Security Issues and Strategic Challenges in the Indo-Pacific

by Dr. Santhosh Mathew Vivek Noble - 4 April, 2020, 12:00 10381 Views 0 Comment


By the turn of the 21st-century globalisation has ceased to exist a phenomenon and it became the very reason for increased participation from the nation-states. Providing impetus and strengthening relations among states to develop newer regional orders to define international relations came to be a primary concern. The connection between the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific has become increasingly palpable in the present century in both geo-economic and security arenas. A free and open Indo-Pacific immediately came to be in the limelight of Indian strategic thinking and policymaking processes. For a long time, the Indian strategic thought process remained greatly to be one that of continental, focusing her land borders and addressing security concerns at the higher altitudes while balancing power against China, however, the new changes of the Asian century has brought a twist in perspective to accommodate the flourishing opportunities rendered from the Indo-Pacific. The West and mainly the US has welcomed Indian presence and has been appreciating India’s efforts to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. What has made the West so interested in India’s concerns and which is easily comprehensible by the critical dependence of East Asia on the natural resources of West Asia and Africa via the Indian Ocean.  

A Single Integrated Geopolitical Theatre: Indo- Pacific 

Asia is looked upon as large, vague and continental at least in the realms of policymaking and thought process and the term Asia pacific generally put forth the impression ‘Asian littorals of the Pacific’, which was inadequate to represent the full picture. The newly coined term of Indo-Pacific stands to define the geographical vastness of this new geo-economics maritime domain which has the capacity to alter Asia’s future in favour of her giants. World’s third-largest oceanic division covers nearly 20% of the water on the earth’s surface, bounded by Asia in the north, at its west Africa and Australia and east and south Antarctica, the Indian ocean lies promoting trade, security and serves to be the core of India’s maritime policy. 

“Security is taken to be about the pursuit of freedom from threat and ability of states and societies to maintain their independent identity and functional integrity against the forces of change, which they see as hostile. The bottom line of security is survival, but it also reasonably includes a substantial range of concerns about the conditions of existence. Quite where this range of concerns ceases to merit the urgency of the ‘security’ label (which identifies threats as significant enough to warrant emergency action and exceptional measures including the use of force) and becomes part of everyday uncertainties of life is one of the difficulties of the concept (Barry Buzan,1991.)” The Indian Ocean region (IOR) is the blue border that links India to the east and beyond. One needs not to have a second view to comprehend the fact that India’s future lies in its ability to harness the power of the IOR. from ancient times maritime supremacy is viewed as the hallmark of great power. Effective utilization of its ocean resources would channel the aspirations of an emerging economy. The geopolitical advantage has put India in a pre-eminent position in the region and this must be put in greater use, with adequate care, to serve national interests. The security of the region has become a larger concern for India than any other littoral states. 

It is the confluence of both these oceans and the ever-increasing maritime trade that brings the nation-states together irrespective of their ideological differences or dogmatic changes. The idea of a free and inclusive Indo pacific stands to promote trade and simultaneously extends its strategic vision upon the security concerns of the littorals. Being a major power in the region and at the same time having a greater chunk of Indian Ocean to be on its controlled maritime zone provides India with the strategic advantage to be a rule maker rather than a rule follower in the region. 

A manufactured super-region 

The collective anxieties against China’s influence in the region help the mainland to perceive the Indo-pacific initiatives to be a manufactured super region only to hedge against a comprehensive Sino centric regional order. The idea has been shared among the scholars across the mainland and has spoken out through media reports and academic works produced. Such perceptions as China sees only helps to increase the differences between the dragon and the elephant. One reason to be cited as one which comes close to this Chinese understanding or Indian strategic readiness is the myth of the string of pearls (Rajeev Bhutani, 2016)  first suggested in 2005 by the U.S. think-tank. The idea is a strategic encirclement of India by making its neighbours’ economically and strategically dependent on China thereby creating a circle of influence around the sovereign Indian territories. The Chinese presence in the neighbourhood indicates their aim to strategically engage India with its neighbours and continue to exploit the resources and geopolitical advantage of the region. To China, the Indian Ocean is an inevitable part of its rising ambitions; the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities along its sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. The sea lanes run through various maritime chokepoints such as the Straits of Mandeb, the Straits of Malacca, the Straits of Hormuz, and the Lombok Straits as well as other strategic maritime centers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Somalia, the Indian Ocean littoral states.  

A strategic network of China’s military and commercial facilities and relations along in the sea lanes of communication is not so appealing to New Delhi. Indian policymakers and think tanks are convinced that the twenty-first century will be witnessing the rise of numerous sea powers. And in South Asia, the sub-continental state has risen economically, politically, militarily, conventional weaponry and modern arsenals, etc.  

India in the Indo-Pacific 

In the South Asian region, India inherited strategic advantage owing to the geopolitical privilege it enjoys by having a shared border with the maximum states in the region unlike any other power in the same region. This geostrategic backup has helped this great nation to be evolved as a net security provider around its strategic domain. Providing naval assistance and ensuring smooth flow of goods and services through its controlled waters India has been protecting the status quo. One of the main reasons to be cited as a cause for India’s increased engagement in the Indian ocean on the sidelines of quadrilateral cooperation ( India, USA, Japan and Australia) and the Indo-Pacific is the long due presence of the Pakistan rhetoric in its foreign policy. The continental way of thinking is rigorously turning towards a more maritime induced active engagement which is factually visible through the continuous engagement in these two areas.  

Indian strategic analyst C. Rajamohan (2012) argues that the seas of western pacific and the Indian Ocean constitute “a single integrated geopolitical theatre’, which is the Indo-Pacific> In Australia Rory Medcalf (2012) believes that the new term is “a valid and objective description of the greater regional system in which Australia now finds itself.” Australian ambassador to Washington Kim Beazley (2012) agrees, maintaining that the Indo-pacific presents ‘a practical, strategic reality that has to be addressed’. Crucially Australian Defence White paper 2013 (Commonwealth of Australia 2013) for the first time identifies Australia’s region as the Indo-Pacific Strategic Arc. Thus presented with the following challenges India is performing in the wider Indo-Pacific. 

Security Issues and Strategic Challenges  

All known paradigms in today’s world are witnessing tremendous stress which calls for readjustments, a new way of seeing, the old post-second world war consensus is fraying and a new one is yet to emerge. The liberal trading order has encountered protectionism in the form of tariff and non- tariff barriers. The cheaper imports from China are on a steady growing scale which is not appealing for the domestic economy in developing economies. One cannot argue for increased imports from China as this directly jeopardizes the trading and services in the domestic economy. Looming trade war tensions although quite on the downswing owing to many other vital international attentions. The nature of the market has taken a hit and now where developing countries fear the danger of zero-sum mercantilism and rising protectionism in western economies. 

Thucydides Trap: Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School has popularised the phrase ‘Thucydides trap’ to international academia. He rightly notes in his analysis and looks for the able context for conflict between an advancing power and an already advanced power or the dominating power. Any disruptions on the status quo would lead to a series of proxy wars and continuing interruptions and turmoil in the region. Allison supports his views as he brings in the case of US-China rivalries at the international system to elucidate the concept. Both the USA and other major Asian economies see China as a rising threat and a usurper in the region which stands to alter the balance of power equations already balanced through strenuous US efforts and other Indian efforts along with major Asian economies such as South Korea and Japan etc. the rising of China’s influence over India’s neighbourhood is huge strategic trouble that is there at the borders. This should be one of the prominent strategic concerns and security issues at present India face in the region from a major power. This imbalance in the balance of power equations or as Allison puts in a likelihood of conflict cannot be avoided.  

Belt Road Initiative: Globalisation gave impetus for increased regional participation among nation-states. Since 2013 China’s think-tanks and other policy powerhouses have been negotiating a new regional trade and investment pact along the lines of regional cooperation. China’s increasing influence around the indo-pacific and southeast Asian nations have alarmed the policymakers in India. The new regional order on the lines of the Belt Road Initiative has the capacity to block India’s influence among its neighbouring countries points towards a new regional mechanism evolving in the Asian continent. The increased engagement through Act East Policy and sophisticated financial assistance schemes including the offer to provide assistance to Sri Lanka should be seen in the light of this strategic threat from its big neighbour. The recent withdrawal from the multi-dollar trade pact RCEP has shown much light in this realm. 

There are other technical issues in the Indo-pacific for India as much as it for others in the same littoral region. There exists a lack of clarity at the concept and about the way one must pursue their foreign policy orientations. Most of the players in this strategic region have varying concerns regarding the region which is said to be promising for a new maritime century where all the former Asian giants will rise again and peace shall flourish through trade balancing and better developmental practices.   

Nevertheless, it is important to take note of the behavioural changes expressed by various stakeholders of the same endeavour and a highlighted feature seems to be the lack of willingness to shoulder the responsibility to provide an open and free Indo-Pacific for everybody else’s larger growth and development. There has been no steady directions or serious dialogue partnerships happening on the side of the idea of Indo-Pacific. However, we do not neglect the fact that India is working assiduously for the success of this strategic idea as it sees itself as a growing sea power capable of harnessing the power of the Indian Ocean, channelling it for its overall growth.  

Let us not assume that all that is going well and well about all these strategic innovations and craving smart ideas for the inducement of growth and development. The maritime initiatives that India is already part of such as the BIMSTEC, IORA, etc. do not offer many hopeful results for us to validate. One of the primary reasons for India to look at its strategic backyard is coming from its shift from neighbourhood first policy or to be precise the visible deviation from south Asian initiatives from strengthening the region to loosening its integrity has become a major issue needs attention. India’s engagement with its eastern neighbourhood finds to be fortunate for India as development and investment opportunities are growing in the case of India.  


The future of the Indian Ocean region depends on how well the regional commons agree on narrowing down the differences and resolve to cooperate for the continued growth and prosperity of the region in economic and political standards. China’s influence in the Indian Ocean is inevitable as it is one of its (China) major maritime routes and the majority of its oil trade passes through the region. Due to the pirate threats and to protect its national interest abroad littoral states have engaged in common forums and regional groupings. Pure maritime initiatives and maritime-based land policies have been employed in the region over time. Growing Indian aspirations cannot be restrained in South Asia alone; looking forward to the East was a necessity that India could never avoid. Increased Chinese presence through economic, military and strategic arenas in India’s neighbouring states called for New Delhi’s attention. The response was the implementation of an effective policy looking forward to reconnecting with the East. From 2014 the East policy was recalibrated as Act East policy with increased engagement with ASEAN and beyond. The Indo-pacific is a rising new avenue of economic prosperity and challenging investment opportunities. Along with other strategic concerns India must also look into these following issues or options while considering the growth perspectives in the larger Indo-Pacific.  

 This century demands an Asia of cooperation and not an Asia of rivalry which should continue to shape this century.  At some point one must include all the necessary help that they can secure in order to enhance the efficiency of peace efforts in the region. The existing rivalries between states and mutual trust deficiency found among the regional commons stand to be a hindrance to the cooperation efforts. The major Asian neo economic players should render a mature contribution to take Asia to the heights of economic growth. Modern-day India, five years ahead is a technologically equipped and skill-driven society, it is a collective responsibility of the statesmen to equip its young generation to consider this growing fortune and render them services thus they must bear the fruits of this technology. Trade protectionism creates barriers and the modern states charged from globalisation should choose to take the different stand as the whole of relations and existence would be peace and peace between fellow nation-states. 

Dr. Santhosh Mathew
Author is Assistant Professor, Centre For South Asian Studies, Pondicherry Central University, India
Vivek Noble
Author is Research Scholar at Centre for South Asian Studies, Pondicherry University.

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