India’s role in the Indo-Pacific is considered crucial by the countries of the region. The Indo-Pacific strategies of the European Union, France, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States all emphasis on the need to engage with India in ensuring the development of a peaceful Indo-Pacific. Correspondingly, the importance of the Indo-Pacific region in India’s policy thinking cannot be understated, with its foreign policy choices impacting its security environment.
India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific is guided by the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). SAGAR is India’s vision to work with partners to ensure a safe, secure and stable Indian Ocean Region. India seeks to deepen economic and security cooperation with its maritime neighbours and assist in building their maritime security capabilities by cooperating in information/intelligence sharing, coastal surveillance, building of infrastructure and strengthening capabilities. The main objective of the IPOI is to ensure the safety, security, and stability of the maritime domain and to do that, seven pillars have been laid out. They allow India to engage with its Indo-Pacific partners either bilaterally, or on plurilateral and multilateral platforms, in a multitude of spheres including maritime security, maritime resource management, and development of blue economy, maritime connectivity, disaster management and capacity building. Both initiatives are important as the seamless connectivity in the maritime domain means that instabilities anywhere would impact on India’s maritime security too. This thought was articulated by External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar when he stated that, “This remains a maritime century, and the tides of the Indo-Pacific region will certainly help shape its future. And India along with its partner nations will make a collective effort to keep the oceans peaceful, open and secure, and, at the same time, contributes to conserve its resources and keep it clean.”
There is also growing convergence of global powers on the Indo-Pacific, evident from the proliferation of bilateral and multilateral initiatives in the region, in which India is increasingly a participant. The Indo-Pacific has become the nerve centre for the evolving global strategic outlook. With the international arena in a flux and revival of great power rivalries, the countries of the Indo-Pacific are reacting and responding to the new challenges that are emerging while continuing to address existing threats. The paper identifies a few factors that are shaping and will contribute to the contours of the future Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific and Future Challenges
The Indo-Pacific is at the centre of the ongoing churn in multi-polarity and rebalancing that characterises contemporary changes, with the divergences and complementarities of the countries adding to the regional outlook on inclusivity and stability. While the region continues to be shaped by great power rivalry, the pandemic has changed the discourse on the notion of security. Vaccine diplomacy, equitable distribution and access to medical equipments, testing kits etc have pushed nations to include health security within the purview of national security.
The region witnessed an evolution in the QUAD policy thinking in response to the pandemic. The Quad Summit 2021 announced its initiative to advance ‘practical cooperation for 21st Century challenges’ (emphasis added); (i) ending the COVID-19 pandemic, including by increasing production and access to safe and effective vaccines; (ii) promoting high-standards infrastructure; (iii) combating the climate crisis; (iv) partnering on emerging technologies, space, and cyber-security; and (v) cultivating next-generation talent in all of our countries. The challenges identified by the QUAD are long term security challenges that would require a collective effort. They also go beyond traditional security needs to address emerging security challenges that will impact nations in the future. As part of the QUAD, India has welcomed the evolution in security thinking and as the ‘pharmacy of the world’ has committed to providing the vaccines needed to end the pandemic.
The pandemic has also brought unprecedented economic challenges with many questioning the future of globalisation in its current form. It has forced nations to find innovative solutions to build resilient economies that would be able to withstand pandemic situations while being competitive. The US has also announced its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that will help build trade, digital economies, and sustainable infrastructure and clean energy; all sectors that would help build the economies of the future. A common issue for the global economy was the pressures faced by and continue to be faced by global supply chains as a result of travel restrictions, closing of borders and nationwide lockdowns. With an uneven rise and fall in cases, countries have taken individual policy decisions on whether to continue with restrictions, lockdowns etc. For example, China’s zero-Covid tolerance policy continues to lead to lockdowns. In such a sutuation the need to diversify and make global supply chains resilient to change has become apparent. To address such issues, India along with Australia and Japan is working on the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative. The initiative is an effort to build sustainable, secure and resilient supply chains for the future.
Another issue that gained importance as during the pandemic was the need to build strong connectivity networks. The ‘work from home’/ ‘study from home’ arrangements saw an increased used of the digital space to conduct business and to also impart education. The need for enhanced digital connectivity was also highlighted as telemedicine consultations increased. As economies evolve, the need for digital connectivity will increase with the corresponding need to enhance digital security. Another key factor of connectivity remains the need to enhance physical connectivity. Seamless movement of goods and people across the region remains the need of the hour. India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific has included the need to bridge the gap in interconnectivity between its neighbours. India has highlighted the need for cooperation for infrastructure development which would allow movement of goods and people further helping countries strengthen their ties.
As the pandemic begins to ebb, there is a renewed focus on regional geopolitics and new challenges that will affect the Indo-Pacific in the coming years. The assertive behaviour of China has prompted Australia, the UK and the US to build a new security alliance, the AUKUS, to maintain maritime security through greater collaboration based on shared support for peace, democracy, prosperity, and a rules-based international order. The AUKUS alliance aims to work to ‘deliver a safer and more secure region’. The region would also need to respond to the growing interests from Russia. While dismissive of the Indo-Pacific concept, Russia’s efforts to pivot to Asia will garner more attention as its relations with the ‘West’ deteriorate and it pushes to develop its Far East region. It remains to be seen how the countries of the region respond to the overtures from Russia while they try to balance between China, their main economic partner, and the US, their major security partner.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine will also have ramifications for security across the Indo-Pacific region. The immediate impact of the conflict is visible in food and energy security concerns of the countries. The rise in fuel prices has increased commodity prices. The shortage in certain food grains and products as a result of the conflict will impact poor and marginal communities in the countries of the region. Economic recovery has slowed due to resultant rise in inflation from the conflict and the underlying challenges of the pandemic. Another side effect of the conflict particularly for the region has been a shift in focus from Afghanistan. As the war-torn country continues to remain unstable, dependent on humanitarian aid and with regional fractions vying for power, it will have wide security implications for the region in the future. The current conflict in Ukraine and the previous positions taken by China and Russia on Afghanistan indicates that the polarisation is here to stay. It could sharpen further as the conflict in Ukraine continues and would impact the countries of the region.
The Indo-Pacific region has been an area of increased focus in the past decade due to the shifts in international geopolitical and geo-economic environment. It has emerged as the arena of competition and cooperation. Many challenges and opportunities have been accentuated by the pandemic, including the need for rules-based order, rebalancing trade and supply chains, addressing weaknesses of multilateral institutions, and vaccine equity. The fast-evolving dynamics of the region require like-minded countries to enhance collaboration and strengthen partnership to build stable regional security architecture. India has a unique position in the region. Given its sheer size, its geographical position, its capacities and interests, it will play a significant role in the post pandemic regional and global recovery. Towards this end, building partnerships with like-minded countries of the Indo-Pacific will continue to be the core of India’s policy for the Indo-Pacific. As the Indo-Pacific gains ascendency major regional players articulate their strategies for the region, it has become apparent that they are keen to engage with India and support the latter vision of a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific. Together they would have to build an Indo-Pacific architecture that would be able to respond to the emerging challenges and protect long term strategic and economic interests of the countries of the region.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
The seven pillars are: Maritime Security; Maritime Ecology; Maritime Resources; Capacity Building and Resource Sharing; Disaster Risk Reduction and Management; Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation; and Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport.
Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Fact Sheet: Quad Leaders’ Summit 2021,” https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/34319/Fact+Sheet+Quad+Leaders+Summit, Accessed on 02 May 2022