other such issues”. In many ways, the reassurances from this visit establish a channel for the actionable continuity in India’s “ASEAN centrality” approach to evolving regional perceptions - a lynchpin of its Indo-Pacific vision. In a way, Prime Minister Modi also tied Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar and Vietnam in a single strand of geopolitics germane to India’s evolving Indo-Pacific vision.

Perhaps the most significant strand of India’s foreign policy manifestation was Prime Minister’s articulation of “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” for safe, secure and stable maritime domain with focus on creating partnerships among interested states in “enhancing maritime security; sustainably using marine resources; disaster prevention and management.” This is conceptually a step further in the direction of concretizing India’s Indo-Pacific vision. At its heart it seeks to achieve a more geopolitically sophisticated and long-term goal of combining interests and intent of regional players based on common interests pertaining to sustainable use of marine resources by nations on either side of the Strait of Malacca.

Newer frameworks of cooperation have become imperative to accommodate evolving interests of countries in the Indo-Pacific region. As such, the “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” not only dilutes geopolitical and connectivity borders between nations of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, but also seeks to collectively use, protect and preserve the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. In India’s iteration, “sustainability” is the centre-point of its “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative”.

On a parallel note, BIMSTEC is long held as a cross-regional model for attaining sustainable development, especially in the resolve of its leaders to cooperate on blue economy for sustainable development. BIMSTEC’s focus on climate change and health of oceans further strengthens its complementarity with sustainable developments goals and could place it at the center of New Delhi’s preferred model of engagement with countries to its east. This finds more currency even as BIMSTEC seeks to overshadow SAARC in the region in India’s attempt to diversify its connectivity with Southeast Asian countries. For instance, with Thailand, India seeks to establish a robust connect between the Bay of Bengal (including the Andaman Sea) and the critical Gulf of Thailand under the BIMSTEC framework.

Circumventing the obstructive geography created by the Strait of Malacca is a critical component of the “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative”. This initiative is undergirded by India’s desire to raise stakes in the South China Sea, its growing vocal interests in the Gulf of Tonkin, and its repeated efforts to gain a hand in managing the physical security of the Strait of Malacca, all of which are indicative of India’s two-oceans strategy.

Another important goal of “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” is to achieve a grand strategy that encompasses economic, foreign policy and security statecraft. This is reflective in India’s Indonesia outreach. The “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” could be envisaged on similar lines as Indonesian president JokoWidodo’s plan to turn the country into the “Global Maritime Fulcrum” (GMF)—a force between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In other words, India’s new initiative could very well be an actionable grand strategy to deal with geostrategic compulsions of the vast Indo-Pacific region.

Other countries like Myanmar, Japan and Vietnam, whose leaders PM Modi met during the visit, balance the Pacific-deficit in India’s two-oceans strategy in the Indo-Pacific. An infrastructure-oriented development push will be India’s preferred mode of improving connectivity linkages with countries in the Pacific Ocean - essentially fulfilling the requirements of its “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative”. Of particular interest will be India’s proposed $1 billion line of credit to promote projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN and a similar line of credit to resource-rich Russian Far East. While the first is intended to promote projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN, the second seeks to build the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor passing through the critical South China Sea. These reflect that although India’s “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” harps on sustainability, it also concerns a grand strategy with a long term vision.

India’s desire to improve relations with countries to its east, especially ASEAN countries, is pegged on efforts to strengthen “partnership on maritime security, blue economy and human co-operation” and the connectivity infrastructure will act as a conduit to facilitate these partnerships. The “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” has the potential to combine two vast oceanic regions along with the goals of the nations in these region and above all to accomplish the aforementioned goals without creating hostilities - a benign grand strategy in making.

Dr Vivek Mishra is Research Fellow India Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.

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