Talk by Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi, on ‘India Needs a Proactive Approach to the Indo-Pacific’, at the Society of Indian Ocean Studies, 31 July 2018

After a long while, the India of Indo-Pacific as a geo-strategic concept is shaping up. This is the direct result of the increasing connectivity of the two vast dynamic regions. The key drivers are:-

  • Shift of political and economic and military center of gravity to the East as reflected in the rise of India and China in addition to the weight of Japan, South Korea, ASEAN and Australia.
  • The disruption caused by China’s aggressive forays into South China Sea, East China Sea and the Indian Ocean Regions.
  • The rise of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
  • The growing centrality of maritime issues in the policies of the regional countries.
  • Existence of tension hotspots in North Korea, East China Sea and South China Sea.
  • Choke points in Malacca Strait, Sunda, Lambok, which straddle the Indian as well as the Pacific Oceans.
  • Exposure of the limitedness of the concept of Asia-Pacific community as it excluded India.

Hints of change in India’s policy came in 2015 when the Indio-US Joint Vision Statement for Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean for the first time drew a connection between Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region. The vision statement said, “As the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies that bridge the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region and reflecting our agreement that a closer partnership between the United States and India is indispensable to promote peace, prosperity and stability in those regions, we have agreed on a Joint Strategic Vision for the Region”. Making a special mention of South China Sea, it said, “Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” This was a clear indication of growing convergence of views between India and US on a region considered vital by both sides not only for themselves but for regional and global stability.

Earlier, in 2007, the Japanese PM Abe had invoked the title of a 1650 book by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh ‘The Confluence of the Two Seas’ and Vivekananda’s message, ‘The different streams, having their sources in different places, all mingle their water in the sea’, to support his claim that countries of the two regions were linked by an “arc of freedom and prosperity”. Abe was giving the strategic rationale for close partnership between India and Japan. Thus Japan was also redefining its policies in the broader context of Asia. In that it was willing to partner with India.

A quadrilateral group of India, Japan, US and Australia was set up but the invite fizzled out because the Australians, who were developing their ties with China, backed out. The Quad has been revived though it is yet to overcome the ambiguities that seem to cloud its vision. A common definition of Indo-Pacific region still eludes the Quad. Nor is there, as yet, a common, clear jointly agreed vision.
With US-China rivalry intensifying in the Pacific region; the US has been vigorously pushing for an integrated concept of Indo-Asia-Pacific. They have changed the name of Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command thus signaling an integrated approach to the Indian and Pacific Ocean Regions. Though symbolic, the name change has been seen as a signal that the US regards India as a partner in providing security and stability in the region. The defence cooperation between the two countries is deepening. A recent report suggests that India and US are also looking beyond the security dimension to include economic and connectivity initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.

India’s Concept of Indo-Pacific

In a significant speech at the Shangri-La dialogue in 2018, the Indian Prime Minister elaborated on the concept of Indo-Pacific in six broad points:-

  • It must be a free, open, inclusive region;
  • ASEAN has been and will be central to its future;
  • The need for a common rules-based order for the region, these rules and norms should be based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few; faith in dialogue, and not dependence on force;
  • Freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law; support for rule-based, open, balanced and stable trade environment in the Indo-Pacific Region;
  • Connectivity that must be based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability.

The key point here was that such a vision of the Indo-Pacific does not lead to rivalries but to cooperation. Mr Modi summarised his vision thus, “Competition is normal. But, contests must not turn into conflict; differences must not be allowed to become disputes.” The Chinese who have been skeptical of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, have felt reassured to some extent by the PM’s statement. India and China recently had 2nd Round of the maritime dialogue. ASEAN would have also felt reassured that India stands for ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

We all understand that it is not the rhetoric that counts. What India does on the ground to give shape to the concept of Indo-Pacific as outlined above, is what will count. The Malabar Exercises are the most visible expression of India’s interest in the security of the region. India has maritime dialogues with France, the US, Thailand, China and many other countries in the region. It is building a port in Iran. It is also strengthening its defence cooperation with Oman. The BIMSTEC countries are also discussing security issues among themselves. The Quad has had two meetings recently. Greater convergence of views within the Quad may happen.

PM Modi has visited Indonesia, a key country in the Indian Ocean. This is highly significant. We should expect growing interaction and convergence of views between these two countries. India-US-Japan trilateral, India-Japan-Australia tri-laterals are functional. India participates in ARF, ADMM plus, IORA and IONS. India’s Look-East policy has been transformed into Act East policy. India has maritime cooperation with Sri Lanka and Maldives. India has equally close cooperation with Seychelles and Mauritius.

South China Sea

Two years ago the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) gave a verdict on South China Sea which went against the Chinese. China rejected the ruling outright on the grounds that the PCA was illegal; that it had no jurisdiction over the dispute; that China had sovereign and historical rights over the islands and the surrounding waters; that China had been working with the ASEAN to negotiate a ‘Code of Conduct’ (CoC) as per international law and UNCLOS, and therefore, there was no ground for third-party interference in a dispute of regional nature.

The PCA concluded that China’s argument of historical rights to resources in the water of South China Sea were extinguished to the extent that these were incompatible with the EEZ provision of the convention. The situation has changed dramatically since then. There have been media report that China and ASEAN have agreed on a single text for negotiation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and the negotiation are likely to begin soon. In the meanwhile, China’s control on the islands in the South China Sea is de-facto complete and the CoC will merely legitimise that. How long will it take to arrive at the CoC is anybody’s guess. Whatever form the CoC takes, it will not change the reality on the ground.

Since then China has swiftly moved to undertake constructions on the islands and also installed military equipment. No ASEAN country is in a position to challenge the Chinese militarily in South China Sea. Even the US which has security alliances with many countries in the region has not been able to prevent China from militarising the occupied islands. Most countries are hedging their positions vis-à-vis China.

Challenges for India

One may ask, is that enough? No. This is just the beginning. A lot of work needs to be done ahead.

  • India takes pride, and rightly so, in its Act East Policy. But its full potential has not been harnessed. Our friends in ASEAN still point out that India’s presence in ASEAN region is much less than that of China. Our record on delivering connectivity projects needs vast improvement. Cooperation under BIMSTEC framework should be strengthened. Our trade with ASEAN region is a fraction of that of China, Japan and South Korea. An impression has gone out that India is stalling the progress in RCEP negotiations.
  • India should harmonise its Act East policy and the visions and strategies of like-minded countries in the region through deeper maritime dialogues and practical cooperation in defence, trade, connectivity and investment. Countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore should become the fulcrum of our Indo-Pacific outreach.
  • India should leverage its age old cultural ties and influence in the region. Project Mauasm, an apt concept is languishing because it was formulated without a strategic vison and without the backing of resources. A comprehensive programme of cooperation , in consultation with partners, should be worked out.
  • We must transition to higher level of defence cooperation with other countries. The navy must be modernised. The Naval budget is too small for India to become a major Indo-Pacific power and a ‘net security provider’.
  • One area of cooperation could be HADR for which there is great demand in most countries. We have the experience of cooperation among the navies after the 2004 Tsunami. Cooperation among the Coast Guards must be strengthened. This will require greater resources for navy and coast guard modernisation.
  • Climate change is a common threat. India has considerable experience in this area. Sharing of remote sensing data may be a very useful way of strengthening practical cooperation. We will need to develop greater resources in space based and ground-based assets to build capabilities of ocean surveillance, hydrological survey, deep sea technologies, meteorology and communication. We should be ready to share the fruits of scientific achievements with the countries of the Indo-Pacific Region.

Safety and security of maritime shipping, undersea cables, oil and gas assets is vital. The threat of piracy and maritime terrorism is equally potent. Indian Ocean also accounts for oil resources and data communication links. Both are vital for the global economy. We must set up cooperation with the countries of the region to protect these assets.

Building Maritime Strength

India must genuinely think of itself as a maritime power and develop as one. PM’s SAGAR framework - Security and Growth for all – is a good framework for maritime cooperation. Our Sagarmala programme must be implemented early. The coastal states must have the benefit of development from their location. Ports and connectivity to the ports needs to be enhanced. Project Mausam could be included in SAGAR framework.

We must develop our strength in shipping, shipbuilding, blue economy, maritime sciences, maritime history and maritime tourism. India needs to build strong maritime linkages and connectivity with the countries in the region.

This will require a change of mindset. Equally important its will require dedication of more resources to issues maritime. The ratio of maritime on India’s economy must be increased.


We need not be deterred by the China factor. We have genuine stakes in the region. Our friends want India to play a greater role. The PM has outlined a vision of Indo-Pacific which is inclusive and non-threatening. It ensures cooperation and equal access to resources for all. It emphasises a rule-based order built by consensus and in accordance with international law.

However, we cannot afford to be naïve either. The region in the past has seen many conflicts and wars as well as competition for resources. The region is beset with all kinds of intractable problems including civil wars. Freedom of navigation is under threat. The connectivity initiatives announced recently have exaggerated the geo-political rivalries. The diversity in the region is also mind boggling. India must also be ready for scenarios portraying acute competition and even conflict.

National interest demands that we should be prepared for worst case scenarios as well. Our diplomacy is focused on building mutually beneficial partnerships with a range of countries. The challenge before us is to strengthen these partnerships with solid content. That will require deft diplomacy backed by vision, strategy and resources. We can do it. There is no alternative.

Thank you.

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