India as an Indo–Pacific Power Exploring New Horizons and Possibilities
Dr. Pankaj Jha*
K.M Panikkar had argued that an “Oceanic Policy” for India was needed: “a steel ring can be created around India. . .within the area so ringed, a navy can be created strong enough to defend its home waters, then the waters vital to India’s security and prosperity can be protected. . .with the islands of the Bay of Bengal with Singapore, Mauritius and Socotra (now a part of Yemen), properly quipped and protected and with a navy based on Ceylon security can return to that part of the Indian Ocean which is of supreme importance to India.The strategic importance of Malacca Straits was cited even prior to India’s independence by the K.M Panikkar in his book ‘India and Indian Ocean: An Essay on Influence of Sea Power’ on Indian History. He stated, “the Gulf of Malacca is like the mouth of a crocodile, the peninsula of Malaya being the upper and the jutting end of Sumatra being the lower the jaw. The entry to the Gulf can be controlled by the Nicobars and the narrow end is dominated by the island of Singapore”. India’s foreign minister Jaswant Singh in 2003 made a remark that India’s strategic interest lie from Persian Gulf to Straits of Malacca and beyond. This formed the basis of enhancing relations with India’s near east and also articulating India’s Maritime Doctrine, the first one was released in 2004. The revised and updated second version of India’s Maritime Doctrine which was released in August 2009 clearly stipulates the role of Indian Ocean and the strategic interest of India from Malacca Straits to Straits of Hormuz. This has again been reinforced by the Maritime Strategy Documents of 2015 (publically released in 2016). India’s Maritime Strategy has also developed in the last one and a half decades. Among the primary areas of interests include the choke points leading to, from and across the Indian Ocean, including the Six degree Channel; Eight/ Nine-degree Channels; Straits of Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, Malacca, Singapore, Sunda and Lombok; the Mozambique Channel, and Cape of Good Hope and their littoral regions. India’s secondary areas of maritime interest include South-East Indian Ocean, including sea routes to the Pacific Ocean and littoral regions in vicinity, South and East China Seas, Western Pacific Ocean, and their littoral regions clearly outlining Indo–Pacific as the major area of expanding interests and responsibility. India’s approach towards larger Indo-Pacific region was existent since the times of its independence. This has been buttressed by the fact that in its foreign policy establishment has also two divisions which share the Indo-Pacific region - Southern and the Indian Ocean Divisions.
India’s geo-strategic location makes it sensitive to developments beyond its immediate neighbourhood, in West Asia, Central Asia, in the Indian Ocean Region and the larger Asia Pacific region. Major geopolitical and geo-economic developments are currently transforming the global security scenario into one of uncertainty and volatility. The shift of the global balance of power from the Euro-Atlantic region to the Asia-Pacific region has brought a complex and dynamic interplay of economic, military and diplomatic factors, evidenced in the escalation of maritime territorial disputes, military postures and power rivalries, all of which have added to the uncertainties in the security situation in the region. The contestations over island territories in the Indo-Pacific have created tensions in the region and threaten to polarise the Indo-Pacific community. In particular developments in East China Sea and South China Sea have been of much concern. The situation on the Korean peninsula is also fraught with tension due to relation between North and South Korea and with North Korea conducting its missile tests very recently. These developments have affected the military balance and impacted economic cooperation in the region. Non-traditional challenges such as transnational crime, terrorism, natural disasters, pandemics, cyber security and food and energy security also pose serious challenges to the region. India has important political, economic, commercial and social interests in the Indo- Pacific and has a stake in continued peace and stability in the region. India supports freedom of navigation in international waters and the right of innocent passage, in accordance with the UNCLOS. India’s view is that all countries must exercise restraint and resolve bilateral issues diplomatically, according to principles of international law and without recourse to the use or threat of use of force. Of late, India has taken a proactive role in highlighting its concerns in the East China Sea and South China Sea during the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Japan and US. In order to protect its interests in the larger Indo–Pacific region, India has adopted a rather flexible approach of strategic partnerships.
Among the countries in larger Indo –Pacific region, India has adopted a strategy of strategic partnership to define its security and strategic priorities in such a way that it is not directed against any one country but is at the same time with a purpose. India’s strategic outlook has dictated its policy discourse and therefore while engaging the countries in its extended neighbourhood. Luis Blanco, an eminent scholar, has argued that despite being relatively informal institutionalized relationships, “strategic partnerships” have caught a fancy of many nations such as China, Russia and India. Since the early 1990s, so called cooperative relationships have been rechristened and new formulations have been named as “strategic partnerships”. However, the word strategic is as vague as the concept of strategic partnership. The word “strategic” denotes an act which is aimed at reaching specific and vital goals while a strategic partnership is usually projected as a comprehensive cooperative relationship between signatories for achieving common goals. “Strategic partnership” is the new terminology which has the potential to explain India’s relationship with US while at the same time can justify India’s relations with even Iran and China.
India signed its first ever strategic partnership agreement with South Africa(1997) followed by France (1998), Russia(2000), Germany(2000), Mauritius (2001),Mongolia(2001) and lately with multilateral organisations such as ASEAN(2012) and UNDP(2012).
a) A large number of nations /multilateral organisations are vying for the ‘strategic partnership’ agreement with India. These include Venezuela, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Iraq, Greece, Israel, Thailand, UAE, Seychelles, Egypt and Turkey. Surprisingly, most of the countries with which India has signed the strategic partnership have a strong defence component barring few exceptions such as India- South Africa, India-UNDP.
b) Secondly, energy has emerged as a major propeller for strategic partnership and this is visible in the case of Iran, Oman and Nigeria.
c) With the exception of Korea and ASEAN, the economic agreement with most of the strategic partners is missing. This is in specific reference to the Bilateral FTAs with Strategic Partners. However, most of the strategic partners have been covered under the BIPPA.
d) In the region-wide distribution as has been discussed under the extended neighbourhood discourse. East Asia (6), West Asia (2) and Central Asia(3). Interestingly, Africa which has emerged lately in the Indian calculations both in terms of economic and diaspora accounts for more than five strategic partnerships.
India has tried to use strategic partnership to further its national interest and project its core interests in international spheres. Among India’s strategic partnerships, which now account for nearly 30 in number, maximum have been signed in the Indo–Pacific region. The strategic partnerships pertain to core areas of national interest like defence equipment and technology exports, economic and trade, military exercises, nuclear, energy, science and technology, education, information and communication technology, banking, insurance, and various other sectors. Each partnership has a specific character focusing on certain issues. Select partnerships are perceived as more comprehensive than others, depending on the number of areas of convergence between the two countries, which can be mutually explored for bilateral benefits and to expand the scope and depth of their relations. India is of the view that in the current regional security landscape, there is a need to promote a cooperative approach. Hence, we remain actively engaged with the Asia-Pacific community through a web of bilateral as well as multilateral fora like the East Asia Summit, ADMM Plus and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), so as to contribute to peace and stability in the region22.the multilateral participation have been reinforced by political engagements and bilateral relationships with major countries.
Moreover, the Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation Agreement with Sri Lanka and Maldives showcase the resolve to protect both its immediate and extended maritime domain. Indian perspective in various security forums such as Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) also reflect future utility of multilateral cooperative security forums and how India wants to utilize for promoting the security in the Indian Ocean in its periphery and near abroad.As part of its policy, India also embarked on engaging the countries of Southeast Asia, Oceania and East Asia through Defence Diplomacy. India signed Defence Cooperation Agreement /MoU on Defence Cooperation with more than nine countries across the region which included Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Singapore, Australia, Japan and Korea. In due course of time India’s Defence Diplomacy undertook various components of engagements which included training of personnel, liaison visits of naval ships and exchange between officer training academy, and even arms exports. Usually, arms exports does not comprise a component of defence diplomacy but in case the arms exports at “friendly prices” or “flexible payment” options such as Lines of Credit(LOC) then defence exports do become a component of defence diplomacy. Having been seen as the benign power and nurtured excellent relations with its extended neighbourhood, there has been a debate that whether India should expand its global role and act as an interventionist power in case of localised conflicts where its interests are getting hampered. Further, Southeast Asian nations are keen on countering China but are not willing to evict China from the dialogue partnership status nor are keen on accusing China for aggravating tensions; however, strong the statements might be in ASEAN and its related forums. The statecraft takes precedence over rhetoric. There has been increasing reference about India playing a bigger and active role.
The debate over the viability and utility of the Asia–Pacific and Indo- Pacific has been widely debated but for India, Indo-Pacific seems more appropriate because it is inclusive of India as an important stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific region. India has made its preference clear when in January 2016 it has signed an agreement entitled U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region which clearly manifested outlook towards Indo -Pacific. The statement clearly outlines - “As the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies that bridge the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region and reflecting our agreement that a closer partnership between the United States and India is indispensable to promoting peace, prosperity and stability in those regions, we have agreed on a Joint Strategic Vision for the region”.
India’s Proactive Engagement –Political and Economic Aspects
The regional order in Asia today still bears many of the hallmarks that have characterized it for a number of decades: the American attendance and alliance system, a “rising” China, a resurgent Japan, a divided Korea and China/Taiwan (and the existence of “security dilemmas” in each instance), an increasingly self-assured and coherent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a mixture of political systems amid a general trend toward the growth of democracies, entrenched nationalism, dynamic economic growth, educated societies, and disciplined workforces. These features continue to distinguish Asian international relations.
Each nation need to secure its strategic and security interests through looking at its best possible options. Under its “Look East” policy (now better known as Act East Policy), India has embarked on engaging the countries of Southeast Asia on all fronts namely economic, political and strategic. It meant getting involved in the dialogue process in ASEAN and induction as dialogue partner in 1995, and thereafter becoming member of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996 .The more enhanced alignment came when it was inducted into ASEAN+1 summit level process in 2002 and last but not the least becoming a member of East Asian Summit in 2005, despite reservations from China and Malaysia. The question arises whether the involvement of India in Southeast Asia has been a better experience or a lacklustre experience. The latter can be ruled out owing to the emerging convergence in all sectors of the economy and the increased trade between India and Southeast Asia. On the other hand, the multilateral arrangements have reached certain bottlenecks during the negotiations for the ASEAN-India Free Trade negotiations and the lack of unanimity on the negative list of items and the structure of tariffs. India also has initiated a number of bilateral arrangements to enhance bilateral relations which would act in tandem with the defence, cultural and political cooperation. Politically, India has been involved in the global processes such as BRICS, G-20 and AIIB clearly manifesting its preferences for contributory role in development and prosperity of the developing countries and developed countries. It has been promoting South-South cooperation and has been an active player in climate change mitigation. The expectations with India has increased substantially but it has faced structural and institutional problems in the larger Asia-pacific theatre as it still need support to join few exclusive clubs such as UN Security Council, APEC and other institutional mechanisms where it is required but not engaged.
The narrow outlook of ‘economic diplomacy defines it as the conduct by government officials/diplomats in the context of negotiations and other relations between nations – the art and science of conducting such relations, skills in managing negotiations, public relations, etc so that there is little or no ill-will. In other words, negotiations must end as a positive sum game. The broader perspective of economic diplomacy rests on the management of international relations through negotiations by government officials/diplomats; the skills required for such management; adroitness in personal relations; tact and engagement with private sector and civil society, etc25.In other words, economic diplomacy deals with articulation of foreign policy in the real world of economic relations between nations to flesh out and implement the principles and objectives set out in the policy. It involves the application of skills and tact in the conduct of official relations, particularly trade and investment, and in engaging the private sector and civil society constructively by governments of sovereign states'.
Economics has always been a vital component of India’s foreign policy. However, in the post-Cold war period only those economic interests have become the primary agent of international relations. India’s economic diplomacy has become now even more important in view of the need to protect and promote the country’s trade and commercial interests to face the challenges and exploit the prospects posed by the fast integrating world. Integration of the extended region and bilateral Free Trade Agreements have become important goals of India’s economic diplomacy. It has already seen the benefits of regional integration through the success of European Union, NAFTA and ASEAN. 27Economic diplomacy is being followed at different levels to achieve objectives of plan of India as a major economic power, multilateral trade and economic negotiations, regional and bilateral trade agreements, access to foreign resources, promotion of exports and Indian businesses abroad, and promotion of foreign investments in India. In an attempt to bring about change in mind-sets the government has already started orienting and retraining existing diplomats. A proactive attitude is fast replacing earlier passive approach. (Part 3)
* Director (Research), ICWA