International Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region


The Indo-Pacific Region as a concept has not yet found acceptance by the international community as a whole, or even all the countries belonging to this region, much less the two major powers that are geographically part of it. 

China has concerns about this concept because it believes it is part of an American strategy to ring fence it. Russia is not in favour because it believes the concept revives bloc politics harking back to the Cold War and targets Russia too. China and Russia continue to use the term Asia-Pacific, which is older as a concept, includes them, and has an economic thrust, not a security one. Both countries members of Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC).

ASEAN too has not accepted Indo-Pacific as a working concept. In reality, ASEAN is wary about this concept developing into a new security forum, centred on maritime security, reducing, as a consequence, its centrality in developing a regional security architecture in Asia.

Even countries in the Indian Ocean, that are neighbours of India, do not subscribe to this concept diplomatically.  Bangladesh and Sri Lanka would have hesitation in adopting it in deference to Chinese sensitivities. Pakistan, of course, as a close ally of China, will not accept it. 

Europe, barring France, which has territories in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific, is not a significant security player in the Indo-Pacific region, though the EU is increasingly concerned about China’s geopolitical ambitions reflected in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including its maritime component.

The origin of the concept would make many countries cautious about endorsing it. They would see it as related to the sharpening of Japan-China territorial differences in the East China Sea, and Prime Minister’s Abe’s desire to amend Japan’s constitution to allow the country to play a more active regional defence role. When Prime Minister Abe spoke of the “Confluence of the two Seas” in his address to the Indian Parliament in 2007, he made a strategic link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Later, in 2012, when he spoke about Asia’s Democracy Security Diamond, he made his concerns about China clear, when he stated that peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean were inseparable from that in the Indian ocean, and that Japan, as one of the oldest sea-faring democracies in Asia, should play a greater role alongside Australia, India, and the US in preserving the common good in both regions. He expressed concern about the South China Sea becoming “Lake Beijing”, which would allow China to position its nuclear submarines there to threaten neighbours. Japan, he said was willing to invest, to the greatest extent possible, its capabilities in this security diamond. He saw India, sitting at the western end of the Malacca Straits, deserving greater emphasis. He invited Britain and France to make a comeback to the region.

In this background, one cannot as yet talk of broad-based international cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, though one can certainly talk of reinforced India-Japan-US-Australia in the Indo-Pacific region, with France endorsing it and the EU paying increasing attention to it.

India took a major strategic step by signing a document with the US on a Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Regions. By this India accepted that the security of the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Regions was linked, and that the two countries had shared concerns and responsibilities to maintain peace and security in this extended maritime domain. Burden-sharing would logically be a part of this by way of logistics cooperation, interoperability and the build-up of India’s maritime capabilities. With the official adoption of the term Indo-Pacific by the US, India’s strategic role in this large maritime space has acquired greater centrality, which is further underscored by the US Pacific Command being renamed as the Indo-Pacific Command. 

India, by virtue of its geography, dominates the Indian Ocean physically. Its navy, the fifth largest in the world, is, locally, the most powerful. The US, with its presence in Diego Garcia, has a powerful military presence in the Indian Ocean and can move huge naval assets to these waters whenever required. In the Western Pacific the US deploys the 7th Fleet, has military bases and military personnel on the ground as part of an alliance system. India and the US are, therefore, complementary partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

The maritime threats to peace and stability in the Indian Ocean emanate neither from India nor the US. India has no unresolved maritime disputes with its neighbours (barring Pakistan in the Kutch area in the Arabian Sea). Its maritime dispute with Bangladesh has been resolved, with India accepting the judgment of the Court of Arbitration under UNCLOS. The Indian Ocean is free of any sovereignty disputes over islands, or activities to reclaim reefs and rocks. The US, in turn, has no sovereignty claims in the Western Pacific and is not involved in any maritime disputes with regional countries. It has treaty obligations to defend its regional allies and is determined to exercise freedom of navigation and overflights in the region in accordance with international law.

The source of current maritime threats in the Indo-Pacific region is China. It’s illegal nine dash line in the South China Sea (SCS), reclamation of rocks and reefs in the SCS and militarising them, disputes with Japan (Senkakus), Vietnam (Spratlys), Philippines (Scarborough Shoal), Indonesia and Brunei, have raised tensions in the region. China has stalled negotiations on a Code of Conduct in the SCS because it wants to present faits accomplis to its neighbours. Its massive naval expansion plans are a cause of concern, coupled with declared ambitions to develop a blue water navy to protect its sea-lanes of communication and rapidly growing overseas assets. 

China is expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean with development of ports in key countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, apart from similar efforts in Bangladesh and Maldives. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that links Sinkiang to Gwadar in Pakistan gives China access to the Arabian Sea, and the China-Myanmar Corridor gives it access to the Bay of Bengal. These two corridors are intended to ease China’s Malacca Dilemma. More importantly, these corridors are the link between the land and maritime dimensions of China’s BRI. This implies that for the first time in history one single power could dominate both the Asian landmass and the seas around it. This would be a huge geopolitical development with very serious security implications for the rest of the world. China is developing dual use ports in the Indian Ocean. In addition to its base in Djibouti, China will almost certainly develop a nave base in Pakistan. This will facilitate China’s expansion towards the Gulf and Africa. Chinese submarines have already surfaced in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

India and the US have been conducting the Malabar Exercise in the Indian Ocean for some years now. The complexity and scale of this exercise have grown every passing year, and now the exercise has been made trilateral with Japan’s participation. Protecting SLOCS, combating piracy, trafficking, smuggling, terrorism and supporting HADR are shared objectives. India has signed a logistics agreement and an inter-operability agreement with the US, and has acquired advanced American maritime surveillance capabilities (PI8 aircraft). India, US and Japan have held naval exercises in the Sea of Japan. 

55% of India’s trade passes through the SCS and therefore India backs freedom of navigation and overflights in this maritime zone. India is also exploring for oil in the Vietnamese EEZ. India and Japan support a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and politically cooperate with each other to affirm this. The foundation of defence ties between the two countries is also being built. In 2018 India and Japan signed a Maritime Domain Awareness agreement covering white shipping. This creates the basis for intelligence and information sharing going beyond commercial shipping in the future, especially as Japan has a potent maritime reconnaissance fleet. A logistics (ACSA-type) agreement between the two countries is being discussed, which will undoubtedly contribute to regional peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region by allowing India access to Japan’s base in Djibouti. Such an agreement would have the potential of the Indian navy obtaining access to bases in Okinawa and thus sustain itself in the western Pacific. India and Japan have agreed to develop smart islands in India, which opens the doors to India-Japan collaboration in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

India-Australia defence cooperation is being stepped up, with a focus on the Indo-Pacific. In early September this year India’s naval chief was in Australia. In November India’s Defence Minister will visit Australia and the expectation is that a mutual logistics support agreement, information exchange, as well as a broader maritime cooperation agreement, important for maritime domain awareness, will be signed then to elevate the strategic partnership. Bilateral naval exercises with Australia are being scaled up, with the third expanded Ausindex exercise (a 1000 Australian naval contingent participated) conducted off the coast of Vishakapatnam on the east coast of India in April this year. It included four frontline ships with integral helicopters, P8I and P8A Maritime Reconnaissance Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft, and 55 American and 20 New Zealand military personnel present as witnesses. According to an Indian government statement, the enhanced complexity of this exercise was indicative of the interoperability of the two navies.  Both navies are co-chairs for the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium working group on information sharing and interoperability for which the inaugural meeting was hosted by Australia in June this year. So far, however, Australia has not been included in the trilateral India-US-Japan trilateral Malabar Exercise.

Along with all this, the Quad concept (India, US, Japan, Australia) is getting more traction. Four official level meetings of Quad have been held until now. With the first meeting of the Quad at Foreign Ministers level on the margins of the UN General Assembly session at New York a major political decision has been taken. India believes in keeping the Quad separate from the Indo-Pacific concept, as it is narrower in scope, involving only four countries, and has a military dimension in addition to a political one. Australia, for example, has been keen to join the Malabar Exercise, to make it quadrilateral. While the Quad is separate from the Indo-Pacific concept, it will bolster it as an additional arrangement to promote peace, stability and rule of law in the region. The agenda of Quad goes beyond maritime security, with issues like counter-terrorism, cyber security, Humanitarian and Disaster Relief, development finance also getting discussed.

China’s BRI, announced in 2013, has won it many constituencies in the Indo-Pacific region. China is the biggest trade partner of ASEAN; it has offered mega infrastructure projects to some ASEAN countries, and has targeted key countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand for connectivity projects. It has succeeded in reclaiming and militarising the SCS islands without triggering US intervention. It has succeeded in dividing ASEAN on SCS issues.  The US, under President Trump, is no longer seen as reliable as before as a security and economic ally. Trump’s policies towards North Korea have caused uncertainty in the region. China’s trade and investment ties with Japan, Australia and the US are huge; even with India trade is very considerable. This has a bearing on how far other countries in the Indo-Pacific region would be willing to go to challenge China head-on. The RCEP negotiations, from which the US is absent, are being accelerated, in full awareness that, with the US walking out of TPP, Chinese economic domination of the Indo-Pacific region is being bolstered. 

ASEAN is concerned about mounting US-China tensions; it would rather not have to choose sides between the two, because while the US is important for them for security, China is important for trade, and they would like to avoid binary choices, preferring, instead, to have the best of both worlds. Similar concerns are being expressed in Australia, given the vital economic ties the country has with China. Japan has to strike a balance between its massive economic interests in China and its real concerns about China’s unlawful and aggressive maritime conduct. India views China as its biggest strategic adversary but has to recognise the reality of the Indo-Pacific concept not covering its land threat from China, the China-Pakistan nexus, the geopolitical danger of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the exclusion of the Arabian Sea from the ambit of America’s Indo-Pacific Command, and so on. India has therefore to keep China engaged, knowing that it has to address its issues with China essentially on its own. The unpredictability of Trump’s America does not help in forging truly robust policies towards China by others.

In this context, Prime Minister Modi’s speech at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018 deserves attention, as it dealt extensively with the Indo-Pacific concept. He mentioned how the Malacca Strait and South China Sea connect India to the Pacific and to most of our major partners - ASEAN, Japan, Republic of Korea, China and the Americas. He noted that India is helping to improve maritime security for our friends and partners, promoting collective security through forums like Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and advancing a comprehensive agenda of regional co-operation through Indian Ocean Rim Association, besides working with partners beyond the Indian Ocean Region to ensure that the global transit routes remain peaceful and free for all.

Prime Minister Modi recognised in his speech that an important pillar of the India-US partnership is our shared vision of an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region. Importantly, he noted that India’s relations with Indonesia had been upgraded to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, with a common vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. India Armed Forces, especially our Navy, he said, are building partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region for peace and security, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. They train, exercise and conduct goodwill missions across the region. For example, with Singapore, India has the longest un-interrupted naval exercise, which is in its twenty fifth year now. India will work with partners like Vietnam to build mutual capabilities, he said.

The Indo-Pacific is a natural region, according to him.  The ten countries of South East Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilisational sense. 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, or directed against any country. India's vision for the Indo-Pacific Region is, he said, a positive one.  Its many elements are: One, it stands for a free, open, inclusive region. It includes all nations in this geography as also others beyond who have a stake in it. Two, Southeast Asia is at its centre, and ASEAN has been and will be central to its future. Three, a common rules-based order for the region should be evolved through dialogue. Such an order must believe in sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as equality of all nations, irrespective of size and strength. These rules and norms should be based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few. It also means that when nations make international commitments, they must uphold them. Four, we should all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. Five, there are many connectivity initiatives in the region; these must be based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability. They must empower nations, not place them under impossible debt burden. They must promote trade, not strategic competition.

India is cooperating with Indonesia and Singapore to allay ASEAN concerns about the Indo-Pacific concept reducing their centrality in developing a regional security architecture in Asia. India has strong ties with Vietnam. It continues to pay attention to Myanmar as a key country for developing east-west connectivity from India through Myanmar to Thailand and eventually on to Vietnam. India has patiently watched the situation in Maldives turn in its favour. It is keeping a close eye on Chinese activities in Sri Lanka and has stepped up its own political economic and cultural engagement with this neighbour. India is active in forging stronger ties with Indian Ocean island states, including Seychelles and Mauritius.

India has, in May 2018, signed a Joint Strategic Vision for Cooperation in the Indian Ocean region with France. This will cover the south western Indian Ocean region in particular, with maritime security, combating piracy, terrorism etc at its centre. This cooperation will assist in keeping an eye on non-regional naval activities in the Horn of Africa and the eastern sea board of Africa, in particular through the Mozambique channel. India and France have also signed a logistics agreement.

In short, India is actively participating in forging international cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region as broadly as possible and at different levels.

Author is a former Foreign Secretary, Government of India. The above is the speech made on Indo-Pacific at a symposium in Tokyo.

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