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The new “Indo-Pacific Region”: What is in it for India?

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was an Indian naval officer who coined the term “Indo-Pacific” in 2007. Now, US Government officials have switched to the term as a replacement for “Asia” or the usual “Asia-Pacific”. In most recent statements by the US President himself, it has systematically become the exclusive strategic term for “Asia-Pacific”. So, it must have some polemic connotation, as most of what that president says. Beyond polemics, what semantic and strategic changes does this term entail? In a US perspective, this term brings India into the fundamentally important focus on Asia with China at its natural centre, at least at the centre of US concerns. At first sight, it makes us aware that, in contrast, India must have been, somehow, outside of American strategic concepts of Asia being the Western shore of the Pacific. Indeed, from a US point of view, there is no place on earth further away from Washington. The precise antipode of Washington lies somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean, completely void of any human settlement, let alone of busy urban areas typical for the American East coast. In American strategic concepts just as in the administration of global US military structures, the Indian Ocean serves as a sort of transit area between the wider Persian Gulf area and the Asia-Pacific. This, as it seems, has changed recently. It may have started with first offers of President Bush jr. to the Republic of India in the early years of the current century to get closer to each other and develop a strategic partnership. Since, the partnership has developed, much to the excitement of both the current government of Prime Minister Modi and his predecessor government led by the Congress Party. Partly, it is a further consequence of the historic demise of the late Soviet Union, the subsequent disintegration of its strategic alliances with leading Non-Aligned governments such as the Republic of India and, as a result of it, a general restructuring of strategic networks globally. The (slow) reorientation of India’s basic economic philosophy from old Nehru socialism to liberalisation is partly cause, partly effect of the strategic realignment. For sure, it serves fundamental desires of the USA and India to contain China’s expansion as a commercial power, which is gaining more and more strategic weight in global affairs. To be seen as an “indispensable” partner by the USA meets India’s interests also with regard to its other regional antagonists. Pakistan, most importantly, calls for more forceful resistance by India in their decades old conflict. Political and military support by the US would serve Indian interests. This, however, puts US strategic objectives in a dilemma. For, Pakistan too is a necessary element in the Americans’ power equation. The US sees Pakistan as a major hiding place and breeding-ground of international terrorism which can only be controlled and fought by a close cooperation with the Pakistan Government. The strategic goal of containing terrorism at one of its sources contradicts the more general objectives of being allied to India with a view on Chinese expansion. That is one side of the American dilemma in the Indian Ocean region. The other one is the problem that, by siding with India in the Indo-Pakistan dispute, the US runs the risk not only to lose its influence on Pakistan and its anti-terrorist purpose, but that it would alienate Pakistan and open it for more Chinese influence. Pakistan is a cornerstone in China’s strategy and concept of commercial expansion via a new “Silk Road”, as their “One Belt, One Road” initiative indicates. In fact, the Pakistani port of Gwadar is meant to become China’s major door to the Indian Ocean through which one of its maritime trade lanes will develop, surmounting, thus, China’s obsession of being partly landlocked with regard to the large oceans of the globe. How serious the Chinese are, can be seen in the fact that China has built its first out-of-area military base in Djibouti at the opposite shore of the Indian Ocean, strengthening its capacities to protect trade routes through the Indian Ocean which by-pass India. Overall, US interests seem to indicate that with regard to the Indian Ocean their partnership with India is a priority. The US develops in words and deeds its vision of developing the Indian Ocean into a central strategic area for the protection of American interests in the world. The Indian Ocean is the area where trade lines at sea need protection against terrorists just as they need effective US bases for monitoring operations of other powers in that region. The relatively new concept of an “Indo-Pacific region” replacing, at least as a conceptual term, the usual “Asia-Pacific” standing for “Asia”, is an illustration of this American preference. How soon and how far it can grow into a more solid alliance India-USA depends on the Indian Government’s determination to acknowledge India’s interest in it. Prime Minister Modi may have taken steps in the right direction, but the ultimate move for more would have to come from Delhi. It seems that the American choice has been made.

30th November 2017 / Philippe Welti
(Sources: IISS Strategic Comments, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2017)

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