The world can be understood cartographically in three ways; geographical demarcations, political boundaries, or mental maps. Indo-Pacific is also a mental map or intellectual interpretation that has gained significant attention in recent times. Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States declares Indo-Pacific is the region stretching from the Pacific coastline of the US to the Indian Ocean. The area within and around the Indian and Pacific Oceans is broadly known as the Indo-Pacific region. The region encompasses half of the world’s population, the seven largest militaries in the world, and two-thirds of the world economy. In terms of politics and economics, Indo-Pacific is considered the center of the globe as it contains the most crucial sea routes and most populous nations of the world with high energy demands. This mental map has gained more significance due to the rising influence of China across the region and strives of the US to resurge its declining alliance system.
The United States leads Indo-Pacific Strategy. The US considers Indo-Pacific as the major region determining its future as the region is the economic and trade hub of the globe with high energy demands. The Indo-Pacific strategy aims to contain the rise of China in the region and increase US influence.
Japan is a close ally of the US in the Indo-Pacific. Japan under its former Prime Minister Shenzo Abe actively promoted its Indo-Pacific Vision of 2008.
India is a major advocate of the Indo-Pacific Strategy as it provides India with the opportunity to further its interest in South Asia. Being a close ally of the US, India has the opportunity to exercise more influence in international affairs.
Australia was one of the countries that initiated the concept of Indo-Pacific. Australia advocates Indo-Pacific policy not only to have close ties with the US but also to enhance its influence and presence in Southeast Asia. South Asian countries have been the most prominent supporters of this policy due to their strategic interests. Indonesia, Singapore, European Union, and ASEAN are major stakeholders in the region. India flanks the Indian Ocean, and Indonesia lies at the crossroad of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean and Australia anchors Indo-Pacific to the northwest, southeast, and middle.
Major strategic shifts have occurred in the region largely due to China’s military and economic expansion i.e. its modernization program, rapid military build-up, and militarization of Islands in the South China Sea. Pakistan due to its connections with the Middle East, and Central Asia and geographical proximity to the Indian Ocean has various opportunities and challenges simultaneously. The “Asia Pacific” zone has been central to global politics but the strategic shifts have transformed the focus from geopolitical to geo-strategic and geo-economic. The great power rivalry between China and US stands at the core of these strategic shifts. In addition to regional transformations, changes, and surroundings, Pakistan is also affected by evolving maritime environment in the Indian Ocean.
China’s military and economic rise, US policies to contain China, and its efforts to decrease Russian influence in the region has made this zone strategically important. India-the immediate neighbor of Pakistan-is the major strategic partner of the US in the China Containment policy. With various defense agreements, it enjoys the status of “Net Security Provider” in the region. Tense relations between US-Iran have resulted in narrowing Pakistan’s choice to diversify its relations with the other immediate neighbor i.e. Iran. The US policy of Free and Open Trade-in Indo-Pacific FOIP encircles China. The Quadrilateral Security Agreement between Japan, India, Australia, the US, and the trilateral defense agreement between the US, UK, and Australia manifest active involvement of the US in Asia. QUAD has a policy outlook that surrounds China to contain its rising influence in Asia. AUKUS aims only at military cooperation in the Indian Ocean. Israel is yet another important player on the western end of the Indian Ocean. Through the Abraham Accords (a deal of Israel with Bahrain, UAE, Morocco, and Sudan to recognize the former) Israel has entered the region. The diplomatic relations of Israel with the Arab world provide it with the opportunity to get involved in the Persian Gulf and consequently in Iran.
In South Asia, regional stability is interlinked with the security of Afghanistan. After the takeover by the Taliban, the security of Pakistan is implicated. The regional security dilemma for Pakistan resurges as India gets a more significant role in the US alliance. Pakistan’s biggest opportunity in the region is CPEC. Under, the US-China power rivalry and the the growing significance of India as a US ally and Pak-China relations are the strength of foreign policy.
US-China Rivalry in Region:
For the last seven decades, Asia-Pacific referred to the US influence in this region but the conceptual connotations have also readjusted with strategic shifts. Indo-Pacific now manifests growing rivalry and power competition between US and China. The central theme of the US-China competition relates to security cooperation, trade and development, and global governance. Both countries try to strengthen themselves in these domains. For this decade, Indo-Pacific would become the focal point of US-China rivalry. This power rivalry will reshape the international order and strategic dynamics in the region.
The US policies of rebalancing and Pivot of Asia are now transformed to shift its focus to surround China. Now, the US in its Indo-Pacific Policy presents the region as geopolitically and geostrategically important for its vital interests. The Indo-Pacific Strategy released by Biden Administration in February 2022 reveals the recognition of the economic importance and political significance of the region by American officials. The US has tried to reevaluate its position in this region by manifesting it in its recent policy; “Free and Open Indo –Pacific”. Due to the immense strategic, military, and economic importance of the Indo-Pacific, the United States has declared it “the single most consequential region for America’s future” in its recent Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The US has 2.3 trillion USD in trade and 1.3 trillion USD in foreign investments in the region with major trade routes. The US considers the Indo-Pacific vital to its prosperity and security. The shift from “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific” occurred due to the rising footprints of China as a global power and the declining influence of the US in this region. The US perceived China’s aim to become a superpower by combining all its diplomatic, military, economic, and technological might in the region. The Indo-Pacific Strategy claims that the region faces mounting challenges mainly from the Peoples Republic of China. Despite the rise of China as a major trading partner of various states, the US is determined to maintain its supremacy as a global power through its military presence in this region and increasing the Quadrilateral Strategic Competition with Australia, India, and Japan.
China perceives the US strategy of Free and Open Trade as a major step to contain Chinese influence in the region. It is strengthening its ties through win-win cooperation and regional connectivity through Belt and Road Initiative. Through growing strides in the South China Sea and BRI, China aims to bind geo-political and geo-strategic space to become a resident global power. Right now, China is a major trading partner of nearly all the states in this region. Security agreements of China with the Solomon Islands have surprised the US. The Chinese leadership also plans to visit various Pacific island countries for bilateral trade agreements largely on China’s terms. On the other hand, the United States is still the net security provider in the region and possesses the largest navy.
US Strategy in Indo-Pacific:
The US perceives China as its “strategic competitor”. The US Strategy of Indo-Pacific 2017 described the US-China power rivalry as a geopolitical competition between two world orders i.e. free and repressive. The US considers development and infrastructure programs led by China as a threat to its interests. The counter-strategy of the US involves partnerships with all states in the region to increase its influence by undermining China. Along with China, Russia is also considered a major element of the US rebalancing policy.
The US didn’t have much interest in the Indian Ocean as it had in the Pacific Ocean. Its involvement started when Great Britain withdrew from Suez Canal in 1967. Its involvement further increased with the oil crisis of the 1970s later followed by the Iranian revolution. In 2011, President Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “Indo-Pacific” revitalized the strategic importance of the region to safeguard American interests. Later, Obama’s administration strived to rebalance US leadership in the Asia Pacific by strengthening economic, political, and security ties with the regional countries. Trump administration emphasized on security aspect under the “America First” doctrine. Now Biden administration aims to strengthen the long-term commitment and position of the US in the Indo-Pacific.
The current Indo-Pacific Strategy has five objectives;
• Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)
• Regional connectivity
• Regional Prosperity
• Increased Regional security
• Regional resilience
The Indo-Pacific Action Plan proposes strategies to implement the above objectives. The first one is to drive new resources to the region through increased investment. The US aims to open new consulates and embassies in the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. It also proposes to increase maritime awareness and maritime security. With the new partnership, high standard trade, digitalized economy, digital connectivity, transparent investment, and high structure infrastructure, it wants to lead the indo-pacific economy. The US will reinforce deterrence through concrete programs on cyber security, advanced technology, quantum technology, artificial intelligence, and undersea capabilities. Strengthening and unifying ASEAN by addressing maritime challenges, security needs, people-to-people ties, and increased interconnectivity is also a policy goal of the US in the region. The US plans to enhance collaboration with India to support its rise and leadership in South Asia as it is a driving force of QUAD. By supporting resilient, trustworthy, secure technologies and good governance, the US would increase its influence in the region.
At Shangri-La Dialogue 2009, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates pronounced “Net Security Provider” for India. The US shifted to the conceptual underpinning of “Indo-Pacific” in 2017 when Trump contextualized it with India. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ refers to the geostrategic readjustment of the US by giving an elevated position to India in the region. In the context of the rising influence of China, the interests of the US and India in the Indian Ocean are mutual. BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation) discussed China as a threat to the securityand freedom of both states. This agreement would enable India to access vital nautical, aeronautical, and topographical data to target drones and missiles. The US has such foundational agreements with various other countries as well. The signing states of such agreements are enabled to promote interoperability among militaries by common systems and standards. After a decade of negotiation, US and India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding in 2016. This agreement benefited India by providing it access to US military string facilities and in turn, the US could benefit from India as the biggest player in Asia-Pacific.
India became the sixth-largest economy in the world quite fast. It started to assert itself in the region. With a coastline of 7500 Kilometers, it makes a rim in the Indian Ocean. India’s hegemonic ambition not only aims to contain the rise of China but also threatens the economic and strategic stability of Pakistan in the region. The US is continuously supporting the enhancement of the aggressive and hegemonic role of India to contain China. It declared India as its “Net Security Provider” in the region. This umbrella term describes the most important strategic roles assigned to India by the US.
The Nuclearization of the Indian Ocean by India is a threat to security and strategic stability in the Indian Ocean. Under Modi’s leadership, the Indian Ocean policy is far more aggressive and proactive than it has ever been. India has also created surveillance systems in the Indian Ocean. This step by New Delhi has posed serious threats to Islamabad. Different foundational agreements have provided more flexibility to the Indian Navy to carry out operations in the Indian Ocean.
Recently, India has also strengthened military ties with the UAE and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia whose Navies were previously partners with Pakistan. By 2027, the Indian Navy aims to have a fleet of more than 200 warships and nuclear submarines. This poses a significant threat to the stability and security of Pakistan in the Indian Ocean. In the wake of the rise of China and its containment efforts by the US, the permanent presence of foreign forces in the Indian Ocean further complicates the situation for Pakistan. The military buildup from regional and non-regional power in Indo Pacific cannot be neglected either. Through agreements with Indonesia, India is trying to enhance its maritime presence in Asia. On one side, all these agreements not only aim to empower the strategic position of India but to contain the rise of China as well. On the other side, it poses serious threats to the strategic stability of Pakistan in the region.
Abraham Accords is the recent agreement between UAE, Israel, Morocco, Bahrain, and Sudan. If it transforms into military engagement, this recent development can have long-term implications for the region. The bilateral cooperation which still rests on economic and cultural relations can diverge to the Middle East which would complicate the strategic environment as Iran would not tolerate these developments. This would lead to the blockage of the Strait of Hormuz. The complication is the same for Pakistan. The developments resulting from these agreements would pull Pakistan and Iran further closer to Russia and China to ensure their regional stability. Israel would be a direct actor in the Indian Ocean due to the support of its allies i.e. US, India, and Arab countries. The US would provide potential support to Israel if it wants to enter the region directly. In case of military tensions between Iran and Israel, Pakistan would be directly affected.
Implications for Pakistan:
South Asia is the world’s largest growing yet least developed region with nearly a quarter of the world population and vulnerable to strategic threats. The range of traditional and non-traditional threats, power rivalry between super-states, and the growing military buildup of immediate neighbors have various implications for Pakistan. Security threats posed by various regional and non-regional forces are challenging. Strategically, Pakistan lies in one of the most decisive regions in the Indo-Pacific. Its major concerns lie with its coastline, Exclusive Economic Zones, and maritime border. Beyond these,
Pakistan has no direct stake in Indo-Pacific. Pakistan is directly and indirectly affected by the US-China power rivalry in Indo-Pacific. Pakistan has a significant position in Belt and Road Initiative due to CPEC. In South Asia, the role of India is elevated by the US as its close ally in the region.
The challenge for Pakistan multiplies due to this. After Abraham’s accords any military tension between Iran and Israel would impact the North Arabian Sea. Pakistan would face direct consequences as it is the area with maximum interest. If the US and its allies succeed to encircle China, Pakistan provides China with an alternate route to import oil from Iran. This further brings Pakistan to the forefront of the great power rivalry between China and the US.
In the wake of growing power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, here are a few recommendations;
• As the strategic environment in the Northern Arabian Sea is more dependent on regional and extra-regional powers, Pakistan needs to frame an Independent Indo-Pacific policy in addition to National Maritime Policy. This policy must focus on all strategic interests and policy options in the Arabian Sea.
• Pakistan should strengthen trade relations and strategic ties with China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Central Asian States.
• Pakistan should diversify its relations with neighboring states. This can help Pakistan reduce pressure from the US.
• Pakistan should adopt a balanced approach to foreign policy i.e. balanced relations with all the states.
• Pakistan should adopt a foreign policy keeping the national interest in view rather than allying with any super-state.
The mental construct of the Indo-Pacific has now gained more attention than ever. The strategic shifts from Asia –the Pacific to Indo-Pacific have delineated to evolving maritime environment in the Indian Ocean. This has vitalized the strategic importance of Pakistan in the region. Rapidly changing power dynamics and rivalries have made the region a geostrategic and geopolitical hub of the globe. The Declaration of India as a ‘Net Security Provider’ by the US has further complicated the situation for Pakistan. The uni-polarity of the US is now challenged by the rise of China. Pakistan being a significant actor in BRI can grab various opportunities and challenges. Rather than being a part of any bloc, Pakistan should grab the opportunity to further its national interest by adopting a well-balanced approach in foreign policy toward all nations. However, strategic threats posed by immediate neighbors should not be neglected.