The foundations for the contemporary use of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is widely believed to have been laid by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who spoke of a “dynamic coupling” of the Indian and Pacific Oceans in a 2007 speech to the Indian parliament titled “Confluence of the Two Seas.” Over the years, the term has slowly gained popularity over the past decade as a means of redefining the geostrategic boundaries of the Asia-Pacific. Rather than positing a sharp division between the Indian and Pacific Oceans — or between South and East Asia — the Indo-Pacific encourages the conceptualization of this super-region as a unitary, interconnected geostrategic space.
The Indo-Pacific region is emerging as the global center of gravity, whether in terms of economic interaction, demographics, transnational security challenges or the strategic balance. Unhindered flow of maritime trade through Indo Pacific region is one of the primary security concerns of global energy consumers. The region’s critical role as the prime mover of global economic progress makes it a strategically important agenda for regional as well as extra-regional powers. Further, the current flux in great-power relations and a historic power shift in Asia is compelling states to rethink their strategic geography, reimagine their national policies, strengthen regional institutions, and reinforce a rules-based order in Asia.
The Indo-Pacific also emphasizes the increasingly vital role of the Indian Ocean (and the maritime arena more broadly) as both a conduit for global trade and an emerging arena of competition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out India’s definition of the Indo-Pacific during his June 2018 speech at Shangri-La, where he explained both how India viewed the idea geographically—a space extending “from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas”—and conceptually, in terms of “inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality.”
The geo-political significance of the Indo Pacific Region has been growing in recent years for a number of economic, political and other reasons. The region, today is home to four of the top ten economies and has emerged as one of the fastest growing economic regions in the world. Riding on the waves of globalization, several countries of the region have emerged as global powerhouses in manufacturing as well as services sector, contributing to about 60% of global GDP. The economic resurgence of the region has raised the strategic competition amongst the regional and extra-regional powers. The economic driver is shaping the political landscape of the region, with far reaching security and strategic implications for the regional and global order. The region is also home to the ten largest standing armies in the world and seven of the top ten countries in terms of global military expenditure. The rising military power of the region has come to complicate the security calculus in many ways.
The seaways of the Indo Pacific host a major share of all international trade, hydrocarbon, bulk and container. In the Indian Ocean alone, 50% of the globe’s seaborne trade and 40% of world’s oil supply is carried over its International Sea lanes by more than 100,000 ships each year. Unhindered flow of maritime trade through Indo Pacific region thus assumes tremendous significance for the entire world.
Complex Regional Construct.
Increased activity throughout the Indo-Pacific due to expanding regional and global trade in goods, ideas, people, and resources has raised a new set of maritime security challenges. Historical state-based concerns such as geopolitical fragility, internal political upheaval, insurgency, inner-state tensions, sea-lane security, and territorial disputes are now coupled with asymmetric threats from non-state sources. These diverse challenges are exacerbated by the diverse set of nations bordering this region. Such diversity in interests and capabilities that saddles the Indo-Pacific region presents significant challenges for the future.
Power Transition and Diffusion.
The ongoing Power Transition and Diffusion merits serious consideration. As the economic and technological power of China increases, it is starting to rival that of USA. The balance of power in the future, may not be as homogenous, as what we have witnessed in the past, but in fact, is acquiring different character and proportions at the regional and sub-regional levels. A crucial question therefore, is whether the current institutions, mechanisms and norms of the international system can adapt to accommodate this shifting balance of power.
Quest for Regional Dominance
A unique blend of strategized financial aid, creeping territorial accretion, information operations, legal ambiguity and military assertiveness is being wielded by China to establish regional dominance. On multiple occasions over the last few years, instances of such assistance being offered for projects with suspect financial viability, limited local participation, and unequal benefit for the recipients have come to light. It is, therefore, necessary to establish an environment where multiple options are available to countries seeking financial assistance, allowing them to avoid getting ‘entrapped’ by those with unscrupulous designs.
At the same time, re-alignment of national priorities in some countries, dilution of long-standing international arrangements and changes in the global geo-economic balance have resulted in a perceived change in the global order. The Indo-Pacific Region has seen the most active and assertive manifestations of the strategic manoeuvring which characterizes such transition. China, in particular, has embarked on major geopolitical missions to gain influence in the Region. In the politico-military context, this has translated into concerted efforts to establish capabilities which enable dominance over the region’s shipping lanes and choke points.
Increased Military Build-up
The contest for regional influence is manifesting into significant military build-up by regional as well as extra-regional powers, in a bid to ensure and pursue their strategic interests. In particular, China’s maritime build up in the last few decades remains a serious cause for concern. The PLA(N) modernisation programme appears to be proceeding at a rapid pace in in consonance with the PLA(N) stated intent to become a global Navy by 2050. Similarly, other countries in region are making greater investments in acquiring modern war fighting capabilities across multiple domains. The need for greater collaborative measures on the maritime commons would remain fundamentally important in maintaining the strategic equilibrium of the Indo-Pacific.
Shrinking Resources – Expanding Interests
The growing military aspirations of China and its corresponding impact on quest for resources cannot be overemphasized. These factors are leading to a steep increase in the demand on all resources, including food, water, energy and rare earth materials. On the military front, as can be seen around us, this quest for gaining access and control over resources is manifesting itself, particularly in the global commons.
Scourge of Terrorism
The Indo-Pacific Region has witnessed multiple forms of terrorism in recent years, and few countries in this part of the world have been spared by this scourge. The global nature which terrorism has acquired in recent times has further enhanced the scope of this threat. India, however, faces a far more serious version of terrorism- state-sponsored terrorism.
Proliferation of Military Technology into Dissident Groups
The fear of military weapons falling into the ‘wrong hands’ no longer remains unfounded. As a result of such unregulated proliferation, the magnitude of the compounded threat acquires a whole new character. A closer and more comprehensive framework to prevent such proliferation and enforce stringent controls over military hardware transfers would need to be implemented by all stakeholders.
Security Challenges Posed by Climate Change
From an Indo-Pacific perspective, a vulnerability analysis of global warming determined that fifteen of the twenty port cities around the world with the greatest populations exposed to climate threats by 2070 are in the Indo-Pacific littoral. Thirteen Indo-Pacific port cities rank among the twenty worldwide with the largest value of assets at risk over this time. Therefore, how key states in the international community will address the growing environmental challenges that every actor in the community faces will have a profound impact on the region’s collective future. The impact of climate change would need to be mitigated effectively, otherwise it could act as a driver of instability and conflict with far-reaching humanitarian, economic and geopolitical consequences.
The Indo-Pacific region is becoming widely recognized as the global center of gravity, whether in terms of economic interaction, demographics, transnational security challenges or the strategic balance. Unhindered flow of maritime trade through Indo Pacific region is one of the primary security concerns of global energy consumers. The region’s critical role as the prime mover of global economic progress makes it a strategically highly important agenda for regional as well as extra-regional powers.
The geo-political eminence of the Indo Pacific region is here to stay. In the foreseeable future, the maritime construct of the region would continue to shape the economic and security paradigms. This leads on to the strategic need to preserve peace, promote stability and maintain security across the waters of Indo Pacific. Given our interests in the region, it is only natural for India to have a strong maritime dimension.
About the author: Admiral Sunil Lanba is former Chief of Naval Staff