In the changing scenario of world politics, a power transition is underway in the global order. The centre of gravity of power is now shifting towards a new economically and strategically important region which encompasses both the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a single geo-strategic arc. This strategic arc is well known among scholars, diplomats and foreign policy analysts as ‘Indo-Pacific Asia’ or ‘Indo-Pacific’. Indo-Pacific is the new emerging Asian maritime strategic system which stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific and is defined by the geographically expanding interests and reach of India and China, and the continued strategic role and presence of the United States in both oceans. The rapid expansion of trade, investments, and the shift of economic power from the Trans-Atlantic to Asia has given rise to the concept of this single geo-strategic arc.
Gaining Traction in Geopolitics
The Indo-Pacific terminology is widely accepted as a distinct biogeographic region in marine science. In geopolitics, however, it was occasionally used in the early and mid-20th century and re-emerged in a gaining attention in expert commentaries and official statements in recent years. The term was first used by GS Khurana in 2007 in an article titled ‘Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation’ in Strategic Analysis Journal. The spirit of the term was picked up by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his speech to the Indian Parliament in August 2007 in the context of ‘broader Asia’. The Former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, first used the term officially in October 2010 in Honolulu in a geopolitical sense to elucidate developments in the Asia Pacific region. Since 2011, the term Indo-Pacific is being used increasingly in global strategic and geo-political discourses. However, an official documented articulation of the term first appeared in Australia’s Defence White Paper, 2013.
Therefore, as a geopolitical term, Indo-Pacific certainly seems more expansive among scholars than the term Asia-Pacific. Presumably, it is more rational as it adequately reflects changing priorities of the US in the region and also represents the inclusion of the western Pacific within the range of India’s security interests. In another sense, Indo-Pacific is also an expansion of the concept of Asia-Pacific, which previously excluded India, but now encompasses the subcontinent as its integral part. As India’s regional and global profile increases, it will certainly gravitate towards the centre of this expanded strategic arc of Indo-Pacific.
Economic and Strategic Significance
The sea lanes of the Indo-Pacific region have nearly five major maritime chokepoints and it serves as a maritime super highway for in-demand energy resources that drive the world’s largest economies. Almost 68 percent of India’s, 80 percent of China’s and 62 percent of the United States’ oil is shipped from this region. This emerging region also holds approximately 70 percent of natural resources of the world. Therefore, the Indo-Pacific Region is growing as the geo-economic as well as geo-strategic centre of world politics impacted by a shift in the global balance of power.
India and Australia, both are important stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region due to their key geographic locations. Being a major power, India has a pivotal position in the region. The United States has also identified India as a “linchpin” of the region and seeks India’s support for its strategic shift towards the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific region is a critical part of the global commons with the active involvement of the US, India and China. It is, therefore, the most strategically contested area in the world. The biggest security challenge in Indo-Pacific Asia is the rivalry among one hegemon – US and two rapidly rising giants – China and India.
The strategic rivalry among powers in the Indo-Pacific region first came in focus by the US’s decision to place littoral combat ships at Singapore in 2011. Obama’s trip to Australia the same year opened up new opportunities to train with other allies and partners from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean; in other words, across the Indo-Pacific. The practical reflection of such talk was the agreement to strengthen the US presence at Darwin on Australia’s northwestern coast. The announcement was viewed as part of rebalancing of power in the Indo-Pacific region which could alter the security architecture of the region.
Complex Power Games in the New Battlefield
Without doubt, a power game of great significance has unfolded in the emerging strategic arc of the Indo-Pacific. The US, India, Japan, Australia and other players are seeking to collaborate to build an “Indo-Pacific order” that is congenial to their long-term interests. Though not necessarily excluded from this project, China must help recast strategic objectives and interaction norms that bind all participating states. From India’s security perspective, China’s ‘String of Pearls’ policy cannot be ignored. Chinese military naval base in Pakistan’s Gwadar, Hambantota container port in Sri Lanka, Marao naval base in Maldives, commercial naval base in Myanmar and port facilities at Chittagong in Bangladesh clearly indicate China’s intention to cast a strategic net around India in the Indo-Pacific. India is also aware of its growing interests and multiplying challenges in the region and the need for cooperation with regional players like the US, Japan, Australia and ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) to tackle these challenges. The rapid expansion of Indian and Chinese naval capabilities and the US’s own search for maritime partners has lent a special significance to the expanding cooperation between New Delhi and Washington in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Therefore, in an environment where China fears Indian rise and US containment, India fears Chinese containment and the US fears Chinese dominance, there is the potential for many friction areas to develop into potential areas of conflict. The sea lanes of the Indo-Pacific are now becoming more crowded, more contested and more vulnerable to armed strife. All these unfolding complex games have now developed the Indo-Pacific region as a new and emerging battlefield of powers.
The US, China and India must build and sustain substantial and purposeful dialogue to find viable mechanisms for communicating their interests and concerns to each other, managing the impending rivalry and generating synergy for regional stability, peace and prosperity.
Govind Gaurav is Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Political science, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. He may be reached at email@example.com