India as an Indo–Pacific Power Exploring New Horizons and Possibilities
Dr. Pankaj Jha*
Indian foreign policy has evolved over many decades taking into consideration the power politics, national interests, evolving geo-politics and economic engagements. The East Asian miracle in early 1990s, and the developments in the Southeast Asian region influenced the policy makers to change the course of the economy since 1991 from socialist welfare model to a more liberal globalised economy. Not only that the disintegration of the Soviet Union also reconfigured its relationships into a more dynamic mode and helped the country in forging relations with Israel, US, Japan and Australia . The Look East Policy (LEP) now rechristened as Act East Policy (AEP) also helped in outlining the strategic, defence and economic interests of the nation. Since 1991, India created new institutional frameworks with other partners to place itself in the larger regional and sub-regional institutions. The trajectory of engagement became more distinct and pronounced during the last two and half decades.
The phase 1991-2000 witnessed India getting elevated from a sectoral dialogue partner in ASEAN (1992) to a full Dialogue partner (1995) and subsequently becoming member of ASEAN Regional Forum (1996). New sub regional institutions such as BIMSTEC (1997) and Mekong Ganga Cooperation (2000) took shape while at the same time, Indian leaders took more active interest in the economic development and export oriented industrialisation of ‘new tiger economies’. The second phase from 2001-2010 was a phase which one can call an engagement phase where US recognised the importance of India in its fight against terror and India also started engaging the Southeast Asian nations through defence cooperation/ MoU on Defence Cooperation as well as engaging countries through Free Trade Agreement (2003) and Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (2005) with Thailand and Singapore respectively. Many of these initiatives were later replicated in West Asia and Central Asia.
The increasing clout of India in larger Southeast Asia helped it in gaining entry into East Asia Summit despite strong reservations from select countries. For India, Southeast Asia became a successful test model to experiment its policy in other regional set-ups. This included the Look West policy which was enunciated in 2005 and followed by Connect Central Asia Policy (2012). The contours and the vectors involved in both these theatres were different but were carefully calibrated to meet mutual interests and address common concerns.
The third phase of the policy (2010-2015) witnessed few encouraging developments in the form of the Strategic partnerships with Malaysia, Korea, Australia, and Japan while at the same time increasing interactions with major powers such as US, China and Russia. India has managed to engage major actors at global stage without undermining or getting dictated by any particular country’s interests. The fourth phase which started from 2015 and is still continuing saw the clear articulation of India’s interests and also addressing the core concerns of the countries through proactive strategic and defence engagements. India’s approach towards Latin American Countries and Pacific countries showcases the Pacific orientation of the country as well as extension and expansion of the policy orientation. The 2+2 meetings with Japan, US and Australia are expected to accelerate the pace of engagement in primarily four spheres–strategic, economic, defence and technology cooperation. Korea which has been a reliable business partner is increasingly perceived as a strategic partner. India’s approach to Indo–Pacific is manifested by new strategic partnerships signed/reinforced with Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Mongolia and Australia.
The Japan-India Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership outlined new possibilities between the two countries. This was complemented by Japan-India agreement on defence equipment and technology transfer, and Agreement Concerning the Security Measures for the Protection of Classified Military Information. These agreements were built on foundations such as the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between Japan and India (2008), and the Joint Declaration on Security Action Plan (2009). Furthermore, permanent inclusion of Japan in Malabar exercises clearly showed that Asia and Pacific, in particular the two Oceans (Indian and Pacific) can be conjoined together in operational preparedness, both for traditional and non–traditional security threats. Japan, US, India and Australia- these four countries have been sharing best practices and have been part of Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) exercises to show greater coordination among navies. RIMPAC biennial exercises have been held during June and July. In 2014, 22 countries had participated including India1. Another US Air Force exercise held at Nevada known as Exercise Red Flag, is advanced aerial combat training exercise, and in 2016, after a hiatus of eight years, India participated in those exercises. India also conducted first bilateral maritime exercises with Australia in 2015 and might possibly hold bilateral naval exercises with Japan in future. But, India’s priorities are not limited to defence and security only. India has been looking for a positive role in the larger geo-strategic theatre which can build peace and promote economic growth. It also manifested expanding horizons of India’s strategic neighbourhood or as the foreign policy fundamentals stated “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam” (the whole world is a family).
With Russia also, the talks under the Russia-India-China(RIC) Foreign ministers meeting has been held annually while at the same time the synergy between the three countries(India- Chain and Russia) also manifests during the BRICS summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited India in December 2010, and during that time the Strategic Partnership, which was signed in the year 2000, was elevated as “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership”. Given the fact that India instead of acting as a swing state has placed itself at a geo-political vantage point, it has all the attributes to emerge an Indo –Pacific power. India has taken policy stance with regard to South China Sea and East China Sea which were unprecedented in the recent history. This clearly outlined the proactive approach to Act East Policy. The next section would look into the horizons that India’s strategic outlook has demarcated and possible opportunities from India’s point of view.
India’s Expanding Strategic Outlook
India’s vision of extended neighbourhood includes power projection; be it firm power military and economic objectives or be it soft power manifested through cultural and ideational means. Ideational component, not in the context of any set authority, but to support democracy and theorize decentralization of power. The extended neighbourhood has become the theoretical multi directional umbrella for India, a “360-degree vision” of the opportunities available to India outside south Asia.
In most of the regions like West Asia, Central Asia and even Southeast Asia, India’s leverages are different. While, in West Asia it has interests in energy security and the large Indian diaspora of about 6.5 million working in the region. In Central Asia, India has been trying to capitalize on cultural and historic ties as well as the benefit of most of these nations being the constituents of erstwhile Soviet Union, a trusted friend of India. Interestingly, in the case of Southeast Asia, India has maximum leverages in the form of civilization links, cultural and religious influence, increasing trade and investment and now increasing defence and strategic cooperation. This extended neighbourhood has now expanded both in terms of regional and trans-regional identity and stakes.
In reality, regions are less fixed. Geography has become more theoretically grounded in contemporary times, classical geopolitics (“position” as coordinates location in a region) overlays with critical geopolitics (“position” as perceptual aspirations, hopes and fears in a region). In the modern geopolitical discourse, Asia –Pacific as a region is facing competition from Indo-Pacific construct. However, the Indo-Pacific construct is not a new conception. Karl Haushofer mentioned Indopazifischen Raum “Indo-Pacific region/space” in his promotion for the fusion of the two regional constructs. This geo-political imagination was proposed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He buttressed the fact that “the geographic impact of the dense Indo-Pacific concentration of humanity and cultural empire of India and China, which . . . are geographically sheltered behind the protective veil of the offshore island arcs” of the western Pacific and Bay of Bengal, offshore island arcs through which they are now both actively and competitively deploying. Furthermore, the trade and cultural routes between Indian and Pacific oceans had been reflected in the archaeological studies and historical data.
Writings by scholars like Mohammad Ayoob, C. Rajamohan, SudhirDevare, V.P Dutt, S D Muni, Kripa Sridharan, GVC Naidu and few others have referred about the changing strategic outlook but its articulation with regard to Southeast Asia as a region has left much to be desired. K.M Pannikar12, work has been the indication of the need to reconfigure outlook towards Southeast Asia. Subsequently, K. Subramanyam had pronounced about the Indochinese region and stated that pressure on China should be made from Indochina region. He also identified Vietnam as one of the strategically relevant country for India. According to K. Subramanyam, ‘We have a large stake in ensuring that the pressure is contained. That has been our basic policy from the fifties.” (Part 2)
* Director (Research), ICWA