Finally, it is official – the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region lies at the heart of India’s foreign and security policy as stated by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi in his keynote address at the IISS Shangri-La dialogue. This formally ends any reservation the Indian government may have had in the past on using the term – Modi used it ten times in his speech – either to placate China or dampen US enthusiasm.
Importantly, Modi defined this region as stretching from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas, thereby incorporating the Gulf region and Indian Ocean island states left out of popular definitions. As this is to be a ‘free, open, inclusive region’ in pursuit of progress and prosperity, the use of the term is not ‘directed against any country’, nor is it to be seen as a ‘grouping that seeks to dominate’. In this context, Modi deliberately did not use the word ‘quad’, the grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia.
For India, the core of the Indo-Pacific region will be ASEAN and India’s ‘Act East’ policy, even as the Indian Ocean holds the ‘key to India’s future’. For the first time, Modi stated that his Indian Ocean vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) unveiled in 2015 will also be applicable to the ‘east’. And in this respect, the relationship with the US is critical.
Modi stressed that India and the US shared a vision of an ‘open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region’. Significantly, the speech took place days after the US symbolically renamed its Hawaii-based Pacific Command as the ‘Indo-Pacific Command’; the single bilateral Modi held on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue was with US Defence Secretary James Mattis.
Modi sent a public message seeking continued engagement with China – referencing his recent informal summit with President Xi five weeks ago, amidst his next visit to China at the end of the month for the SCO summit – while emphasising that ‘strong and stable bilateral relations’ were important for Asian and global security. There was no mention of Indian concern over Chinese assertiveness towards the South China Sea.
But, in a thinly veiled criticism of China, Modi strongly highlighted the importance of partnerships on the basis of shared values and interests. Importantly, Modi used the term ‘rules-based international order’ for the region, which he stressed ‘must equally apply to all individually as well as to the global commons’. These rules and norms were to be based on ‘the consent of all, not on the power of the few’. He also emphasised freedom of navigation and overflights, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.
This was in marked contrast to the last meeting of quad officials in Manila last November, when India’s statement was notable for its absence, even though New Delhi had in the past regularly voiced support for these principles. Modi also criticised infrastructure projects that were not ‘based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability’. In another veiled reference to what has been called China’s ‘debt trap diplomacy’, he noted that such projects ‘must empower nations, not place them under impossible debt burden’.
Finally, Modi focused on the importance of naval diplomacy, praising the Indian navy for building partnerships in the region through training, exercises and the conduct of goodwill missions, along with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. He singled out Singapore for hosting the longest un-interrupted joint naval exercise with his country, now in its 25th year, and mentioned the extension of this to a trilateral exercise. In a little noticed development, and unusually for Indian prime ministerial visits, Modi visited Changi naval port in Singapore. There he went aboard a Singaporean frigate and a visiting Indian naval frigate; emphasising India’s defence ties in the Indo-Pacific.