The narrative of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has understandably gained currency over the past year. Since 2017, there has been an increasing focus on the narrative of the Indo-Pacific. The usage of the term Indo-Pacific, as opposed to ‘Asia-Pacific’ (which the Chinese prefer) by US President Donald Trump during his trip to Asia (in November 2017), the re-emergence of the Quad Grouping (India, US, Australia, Japan) after a decade, and the repeated usage of the expression, ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’ on a number of occasions, by top officials of the Trump Administration, including former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, have resulted in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ drawing attention.
Interesting developments in past few days
Some specific developments have taken place in the past few days, which have meant, that the Indo-Pacific has been in the news in recent days.
First, on Thursday May 31, 2018 US Pacific Command or ‘Pacom’ was renamed as Indo-Pacific Command. Speaking on the occasion of Change of Command, US Defence Secretary, James Mattis put forth the reasons for the renaming of Pacom:
“In recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific oceans, today we rename the U.S. Pacific Command to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command,…. Over many decades, this command has repeatedly adapted to changing circumstance and today carries that legacy forward as America focuses west.”
Second, at the Annual Shangri-La Summit, US Defence Secretary, James Mattis pulled no punches, while speaking of China in the context of the South China Sea dispute. Mattis remarked:
“There are consequences that will continue to come home to roost
Mattis also referred to some steps which the US has taken recently, such as exclusion of China from the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC exercises), as well as two US ships sailing in Spratly Islands. He warned of more such consequences, if Beijing did not change its approach towards the SCS dispute.
Indian PM Modi also referred to the Indo-Pacific Concept, during his visit to Indonesia, as well as the Shangri La Dialogue.
During PM Modi’s Indonesia visit, a document making specific reference to the Indo-Pacific was released. Said the document:
“free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, where sovereignty and territorial integrity, international law, in particular UNCLOS, freedom of navigation and overflight, sustainable development and an open, free, fair and mutually beneficial trade and investment system are respected”.
During the Shangri La Summit, the Indian PM referred to ‘stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region” as an “important pillar of strategic ties with the US. He did manage to strike a fine balance, and was not aggressive.
Finally, members of the Quad met in Singapore (this was the second such occasion, since the meeting last year). India was represented by the Joint Secretary East Asia. A statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs stated, that while recognizing the centrality of the ASEAN to the Indo-Pacific architecture, Quad members also “reaffirmed their support for a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.”
New stakeholders in Quad
If one were to look beyond Mattis’ remarks and Modi’s South East Asia visit, as well as his address at the Shangri La Summit. It is important to take note of two new stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific narrative — Indonesia and Sri Lanka. So far, the emphasis has largely been on Quad grouping.
A delegation of US officials visiting Sri Lanka spoke about the importance of Sri Lanka in the context of the Indian Ocean.
Congressman Mac Thornberry, Chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee stated:
‘The American relationship with Sri Lanka goes back to hundreds of years, and Congress is committed to deepening it going forward. Sri Lanka is a vital hub in the Indian Ocean, one that is key to keeping the lanes of commerce and security free and open’.
Off late, Sri Lanka has expressed its discomfort with China’s increasing presence, and has sought investments from other countries like Japan and India. The Hambantota Project (of which China has gained lease for 99 years) is often cited, as an important instance of China’s ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. A report by the Centre for Global Development describes this best and states that Beijing by pushing ahead certain projects ‘introduces new debt vulnerabilities in developing countries and risks growth setbacks’. The US delegation also took note of this aspect.
Relevance of Sri Lanka and Indonesia
Sri Lanka and Indonesia both are strategically important in the context of the Indo-Pacific, what also makes their participation relevant is the fact that both also share close economic ties with China, (though the former is off course vary of China’s increasing strangehold).
Indo-Pacific narrative can draw greater resonance, if there is an emphasis on connectivity, and providing an alternative (so far Japan and India have been the only countries which have attempted to do so, the latter off course does face a resource crunch) to China’s infrastructural economic projects some of which are economically unfeasible. Apart from this, there have to be more stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific narrative (Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh), so as to have a vision which extends beyond the China factor in the South China Sea. It is also important now for countries which are part of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ grouping, to define its geographical scope, and have a clearer economic vision as well as accelerate projects like the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor (a brain child of the US), which can complement India’s neighborhood outreach in South Asia, ties with South East Asia as well as Japan’s projects in South and South East Asia.
While the US has spoken about a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific, Trump’s fickle mindedness even towards allies on key economic and strategic economic issues is doing no favors to anyone or the narrative of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. A strategic vision has to be matched by a concrete and cohesive long term view of robust economic linkages. It is also important to realize, that in the longer term, the economic vision of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ can not necessarily ignore China, which with all its challenges and constraints, has taken a lead in terms of pushing for connectivity and economic linkages.