During the Cold War geopolitics, the Indo-Pacific region had not been part of Indian foreign policy. Most of the countries from the Asia-Pacific region and India have been remained in the opposite groups and the historical and civilizational relations had become enervated.
Until the 1970s, Indian foreign policy makers considered this region as economically less developed and thus was not attractive for trading and economic partner. Moreover, the India’s colonial links and its ruling elite’s western orientation thinking further drifted the region from its geopolitical and geostrategic calculus. Sikri (2009), has argued that India’s Fabian socialism policy made it more insular and protectionist.
In the post-Cold War, Indo-Pacific has figured prominently in Indian Foreign Policy due to several dynamics such as end of the Cold War, breakup of the Soviet Union, Chinese assertiveness in region and the Indian Ocean, regionalization trends, India’s own political, economic, security situations and Southeast Asia’s economic and geostrategic problems were some of the important factors responsible for the changed geopolitical landscape in both the regions. Look East policy was launched in the post-Cold War in order to reorient the region in Indian foreign policy. Though, this policy has been started paying the dividends, but still Indian foreign policy has been facing myriad challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indo-Pacific: A New Concept
The term of Indo-Pacific, was used by a strategic thinker Khurana (2007) for the first time, in one of his articles, “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation”. According to him the meaning of this term, was a maritime space stretching from the littorals of East Africa and West Asia, across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean, to the littorals of East Asia. This concept was further strengthened and defined by the speech of Japanese Prime Minister in the Indian Parliament (August 2007), in which he commented that the “Confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” as “the dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” in the “broader Asia”. Bajpaee (2014), has argued that the Indo-
Pacific as a geographical region has been a new geopolitical concept. These arguments on part of the above scholars and politicians was echoed by Scott, in his article “India and the Allure of the ‘Indo-Pacific’”, written for International Studies, 49 (3&4), has found setting in the geopolitical interests. The term Indo-Pacific been started using by the India’s apex political leadership2010 onwards. the strategic analysts, high-level government and military leadership of countries like Australia, Japan and the US, started using this term in their formal/ official documented articulation. In the recent past, the US officials have begun using the term “Indo-Asia Pacific” for maintaining its geographic inclusiveness in the new coinage of ‘Indo-Pacific’.
Geopolitical Great Game
On account of geostrategic, geo-economic and geopolitical salience of the Indo-Pacific, the region has been becoming a battle field for a new geopolitical great game among the regional and external powers. Moreover, some of the scholars (Hoge Jr 2014; Bishoy (2005), have argued that the transfer of power from West to East is gathering momentum on account of its geostrategic salience. Regional and external powers have been competing with one another to counter and to expand their own influences.For their geopolitical and geostrategic interests, the external and regional powers have been following special policy frameworks like the US’s Asia Pivot policy, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), Maritime Silk Road (MSR), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB); the Russia’s Asia Pivot and India’s Look East Policy (now Act East), policies respectively.
David Michel and Ricky Passarelli (2014) have highlighted that the Indo-Pacific region has been facing a number of maritime challenges and opportunities. Another expert of the region, Mohan (2013) has argued that the Indo-Pacific region has also been entrapped in increasing maritime and geopolitical competition between the two Asian giants China and India in the region. Singh and Pulipaka (2013) have explained how the metamorphosis of multilateral relations took place among India, the United States (US) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN) in the Indo-Pacific region. Cronin (2012) has highlighted that Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) along with aggressive assertiveness throughout the region has been encountering with the vested geopolitical and geostrategic interests of the other countries such as the US, India, Japan, Australia and other regional powers such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Korea etc. Against this background, it can be safely presumed that the Indo-Pacific would remain a battlefield for the major and regional powers throughout the 21st century.
In the present scenario, India has been recognised as the potential power in economic and strategic terms. India has been endowed with energetic culture, multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy. Having geo-cultural and historical relations and extended neighbourhood, the Indo-Pacific region holds a very important place in Indian foreign policy on account of geostrategic and geopolitical dynamics. Peace and stability are the major concerns of India. In order to enhance economic and strategic engagements with the Southeast Asia, India has launched Look East policy in the 1991 which is rechristened under the new government of NDA-II under the stewardship of PM Modi. Bilateral engagements with Australia, Japan and Vietnam have been intensified to counter China’s assertiveness in the region.
Among the other major interests of India in the Indo-Pacific region are to check the Chinese assertiveness in the Indian Ocean in order to endure the freedom of the navigation. That’s why South China Sea dispute has paved way for increased Indian role in the Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific. The South China Sea (SCS) is the lifeline of Indian economy as far as the flow of trade and energy are concerned. Whereas on the other hand, China has been making full use of its energy to block India’s passage to economically viable East Asia and the Pacific. Therefore, India’s top priority is to get SCS dispute solved amicably and peacefully. Rajendram(2014) has argued that China and India are the largest trading partners in the region but both have been engaged in a sort of proxy war to strengthen their respective positions in the Asia-Pacific region.Apart from these challenges, India has been failed to exploit the soft power diplomacy and the ethnic Indian are losing contacts with India. Most importantly, India has been failed to get the membership of the regional organization like APEC.
Options for India
Facing various possible challenges and paradoxes in the Indo-Pacific region, India has been making reorientation towards the region. India has been making efforts to be a partner of the regional players like the US, Japan and Australia to check the major challenge from China. Several policies, programmes and memorandum of understanding have put in place to enhance engagements in the region.Baru(2001) has noted that India has become a strong maritime and strategic partner of the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia to protect the freedom of the navigation. In order to protect its economic interests, India has also signed free trade agreement (FTAs) with several countries like ASEAN, Korea, and Japan. Scott (2012) has argued that the US perceives India as a lynchpin for its Indo-Pacific policy to maintain the balancing mechanism among various strong economic players active in the region. The incumbent government of India has been making efforts to strengthen its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.The growing economic , security and maritime ties between India and Japan are moving in this direction. Similarly, India and Australia have been coming closer in terms of strategic relations. Australia has responded very positively to Indian endeavors. The US wanted to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific region.
In the post-Cold War, the Indo-Pacific region has been given an important place in the Indian foreign policy. India has geostrategic and geopolitical interests in the region. In the 21st century, the power shift has been moving from West to East. With the rise of China and emerging India, the Indo-Pacific region has become a battle field for great game. Several major powers have been competing with one another and to counter and expand their influence in the region. Due to China’s aggressiveness and assertiveness, the Indian interests are at stake. In order to protect its interests, some policy frameworks, FTAs, memorandum of understanding with the major powers and regional powers have been put in place. Though these measures have been paying dividends, but still India has been facing a number of the challenges in the region. It has been failed to exploit its soft power diplomacy, ethnic Indian have lost contacts with India, and membership of regional organization have not been extended. Against this background, India has to make sincere and consistent efforts to protect its interests in the region. India should enhance its strategic partnership with the notonly major powers but also with the regional powers like Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Korea etc. India should make full use of its soft diplomacy and strengthen bounds with the ethnic Indian.