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The “Indo-Pacific”: a strategic concept gets concrete

Photo By: Lance Cpl. Kasey Peacock

We have introduced the notion of “Indo-Pacific” to our readers two months ago. The term is developing its international acknowledgment; Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put it at the centre of his strategic outreach. The US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has publicly recognized its relevance and the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command in charge of US military activities in the Pacific has been renamed “Indo-Pacific Command”. So, there must be more in the name than just geography. PM Modi has spelled it out: The Indo-Pacific is the region within which India sees its essential interests of strategic partnerships and economic development. India recognizes the South East Asian nations and economies as its natural cooperation partners when building and strengthening the bridges between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. And it puts the ASEAN at the centre of its institutional network in the Indo-Pacific region. Thinking of cooperating with others, PM Modi has designed an “Act East Policy” and participates in the most important political initiatives and frameworks of the region. A month ago, at the Shangri-La Dialogue conference in Singapore, PM Modi gave a full picture of the principles and values that should, according to India, guide the “free and open Indo-Pacific”. At the rhetorical surface they aim at an area of common pursuit of progress and prosperity and seek multilateral forms for the development of institutional structures of peace and security in the region. He urged all stakeholders in the region to evolve a common rules-based order for the region, in order to make the Indo-Pacific an inclusive area benefitting all rather than being a grouping seeking to dominate or to be directed against any country. His appeal to create an area where all have equal access to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air was a thinly veiled hint at recent Chinese moves to ascertain areas of exclusive use for its trade routes running through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, without however naming that other Asian giant in this respect. Calling for the equality of all nations irrespective of size and strength, for the freedom of navigation, for the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law amounts to banning from the Indo-Pacific all hegemonic dreams of old or new powers. The US, represented at the conference by its Defence Secretary James Mattis, embraced all principles and values meant to guide a free and open Indo-Pacific as introduced by the Indian Prime Minister. Mattis seemed, however, to ignore that India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region contains elements critical to the US strategy of being able and prepared to impose shared principles through economic and political and ultimately military power. In short, Modi put the Indo-Pacific region at the centre of India’s foreign and security policy and the South East Asian States and the organisation ASEAN at the centre of the region while the US made clear that “America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay”. Neither Modi nor Mattis mentioned the QUAD, the quadrilateral security alignment of the US, Japan, Australia and India from some ten years ago. That strategic network with the not so strongly hidden purpose of containing China in the wider region is being revitalised these days. The QUAD will remain in the background of coming Indo-Pacific debates and developments as a contrast and as a reminder that geopolitical visions are difficult to separate from strategic aspirations with domination purposes. India has positioned itself, the US did likewise at the conference mentioned above. What remains to be seen is how the South East Asian nations and the ASEAN, the presumed “centre of the Indo-Pacific”, define their future role assigned to them by India and the US. Let us, in the way of a conclusion from the Indian point of view, state, and state again: the current Indian Government does in the international strategic field the right things. The open question is, how and how far it manages to mobilise the necessary means for the implementation of its visions.

28th June 2018 / Philippe Welti

(Sources and references: Government of India/Ministry of External Affairs, Speeches;  International Institute for Strategic Affairs, IISS,”iiss-voices-2018-2623, London 2018)

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