The term Indo-Pacific has created jitters among nations, though many seem to be confused about the whole idea. With the fast changing dynamics in the Asian region and the possible shift in the global order, there are concerns, fear, opportunities, and optimism among many middle and small powers for the future. Interestingly, there is heightened consciousness of the role each actor can play in the global architecture; while fulfilling and catering to the enhanced internal demands of development and need for resources.
In Asia specifically, the economic success of China and the ascendence of India is both a cause of challenge and opportunity for many regional powers; though the balancing strategies have been predominant. However, the undoubted future scenario is the transformation of the unipolar world order. This raises a gamut of issues as to who will be the leading power/s; what kind of powers will emerge; what kind of behavior will shape their leadership; what will be the role and position of other non-leading state actors; and last but not the least, will there be clashes or confrontations among powers that will challenge the more or less stable environment of the region.
US Rebalancing in the Region
The power shift is marked by the reorientation in power equations, which was clearly articulated by the US President Donald Trump in November 2017 during Asia tour, where he emphasized the need to think about the Indo-Pacific, creation of a new grouping of four nations: USA, India, Japan, and Australia, often referred to as “Quad”. It reflected a shift of the US Asia-Pacific strategy prevalent since 2011. However, the notion was floating since Australia’s Defense White Paper in 2013 that first mentioned ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a geographic construct, which included a broader sphere of northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, south Pacific, and Indian Sea. Some scholars view it as strategy of ‘safeguarding American interests, building ties with India, and containing China’. No matter, how one looks at it, there are two underlining factors that orients this shift: Economic and Military.
Crucial is also to understand the shifts in US policy propositions for Indo-Pacific over a period of time. The US National Security Strategy of 2017 clearly articulated that it was purely military driven approach, whereby China was the major challenge. However, by July 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, added the economic dimension with the multiple initiatives: BUILD Act, Asia EDGE, the Digital Connectivity and Cyber security Partnership.
Admiral Philip Davidson, Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command points to China as the long-term strategic threat to the US. In his proposition, he points to a range of modernization and advancement of military technologies that pose serious threats, starting from second generation of indigenously developed aircraft carriers and Fu-Yu class fast combat support ships to high-tech weaponry including hypersonic glade vehicles, and unmanned and artificial intelligence-equipped weapons.
The 2019 Missile Defense Review of the US Department of Defense also highlighted that China wants to displace US in the Indo-Pacific and reorder the region to its advantage. Hence, it focuses on China building offensive missiles, has deployed almost 100 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and possess four advance Jin class Ballistic missile submarines with each having a capability of carrying 12 new submarine launched ballistic missiles. By 2020, China will also equip its third generation Type 096 SSBN with JL-3 SLBMs, a major cause of concern. The objective for China seems to be to unify Taiwan with or without force, weaken US bases in Japan and Guam, and gain ports as well as military bases in the region. Besides, US views China’s BRI greater connectivity project as the larger game plan to control and manage other local economies.
China’s Fear, Contention and Rejection
As the hyperbole of Indo-Pacific is a strategy to contain China’s rise, many Chinese scholars have been very critical of US strategy, compelling US to rethink of some of its approaches in the region. Prof. Lin Minwang, a member of Pangu Think Tank, proposes China to unite the BRI initiative with the Indo-Pacific conception, thereby diluting the ‘target-China’ narrative. Prof. Wang Peng from People’s University of China argues that the real intention of the strategy is to converge the neighboring forces to weaken the influence of China. Lodging an attack on US National Security Strategy report, he says that it has exaggerated China’s march towards replacing US to reshape regional order.
In order to counter this strategy, Prof. Wang makes four propositions: one, China does not need to overreact, or completely ignore, or restrict itself from any debates and discussions, but selectively participate in constructing the Indo-Pacific with additions of BRI and community of shared destiny; two, maintain its sovereignty and national interests through construction of roads and rail networks, build infrastructure with a premise to avoid direct military confrontation in neighborhood; three, link with neighbors to show hospitality with focus on alternative institutions like AIIB, BRICS Bank etc. and also emphasize on building China-ASEAN security and economic community; four, strengthen collaborations with other powers like Russia, Iran etc, thereby diminishing the pressure in East Asian and West Pacific.
These suggestions are supported by other Chinese scholars like Prof. Ge Cheng and Prof. Shen Minghui from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. They believe that inclusive and harmonious BRI initiative is the right response to the suppressive confrontation of Indo-Pacific strategy that is created with a cold war mentality. Hence, even if China sees Indo-Pacific as a challenge and threat to its objectives, there is contention of BRI being more successful to its sustainable development and interconnectedness with regional economies.
Interestingly though, these scholars look at India’s policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi as creating a new center of world manufacturing with ease of doing business, but posit that the backward infrastructure of India and lack of free trade are hinderances to rapid development of India. This is where, China can build mutual trust and collaborate in areas like infrastructure and financing, along with the focus on Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that can counter protectionism and anti-globalization policies.
Indian Hopes and Despair
India’s vigorous move on ‘Act East’ has repositioned its foreign policy towards the region. Capt (Dr) Gurpreet S Khurana, Executive Director at National Maritime Foundation, posit that as a concept, Indo-Pacific serves India’s interest of regional power. However, the lack of clarity of expectations and obligations makes it an uncertain deal which Indian government is hesitant to fully embrace. China for sure is expanding its regional wings; while India has rigorously engaged in other alternative cooperative mechanisms in the region along with other partners like Japan, Vietnam, and the ASEAN nations.
US has serious business to involve greater partners in its Indo-Pacific strategy, but the issue remains if India will abandon its “neighbourhood first’ policy towards China and create deeper hostility with China or not? As of now, US has not given any concrete proposition to counter the mega connectivity project that can balance China’s economic clout in the region. Hence, it is but obvious to see that the ruling party (BJP) manifesto only mentioned strengthening of multilateral cooperation in the Russia-India-China grouping, and Japan-America-India grouping; while there was no mention of Quad.
Changing Regional Dynamics
The Indo-Pacific strategy falls short of addressing the current regional and global realities in its current stated form. Many posts that the US and its allies controlled in the past, are now increasingly becoming a cake for rising powers to share. Djibouti is a case in point. Small islands like Maldives and Seychelles as well as small port of Duqm in the Sultanate of Oman placed at the Arabian sea are also increasingly financially and militarily overtaken by investments from India, China, and the Gulf countries.
In addition, the Arab world is reorienting its global strategy too. United Arab Emirates is building military bases in Somaliland and Eritrea. The Gulf Cooperation Council members are cooperating with the Chinese in the BRI. Riyadh has already announced an investment of USD 10 billion for Pakistan’s port of Gwadar that is being built by the Chinese. While China is working towards projects under its 21st century maritime silk route initiative; India is calling upon ‘Security and Growth for All’ (SAGAR). US ‘Asia Pivot’ to ‘Indo-Pacific’ is not the game-changer, as both India and China forge for their own national interests and new regional architecture to reshape the global future.
By: Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, Jawaharlal Nehru University,
Ms. Liu Jinxiu, Research Scholar, JNU, India