Will the latest push on the Indo-Pacific idea materialise, unlike the earlier one by India during the Nehru years? Are the countries that are pushing for the idea on the same page? Also, will those countries who are apprehensive about the Indo-Pacific idea apply brakes? Finally, will the Indo-Pacific debate move now from just being an idea?
The Indo-Pacific: Between an Idea and Strategy
India was one of the lead actors that talked about the idea first even during the middle of the last century, and along with the US now on its re-emergence during the last couple of years.
Jawaharlal Nehru in the modern context did talk about the Indian Ocean and the Pacific in a different context. A few scholars even trace it to the Mughal period, when there was an emphasis on the civilizational links. For Nehru, it was more of an idea, than a strategic plan or a road map; one of those many that Nehru had in his mind – from the Non-Alignment to the Rise of Asia.
But unfortunately then, during the 1940s and the early 50s, Nehru’s India was tied up dealing with the partition and the Indo-Pak war in 1948. During the 1950s, domestic demands – economy, industrialisation and the multiple problems of India’s nation-building process ensured that Nehru had little time to look beyond the Non-Alignment initiative. Nehru’s Indo-Pacific idea had a premature end then.
Even if Nehru had found the time, three factors would have limited his vision of the Indo-Pacific. First, Nehru’s India did not have the deep pockets at that time. With a struggling domestic economy and issues of poverty, he could not have gone much ahead with pushing that idea. Nurturing an idea and pursuing the same through a course of action would mean the capacity of India to build coalitions and institutions. Like how China is today building organisations, infrastructure and financial institutions to realise its Belt and Road Initiative. Economically, India was not prepared then.
Second, the countries in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific were not looking at India as a natural leader, which could take the idea forward then. Japan, Australia and the US, who are today being talked about as a part of a Quad in the Indo-Pacific were certainly not looking at India at the point. This international support was crucial; Nehru could get similar support, politically from African and Latin American countries besides parts of Asia for his idea of non-alignment. The Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) that evolved from Nehru’s concept of Panchsheel could gather momentum because other countries and leaders (especially from the then Third World) looked at Nehru and India as a natural leader. Politically as well, India was not prepared then.
Neither Japan nor Australia was in any position to think regarding playing a leadership role at that time in the maritime domain that stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. The only country that could have played a role in shaping the idea of an Indo-Pacific at that time was the US; but, by late 1940s and early 1950s, the US was getting ready to deal with the Soviet Union and the Cold War. The Marshal Plan and the rebuilding of Europe ensured that the US was tied up with the trans-Atlantic than looking at an Indo-Pacific during the post-World War-II period.
Also, there were clear signs of India and the US diverging on crucial international issues and ideas by the early 1950s. Unlike today, where successive American Presidents since Bill Clinton have been talking about engaging India in the New World Order, during the 1950s and 60s, New Delhi was not taken seriously by the US. Worse, it was seen as a hindrance, hypocrite and outside the sphere of US influence, especially during the late 1960s and 70s.
Third, the Cold War became the primary component that shaped the post-World War-II international order. The strategic divide between the US and Russia and the centrality of Europe and the Middle East ensured that the focus was on the mainland than on the maritime.
The Indo-Pacific 2.0: Return of the Idea
During the recent years, one could see the return of the idea, with Japan and the US becoming the primary drivers.
While a few in the Indian strategic community did refer to the idea of Indo-Pacific earlier during the recent period, a coherent presentation of the same as a political idea and an international strategy started with a push from Japan, and subsequently by the US.
For India, the idea of Indo-Pacific should be an obvious extension of what it started in the 1990s with its “Lookeast” approach. The initial years of India’s Lookeast focussed on India’s immediate east – starting with Myanmar and focussing on the entire Southeast Asian countries. India’s Lookeast approach also had its phases. The first phase “looked” at Southeast Asia and the ASEAN as an idea; despite having “Lookeast” as India’s Eureka moment for a slogan towards its immediate east, New Delhi could not take the idea forward. In the 1990s, India did not have the deep pockets. Nor did the ASEAN look at India as a strategic partner during that period; having its financial crisis, the ASEAN during the 1990s had its domestic crises.
Post-1998, after India’s nuclear tests, there was a change in India’s foreign policy approach; the liberalisation pursuits of India during the early and mid-1990s also have started paying off. India’s economy improved and the growth rate was on an upward trajectory. For New Delhi, the Lookeast began to materialising; India started building strategic inroads politically if not physically into Southeast Asia. For the ASEAN, this is a new India.
Subsequently, during the last decade, India’s Lookeast expanded beyond its immediate east. Southeast Asia and ASEAN became a bridge to reach out to India’s extended east – East Asia and Australia. India’s relationships with Japan, South Korea and Australia have expanded exponentially. This expansion focussed not only the individual countries, but also the forums in East Asia.
Also during the recent years, there has been an extra focus on the maritime domain across the world and especially the Indian Ocean. As an international trading route and the hub of maritime commercial activities, there has been an increase in how the rest of the world looks at the maritime domain in general. One could see the same trend reflected in India’s strategic thinking as well. India’s maritime neighbourhood, especially with a focus on the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, and with a broader approach towards the Indian Ocean has become a new norm for India. One could see this getting reflected in India’s investments in multiple maritime forums involving the Indian Ocean and beyond and also the push towards creating an Indian Ocean Dialogue with other countries.
So for India, the idea of an Indo-Pacific should be an obvious and a natural extension following Southeast Asia, East Asia and the maritime neighbourhood.
The Indo-Pacific as an international strategy
India is one of the players that have been focussed on the idea of Indo-Pacific. As mentioned earlier, today, Japan, Australia and the US have their interests in pursuing the idea.
The US has been looking at alternate strategies in recent years towards the Asia-Pacific region. Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” and the subsequent “Rebalance” in Asia are a part of the American approaches towards the new Asia. The rise of China as a strategic competitor to the US poses an international challenge, and the decline of its internal strength, especially on economic issues underlines a domestic problem. However, the US also sees the present advantage of Japan, Australia, India and ASEAN as an opportunity to address the former.
Besides, the US, especially under Trump, wants to look beyond Europe. One could sense the tension in trans-Atlantic partnership in recent years; the last few meetings between Trump and his NATO partners in Europe have not been positive. To put it simply, Trump sees Europe not doing enough, and the European leaders see the US pulling out from its global commitments.
For Trump, perhaps the most significant challenge comes from China and not Russia. Hence, for him, a strong US response to an emerging order with China in the middle has to come not from the European mainland, but through the maritime domain involving the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
For the US, the Indo-Pacific is a new strategy to address emerging challenges, shape the new world order and find new partners to make its bid in the region. China plays a substantial factor in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US.
Japan has a different objective in pursuing the Indo-Pacific idea. For Abe, three factors play a role. First, the contemporary Japan-China relations – both political and economic. Second, the fear over US support in the near future, if Japan is under pressure – economic or military from China. Finally, the need to build partnership across Asia, that would stand up to Chinese aggression. Like the US, China is a factor for Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Australia is an outlier politically, but in the middle geographically. Unlike the US and Japan, Australia does not have an avowed anti-China position in pursuing the Indo-Pacific. The idea would help Australia to strengthen further its strategic partnership with India that it has been trying to build during the recent years; its security alliance with the US has been intact, hence may not need this as a part its Indo-Pacific outlook. Like India, Indo-Pacific should be an extension of Australia’s existing foreign policy approaches.
Clearly, one could see a convergence in the idea. So are the divergences between the four (Japan, US, Australia and India) countries, that are discussing a “Quad” to implement the Indo-Pacific. Will it gather stream will depend on other countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia, and how China (and Russia) sees and respond to the idea.