by Admiral Sunil Lanba (r.), Former Chief of Naval Staff
IADB: There is little dispute over the fact that the Indo-Pacific is characterised by multi-layered and multi-faceted diversity ranging from political, demographic, economic, environmental, and strategic, which have been impacted in various ways by the ongoing COVID pandemic.
A trail of recent developments indicates that the domestic political situations of several key countries in the international arena are undergoing significant shifts, as are relations between nations. Everything around us seems to suggest that we are in the grips of a global transition.
Thus, we find ourselves in a period of ‘strategic uncertainty’ manifesting itself as a complex interplay between nations across multiple domains and theatres.
Evidently, we are witnessing an on-going rebalancing of the global economies which is leading to a major shift in global economic clout. In fact, in a recent analysis published by the World Economic Forum, by 2050, six of the seven largest economies are projected to be emerging economies. These will be led by China and followed by India in second place. Given the adversarial relations between India and China and USA and China, the impact on the broader Indo-Pacific, may not augur well for the region, as a whole. The Indo – Pacific region riding on the waves of globalisation, has emerged as global powerhouses in manufacturing as well as the services sector, contributing to about 60% of global GDP.
The seaways of the Indo-Pacific host a major share of all international trade of hydrocarbon, bulk and container. Importantly, about 80% of the trade originating from here is extra-regional. 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 the Indo-Pacific region thus assumes tremendous significance for the entire world.
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, inter-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. Ranging from prosperous states to developing and low-income countries. Some are established democracies while others are fledgling. From nations with strong rule of law, to autocracies, to countries with feeble or fragmented governance structures. We would find them all here in this region. Such diversity in interests and capabilities that saddles the Indo-Pacific region presents significant challenges for the future.
Further, the economic resurgence of the Indo – Pacific region has raised the strategic competition amongst the regional and extra-regional powers. Transactional trade mechanisms, invoking historical trade routes or visions of shared destiny have thus come to prominence amongst the ‘established’ and ‘emerging’ economies. All these aspects will affect the ongoing rebalancing of the economic powerhouses.
Along with the shift in global economic clout, there is also an ongoing shift in the technological centre of gravity from West to East. As a result, the technological superiority enjoyed by the West is under challenge from the East. In fact, the technological gap is narrowing, particularly in the field of advanced technologies, many of which also have dual applications, which would be advantageous to nations like China questioning the existing rules-based order. So we see the economic and technological drivers shaping the political landscape of the region, with far reaching security and strategic implications for the regional and global order.
The Indo – Pacific region is also home to the ten largest militaries in the world and seven of the top ten countries in terms of global military expenditure. This rising military power and defence expenditure has come to complicate the security calculus in many ways. 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 three decades remains a serious cause for concern. The PLA (N) modernisation programme appears to be proceeding at a rapid pace in consonance with the PLA (N) stated intent to become a global Navy by 2050. Similarly, other countries in the region are making greater investments in acquiring modern war fighting capabilities across multiple domains. The collective impact of this enhanced maritime force build-up in the region merits serious thought and consideration. The need for greater collaborative measures on the maritime commons would remain fundamentally important in maintaining the strategic equilibrium of the Indo-Pacific.
It would be safe to say that the World is witnessing an ongoing Power Transition and Diffusion. As the economic and technological power of China rises, the dominant status of the USA, and its position as a global military power is under threat. The recent abrupt departure from Afghanistan has once again raised questions on the efficacy of US presence in the Indo-Pacific. The balance of power in the future may not be as homogenous as what we have witnessed in the past, but in fact, may acquire different character and proportions at the regional and sub-regional levels. A crucial question is whether the current institutions, mechanisms and norms of the international system can adapt to accommodate this shifting balance of power. If they cannot, disputes will be more difficult to resolve, and these could escalate into conflict. As global space becomes more contested, it will become harder to forge internationally-binding treaties, and non-compliance and subversion of international laws are likely to increase. For example, the varying interpretations of UNCLOS places the most signed convention in jeopardy, especially as nations seek more maritime jurisdiction based on sovereignty over disputed land masses and in the search for more resources. As a result of increasing competition, there is wide scope for Regional Instability. As is being seen around the world, the ability of individuals and groups to have a larger impact than ever before, politically, militarily, economically, and ideologically, is undermining traditional institutions. The Taliban is a prime example and now they are in power in Afghanistan.
Adding to these challenges is the increasing world population and societal expectations which are leading to a steep increase in the demand for all resources, including food, water, energy and rare earth materials. The quest for gaining access and control over resources and areas is manifesting itself, particularly in the global commons be it the Oceans, Polar Regions, Outer Space or even the Cyber world. Maintaining freedom of action in the global commons and the status of global commons will thus be a vital objective. In addition to the consideration of all these factors elucidated, the impact of climate change, particularly from the prism of environmental, security and economic aspects will play an important role.
It can be said that the term Indo-Pacific has assumed many differing views, even amongst friendly nations and strategic partners. In 2018, in his keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue, India’s Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, spoke of a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region”, and one that is founded upon a cooperative and collaborative rules-based order. This approach has a high degree of consensus and acceptability amongst many like-minded nations. For India the Indo-Pacific is a geographical area that stretches from the east coast of Africa to the western shores of the Americas, a large area, hence the importance of the word “inclusive”, which has been used only by India in airing its Indo-Pacific outlook and position.
The Indo-Pacific is too vast an area to be measured with one yardstick. It is dominated by the maritime environment, the contours of which vary and change across the sub-regional areas contained within. The best example of the variances are the maritime environments of the Indian Ocean Region and the South China Sea, two important sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific. This region, therefore, encompasses a plethora of risks, challenges, and threats, as well as avenues of cooperation and collaboration. There will, of course, be convergences, which when identified and analysed would aid building avenues of cooperation, which would be in the spirit of SAGAR, even if there is a divergence on the understanding or approach to the term Indo-Pacific.
India’s regional and global outlook can be anchored on the concept of SAGAR, Security and Growth for All in the Region, which is the cornerstone for all our endeavours and outlook. First voiced by the Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi as India’s outlook, especially for regional engagements, the region itself was not defined. The reason for this is that the concept of SAGAR can be applied anywhere, and India has applied it in its outreach: in its policies of “Neighbourhood First”, “Act East Policy”, and its view of the Indo-Pacific through the lens of “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” or IPOI.
To further the outlook of free, open and inclusive, the Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI) was tabled by Prime Minister Modi at the East Asia Summit in 2019, which is designed “to create a safe, secure and stable maritime domain” within which collective and collaborative mechanisms need to be created to “conserve and sustainably use” this domain and “safeguard the oceans, fairly share resources, reduce disaster risk and promote free, fair and mutually beneficial trade and maritime transport”. The IPOI is thus an initiative with considerable promise as it is an open global initiative and can draw on the existing regional cooperation architecture and mechanisms to focus on its seven central pillars. These 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. The inclusivity part is supported by the fact that four nations have come forward to take the lead on several pillars. India on Maritime Security and Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, Japan on Connectivity, Australia on Ecology and France on Maritime Resources.
There is ample space for all nations to manoeuvre in the Indo-Pacific and the IPOI provides a suitable platform. As we delve deeper into the pillars and work out methodologies to optimize the emergent gains, we will find that each pillar would need the support of more than just the lead nation. Hence, I return to the term “inclusive”. More nations need to come on board and there is space for all. It is evident that nations are approaching the IPOI from the lens of Holistic Maritime Security. Holistic Maritime Security is not limited to traditional (‘military’ or ‘hard’) security alone. It also encompasses all the multifarious facets of ‘collective’ or ‘common’ maritime security like economic and environmental security. In short, all the aspects that can further the progress and growth of a nation and its people. This aspect is a vital national interest of all nations. So, considering that holistic maritime security is the key to a stable, secure, and peaceful maritime environment, then there is a need for working together towards laying a bedrock of a strong security arrangement in the Indo-Pacific.
There has been renewed focus on maritime issues. We have started engaging in a number of dialogues with like minded nations in a number of formats, Quad, Two plus Two at Ministerial level, Maritime dialogues and Staff talks between Navies. The Indian Navy has over the years, has played a key role in placing countries in our maritime neighbourhood at the ‘heart and soul’ of our larger Indo-Pacific engagements.
We have seen the inclusion of Australia in the Malabar exercise and the QUAD gaining centre stage. As was elucidated by India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar during the 2nd QUAD Ministerial Meeting conducted in Tokyo that advancing security and economic interests of all countries having legitimate and vital interests in the Indo-Pacific remained a key priority. We therefore need to work together and formulate, in a broad sense, the structure, intentions and goals of the Quad. An important facet in addition to the operational drills and exercises, is the logistics support and underway replenishment. India has concluded bilateral logistic support agreements with the USA, Japan, Singapore and Australia. These are cooperative mechanisms that are products of a like-minded approach to enhance stability, ensure security and preserve peace. It is perhaps time to start considering an expansion of the QUAD to accommodate nations, who could aid in maintaining a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region under the ambit of a rules-based international order.
The Indo-Pacific region is becoming widely recognised as the global centre of gravity, whether in terms of economic interaction, demographics, transnational security challenges or the strategic balance. Unhindered flow of maritime trade through the Indo-Pacific region is one of the primary security concerns of global consumers. From a maritime security perspective, the unprecedented development of the Indo-Pacific, as a concept, could not have been possible in an insulated environment. The region’s critical role as the prime mover of global economic progress makes it strategically a highly important agenda for regional as well as extra-regional powers.
India has always supported the very essence of ‘freedom of the seas’ and upheld the inherent attribute of navigation as a global right. Implicit in India’s policies and strategy has been the desire for free movement of people, goods, services and investments across the region. Security of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), freedom of navigation, availability of port infrastructure and non-discriminatory access to markets are some of the issues that ensue from this approach. The geo-political-strategic eminence of the Indo-Pacific region is here to stay. In the foreseeable future, the maritime construct of the region would continue to shape global economic and security paradigms. Hence the need to preserve peace, promote stability and maintain security across the waters of the Indo-Pacific. Given our interests in the region, it is only natural for India to seek a stronger maritime position.