IPCS Discussion

India, Australia and Indo-Pacific: Regional Interpretations

29 Oct, 2014    ·   4716

Teshu Singh reports on the proceedings on the discussion on the concept of the Indo-Pacific

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in collaboration with the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, organised a panel discussion on “India, Australia and Indo-Pacific: Regional Interpretations” on 8 October 2014. This report is based on the proceedings of the discussion.

Rear Admiral (Retd) Raja Menon
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS

In contemporary times, geopolitical boundaries are being drawn in terms of strategic considerations rather than geographic. With the US ‘pivot to Asia’, the focus of world politics has shifted to East Asia from the West. The US and China are playing dominant roles in the region.
Given its maritime capability, the US can be considered an Asian power. Maritime power is the key for a country that is geographically separated from the region. Hence when US declared its ‘rebalancing’ strategy, it actually meant rebalancing its maritime power. It has deployed 60 per cent of power to the East and 40 per cent to the West. However, China views this development as a ‘contain China’ campaign. The US is giving immense importance to the region: it is already negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 countries throughout the Asia Pacific region. As a response to the TPP, China has initiated the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) initiative.

To understand the implications of the MSR, it should be viewed in totality along with the land route. Arguably, it is not just a geo-economic endeavour but also a geopolitical one. The Indian stand on the MSR is uncertain. Though China has invited India to join the MSR, India is cautious of China’s end game. China may use the MSR to deploy the PLA-Navy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). There is already growing competition between the PLA-Navy and the US Navy in the region. Tensions between the PLA-Navy and the US Navy can be traced back to the Taiwan Strait dispute. In contemporary times, the larger debate between the two navies is in terms of the Air Sea Battle concept as there is a dearth of literature on this.

These are the conflicts that are at the heart of the Asia Pacific. States are pursuing geopolitics on two different tracks: economic and strategic. The world is moving towards an era where there are very few chances of state-to-state conflict. Here the relevance of Francis Fukuyama’s theory of the inevitable democratisation of the world and democracies’ not waging war with other democracies becomes relevant.

Dr David Brewster
Visiting Fellow, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

Australia supports the US presence in East Asia. Until now the US had concentrated on the Pacific region more than any other. In fact the map of Asia Pacific never expanded to the south and India was never considered a part of it.

There is interdependence between India and the Pacific Ocean region. This growing interdependence can be attributed to the rise of China and India in the region. As their interests expand naturally they will move towards the ocean. To further illustrate the fact, the MSR is an expression of China’s increasing area of interest.

Robert Kaplan has started that the Strait of Malacca will assume the same importance as that of Fulda Gap in Germany during the Cold War. In coming years the Bay of Bengal will assume similar importance as that of the SCS. However the nature would be different.

The Australian defence white paper has called the Indo-Pacific a ‘strategic arc’. Amongst many others things it is a major source of energy exporter in South Asia and East Asia as well. This provides a context for Australian engagements with South Asia and Japan. The Indo–Pacific also puts India-Australia relations in context. It will help to create institutions to engage Australia and India towards a balance in the region.  Thus the concept of the Indo-Pacific has both geo-economic and geostrategic dimensions. It is the concept of geo-strategy that has given emphasis to the maritime dimension.

Professor Shankari Sundararaman
Chairperson, Centre for Indo Pacific Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

The concept of the Indo-Pacific started gaining currency from 2005 onwards. Geographically, it is the triangular area between the Indian and Pacific Oceans that is important to Southeast Asia. On a wider spectrum it is a larger area that signifies the confluence of two seas. The concept itself was flagged by the former Japanese Prime Minister Mr Shinzo Abe; he initiated the idea of the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans when he spoke at the Indian Parliament in August 2007. However, over a period of time, it has become more of a strategic space than a geographical one.

From a historical perspective the region lies between two major powers, Indian and China, which were great civilisations in the past. Historians have described Southeast Asia as a ‘bamboo curtain’ that moves between India and China.

The role for Southeast Asian countries has been important in the development of the concept to the extent that the ASEAN countries have preferred to have the presence of a major power that gives them a sense of security. The major dispute affecting the region is the South China Sea (SCS) that has attracted the attention of external powers in the region.The logic of extending the argument to the SCS is in the context of whether the ASEAN countries can truly act as a unit and are able to constructively engage an external power. This remains a major caveat for the region.

For India, the region is important for its Look East Policy; today it has become more of an ‘Act East’/ ‘Engaging East’ policy. Credible effort has been made by India to further engage the Southeast Asian region.

There are institutional challenges for ASEAN to take the initiative forward. However the major challenge for ASEAN is to utilise themselves as a driver in the Indo-Pacific. There is also a lack of unity in perceptions on the ‘rise of China’. In fact, the way they ally with a major power will shape ASEAN’s regional perspective.

In term of institution mechanisms, ASEAN’s role is inadequate. ASEAN-led institutions have not been successful in terms of the rotation of the Chair and the role of the Secretary General. Many of the regional issues are not being addressed. Added to this is the fact that individual countries are strengthening their defence forces. There is a sense that this defence procurement is likely to affect the way political realities are shaped in the region.

Apart from these challenges however there are also a number of opportunities for the region. It is very economically important region, galvanised by China and Japan. The TPP has already brought the economic giants (the US, China, Japan) together. Securing the Sea Lanes of Communication and freedom of navigation is important in the SCS and the Strait of Malacca. The SCS is a vital issue and can be an opportunity for Southeast Asia. If managed properly, it could bring to the forefront the dynamism of collective security rather than balance of power.
The economic factor in the Indo-Pacific region has created a huge economic opportunity for ASEAN. The Southeast Asian region can view itself as a bridge/corridor and move beyond consultative diplomacy. As the Indonesian Foreign Minister, during a CSIS meeting in Washington DC mentioned, that there should be a Treaty of Indo-Pacific based on the lines of the Treaty Amity and Cooperation. It should focus on fixing the trust deficit within the region, especially with regard to the SCS. It would be important to develop a binding code of conduct on the SCS. The region should manage the impact of regional changes through dialogues and negotiations so that it can maintain its own centrality in fluid situations.

•With regards to regional security, while the great powers are competing with each other they are also forming coalitions and alliances. The US is able to garner a larger number of allies. In terms of economic surplus, China has the biggest bank balance hence many countries want to ally with China. In terms of protection they look to the US.

• Non-alignment remains the linchpin of Indian foreign policy. In international relations, states ally with each other because defence is an expensive affair. World history is testimony to the fact that each state has played a specific role at some point of time. Perhaps the time for India has not come. India has a growing population of 12 million and by 2025 Indian democracy is going to peak. Hence the primary agenda for India should be to create jobs and provide a better standard of living for its citizens.

• The US is an Asian power; this is exemplified by the fact that military power basically consists of situational awareness, the amount of help, and the speed at which a country can deliver in a certain area. The US has the situational awareness of the Indian Ocean; it has the largest amount of resources in that region and can deploy any amount of logistical help at the shortest time span as well. It can do this because of its navy: as long as the Indian Ocean connects the Pacific Ocean and Australia, India and the US are neighbours because the same ocean laps beaches in Australia as well as India. According to sea power India and the US are neighbours. The US Navy can travel in the ocean legally.

• The TPP came up as an economic incentive for regional countries. China is the biggest exporter to the US as a result of which it generates huge surplus. The US can change the situation by giving preferential trade to the TPP partners. This will affect the economy of China. Thus as a response, China has proposed the MSR and is emphasising its historical trade relations with several countries. China is emphasising the benefits the route will bring to other countries as well as itself.

• Australia is facing the same problem as any other country. It is struggling with the over-aching issue of balancing Pax Americana and ‘China’s rise’.

• The Bay of Bengal forms a part of India’s backyard, and with China’s growing presence in the area, India is worried. The Bay of Bengal will gain a lot of importance in the concept of the Indo-Pacific but the issues that arise will be different from that of the SCS.

Rapporteured by Teshu Singh, Senior Research Officer, CRP, IPCS.