Paras Ratna

Paras Ratna

Research Associate | VIF

Dancing with the Elephant: Toward a Coherent Indo-Pacific Framework?

Original article was published in Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI)

Last year at the IISS Shangri-La dialogue, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined India’s conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific as a geographic continuum stretching from the east coast of Africa to the shores of America. India didn’t adopt Indo-Pacific at the behest of the US; its scholarly origins date back to the works of Kalidas Nag who employed the concept in his writings (India and the Pacific world) in the 1940s. Subsequently, scholars such as C. Raja Mohan and Capt. Gurpreet Khurana wrote substantially about the Indo-Pacific before the phrase gained traction in the US policy circles.

As is the case with regions that are imagined spaces, there exist competing conceptualizations regarding its geographical expanse; depending upon the actor(s) imagining it. India’s definition includes the western Indian Ocean (and “for something, not against somebody,” according to external affairs minister S. Jaishankar), while the US perceives the Indo-Pacific as a containment strategy region extending from the shores of America to the west coast of India.

As Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “the US Indo-Pacific strategy needs more Indian Ocean.” The US National Security Strategy document (NSS) remains silent on the Western Indian Ocean maritime space including the eastern coast of Africa and the Arabian Sea—priorities for India’s strategic interest. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), jointly established by India and South Africa in 1967, broadly traverses the geography pointed out by Modi in his Shangri-La speech.

Substantial volumes of maritime trade and shipping lanes pass-through the Western Indian Ocean Region (WIOR). Strategic choke points like the Strait of Hormuz act as a conduit for oil markets in the Middle East to Asia, Europe, and North America. It is estimated that around one-fifth of the world’s oil (amounting to 20.7 million BPD) is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz. The recent tensions in the Strait of Hormuz have the potential to significantly undermine global energy security. Given its arterial role in the global oil and natural gas trade, the exclusion of that region from the Indo-Pacific geopolitical construct could compromise the objective of ensuring free and open sea lines of communication.

Besides energy security, Middle Eastern states like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar are home to Indian diaspora—significant political, economic, and strategic interest. Therefore, India, which aims to play a leading role in global affairs, couldn’t afford to discount the Middle East/West Asia from the Indo-Pacific strategic calculus. For the US, the extension of the Indo-Pacific framework to the region could help arrest its waning influence in the Middle East. The timing is crucial as Middle Eastern countries are trying to diversify their economy and countries such as the US, India, Japan, France, and Australia, with their requisite expertise, could take the lead in this regard.

East African littoral states have acquired salience in the global matrix; Africa is poised to be the next growth frontier. McKinsey & Company, in its report “Lions on the Move,” estimated that the region would generate $2.6 trillion in revenue by 2020. Economics aside, this area has recently become a hotbed for powers vying for influence. China replaced the US as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, which currently stands at more than $200 billion. Last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion at the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Militarily, China has constructed a naval base in Djibouti overlooking the Gulf of Aden and Bab-el-Mandeb—the fourth most important chokepoint for oil and natural gas. The Horn of Africa—usually the epicenter of protracted armed conflicts—is increasingly becoming the ground for assertion by Middle Eastern states. It is witnessing the power play of the Arab axis (Saudi Arab and UAE), Iran axis, and Qatar-Turkey axis. Any spillover of Middle Eastern rivalry could lead to slippage in political stability of the Horn of African states. This could adversely impact the shipping routes along the Red Sea coast and the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, the application of rule of law under the aegis of the Indo-Pacific framework is quintessential for the region.

These analyses argue for the extension of the Indo-Pacific framework to the Western Indian Ocean region. However, it is also being argued that the US Indo-Pacific command (USIPACOM) signals India’s rise in a particular politico-military theatre of the world politics, and the subsequent discourse ensures “de-centering of china” and simultaneously points to India’s place in the American envisaged world order. Therefore, convergence on competing conceptualizations is easier said than done. That said, it is pertinent to iron out differences that could impede cohesiveness in the Indo-Pacific construct. Divergence exists in US and India worldviews with respect to troubled West Indian Ocean littorals such as Pakistan and Iran. While India has been vocal about Pakistan’s support of terrorists, the US approaches Pakistan from the vantage point of Afghanistan. Similarly, the exiting from the P5 nuclear deal by the Trump administration has not only affected India’s energy security but also its pet project, the Chabahar Port, the location of which serves as a gateway to Afghanistan and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which could significantly contribute to the advancement of the Indo-Pacific framework.

The current US Indo-Pacific Command (USIPACOM) excludes Western Indian Ocean littorals like Pakistan from its sphere of influence, a concerning issue to India. A cohesive Indo-Pacific framework would require the merging of the US Central Command to the newly created Indo-Pacific Command for increased operability. India, on the other hand, needs to fit the Western Pacific (especially the South China Sea) in its strategic calculations. India’s response to the recent Vanguard Reef incident in the South China Sea was largely superficial in spite of the fact that India has commercial interests in the region; ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) operates oil blocks in the South China Sea. Therefore, any attempt to militarize the South China Sea severely undermines India’s genuine interest. Failure to respond in a proportionate manner has the potential to hamper its credibility as a leading power in the Indo-Pacific.

As far as India is concerned, the creation of the Indo-Pacific division under its Ministry of External Affairs and the recent Quad foreign ministers meeting debunks allegations of New Delhi being non-serious. The signing of a logistics exchange agreement between the US and France has greatly aided India’s inter-operability by access to the US and French naval bases; the vice-versa is also true. An extension of the same to Japan and Australia (both being negotiated) would complete the web of maritime security partnerships combining both the oceans. The possibility of the US, Australia, and France joining the Indo-Japan-Asia-Africa Growth Corridor could be contemplated. It has the potential to provide robust material and normative foundation to the Indo-Pacific framework, ensuring security and growth for all in the region.

India’s conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific is a departure from the classical containment paradigm. It is increasingly approaching the geopolitics around the Indo-Pacific with a multi-polar lens. Although there is an ongoing debate within India regarding the nature of international systems; the relevance of the Indo-Pacific as India’s priority theatre is well established. It is pertinent to note that sustained economic growth over two decades and investment in weapon systems have facilitated India’s ascendance in the hierarchy of international politics, bestowing upon it substantial capability to diffuse its own idea in the strategic space. This necessitates a need for a coherent Indo-Pacific framework to harmonize the competing conceptualizations.