Over the past decade or so, the Indo-Pacific, which is a predominantly (even if not exclusively) maritime space connecting four economically resurgent continents — namely, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas — has established itself as one of the most important geopolitical regions of our contemporary age. Despite a few recent lurches towards inward-looking nationalism that had sought to abandon globalisation, transnational maritime interests, especially those engendered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as also those driven by climate-change imperatives, have moved the strategic seascape of the 21st Century well beyond the strict geographical categorisations of earlier times. Consequently, it is, today, neither practical nor useful to view various nations or even sub-regions as isolated entities, as was the case in times gone by. We are witnessing a reconceptualisation of this entire region, wherein the historical perception of the Indo-Pacific as a single, cohesive geopolitical entity is being restored. Today, the horizontal and vertical interconnections of the Indo-Pacific, which encompass a wide swath of economics, connectivity and culture, are increasingly recognised as being of the utmost importance to the world.
For India, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ reflects the core conceptual, spatial and temporal framework that underpins the country’s engagement with its external environment. It is not, in and of itself, a ‘strategy’ but is, rather, an articulation of India’s proximate ‘strategic geography’. It is worth reiterating that while the Indo-Pacific is a predominantly maritime regional construct, it is not exclusively so. As such, it accommodates both littoral States and hinterland or landlocked ones within its ambit. The spatial context of India’s conceptualisation of this region extends from the Indian Ocean littoral of Africa, encompasses the seas fringing the Indian Ocean, and proceeds eastward, incorporating the seas bordering the Pacific Ocean up to the western littoral of the Americas, and, from the southern littoral of Asia it proceeds southward to the continental landmass of Antarctica.
India’s insistence upon inclusivity and transparency, which are fundamental to its Indo-Pacific formulation, is now echoed by several of the nation-states and collective entities, which operate within the region. The past couple of years have witnessed a strategic (if not always geographic) convergence between the Indian conceptualisation and those of Australia, ASEAN, the EU, France, Germany, Japan, and the USA. For all these nations, ‘inclusiveness’ implies the use of existing regional mechanisms to promote dialogue-based approaches to the resolution of differences, the enhancement of economic cooperation, the sharing of maritime space and airspace, and the willingness to work with all countries in the region. The Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi has placed on the regional table the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative (IPOI), which is a deeply interconnected web of seven main ‘spokes’ — maritime security; maritime ecology; maritime resources; trade connectivity and maritime transport; capacity-building and resource-sharing, disaster risk-reduction and management; and, science, technology and academic cooperation. Upon this framework lies the aspirational framework of the Coalition for Disaster-Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), once again, an Indian initiative and once again one with enormous beneficial potential at national and regional levels. These developments, seen against the backdrop of India’s maritime policy of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), whether taken singly or in aggregate, have generated a number of maritime geostrategies that will define geopolitics in this 21st century through which we are hurtling. Indeed, several of these maritime geostrategies will inevitably interact intensively and extensively with one another, creating new levels of strategic complexity. In the formulation and execution of these multiple geostrategies, ‘transparency’ will be a critical ingredient for regional acceptance and hence, success. Transparency, of course, denotes openness of both, intent and action.
For its part, India seeks to meaningfully contribute to the creation and consolidation of an Indo-Pacific built upon five key principles: Respect, Dialogue, Cooperation, Peace, and Prosperity:
- ‘Respect’ for all, as well as for an international order that is underpinned by established international law.
- ‘Dialogue’ to resolve differences and promote comity between nations, as also to optimally use existing structures, whether ASEAN-led ones such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), or others such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC), etc. Nation-states operating within the Indo-Pacific must also formulate specific maritime strategies that will encourage seamless interaction between executive-level maritime structures such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS).
- ‘Cooperation’ as the basic means of intercourse between nations and their respective peoples.
- ‘Peace’ as the sine qua non for the attainment of ‘Prosperity’ through environmental and ecological sensitivity and climate-change adaptation, the sustainable harvesting of the Earth’s resources, and, the equitable distribution of the wealth that accrues from such sustainable exploitation.
How will these multifarious strategies evolve and how might they be expected to shape the Indo-Pacific over the pandemic-ridden immediate future, and beyond it? Clearly, the ability to identify the imperatives, the opportunities, and the challenges, and, equally importantly, to listen-to — and be sensitive-to — the varying perspectives of other States located-in or operating-within the Indo-Pacific, are clear and evident prerequisites if we are to jointly arrive at a mutually beneficial set of solutions.