Round Table Discussion on the Indo-Pacific
Printer-friendly versionSend to friend

The Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) held a Round Table Discussion (RTD) on the Indo-Pacific on 09 September 2019. Since the past few years the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is widely used in the strategic circles though ambiguities remain of the concept and also because it is subjective to an extent. Yet Indo-Pacific is a strategic reality today. The idea of this RTD was to brainstorm on the implications of the Indo-Pacific construct for India. That required examination of the Indo-Pacific from all quarters - national perspective, implications for regional and sub-regional organisations, security considerations and, more importantly the economic underpinnings of the Indo-Pacific.

Lt. Gen Ravi Sawhney (Retd.), Centre head and Senior Fellow, VIF, delivered the welcome address. Amb. Vikram K. Doraiswami, Joint-Secretary, Indo-Pacific division, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India delivered the opening address. He laid out government’s vision of the Indo-Pacific and informed the gathering that a government paper on the subject is expected soon. Thematically, the RTD had three components - Indo-Pacific and the regional capacity against maritime crisis; maritime security architecture, regional and sub-regional constructs within the Indo-Pacific, and, connectivity, economy, blue economy in the Indo-Pacific. V. Admiral Satish Soni (Retd.), former chief, Eastern Naval Command, Amb. Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa, former Indian Ambassador to Japan, Dr. Prabir De, Professor, ASEAN-India Centre, RIS, and a select few were part of the RTD.

The confabulations are summarised in the subsequent paragraphs.

Indo-Pacific and India’s Interests

The Indo-Pacific construct or the narrative looks at Asia in a different geo-political perspective, Hitherto, Asia was understood as Asia-Pacific that excluded India and the Indian Sub-continent from then prevalent narrative. The rise of India, its economic growth and its increasing strategic significance and the growing recognition of its relevance to regional developments has led to the emergence of the Indo-Pacific. India’s geographic location that sits astride the Indian Ocean has imparted it with strategic weight. The Indian Ocean has emerged to great strategic significance is will continue to be so in the coming decades. Indo-Pacific framework takes into account the Indian Ocean and therefore, India. The concept of the Indo-Pacific is still evolving. Nevertheless, the concept is in India’s interest. It is an opportunities for deeper involvement in the regional affairs.

The geographical expanse of the Indo-Pacific for India lies from the east coast of Africa, the waters of West Asia to the Far East. The Indian Ocean region- including the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal needs to remain the chief focus area. India’s energy flows from the western Indian Ocean and Eastern Africa. There should be clarity on the scope of the area of responsibility in the Indo-Pacific. Primarily it must be from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Straits. A second focus area should be Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. The third level could look further east, across the Philippines.

Power Dynamics/ Other Interests in the Indo-Pacific

US has published an Indo-Pacific security strategy this year but there are no red lines coming from the US with respect to its threshold that if reached, the US would use hard power. US‘ stance on trade with respect to South Korea and Japan, Vietnam and, Australia sows seeds of suspicion against smaller countries. Japan’s strategy of Free and Open Indo-Pacific has an underlying economic rationale. The intentions of the US are well known.

The ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific indicates that the group is hedging its bets. It has dropped the word ‘free’ to be non-confrontational with China. So there are divergences on the pronunciations of the Indo-Pacific. Yet, there is wider acceptance of the Indo-Pacific due to the rise of China. Australia was the first one to spell out the importance of the Indian Ocean and the need to involve India as a maritime nation and the importance of involving India. But it is also conscious of the importance of China due to its economic dependence. New Zealand until recently was using the term Asia-Pacific because for them Indo-Pacific gave them nothing more than irritating the Chinese, but even they have now come on board.

There are several disputes in North-East Asia or in the East China Sea, there are new elements that are sharpening dispute between South Korea and Japan. The implications of two of US’ allies in a standoff is like the story of the ‘cat and the money’ where the one to come out smiling will be China. The 18 Pacific Island States were traditionally dominated by Australia and New Zealand but China is making ingress. Elements of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are seen in Fiji, a possibility of naval base in Vanuatu, which the Chinese have denied. China is using immigration and the control of resources to have a firm footprint in the area, even as it does not have diplomatic relations with several Pacific Island countries.

China is critical to the idea of Indo-Pacific but it has been dynamic in exploiting the Indo-Pacific like no other country. China has been dominant in the South China Sea and now they are trying in the Indian Ocean. China has never hesitated to use hard power be it the Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoals or the recent Reed Bank incident.

Economics of the Indo-Pacific and India

With respect to economics, Indo-Pacific is geographically very wide. There are several Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) but trade is much lesser. Trade war is a reality which has a spiraling effect on all the countries in this region. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) has a lot of funding and resources, and the level of political commitment to it is very high. If any initiative under the Indo-Pacific is to be formed, it must have that kind of resources and seriousness. There are some indications of an emerging Indo-Pacific economic architecture that could be assumed as a foundation but what addition can it bring needs to be seen. Meta-indicators of the economic potential of the Indo-Pacific, such as its share in global economy, its populations etc. are impressive but a far deeper scrutiny of the real potential needs to be examined. There are issues in intra-regional trade such as anti-dumping duties, non-tariff measures, quotas, restrictions on the movement of professionals which India needs to look into. Intra-regional trade is highest amongst East Asia so India should look towards it and ASEAN.

The Indo-Pacific is a big source and destination of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) which is very important for India. India already has bilateral trade agreements with Japan and South Korea, as also ongoing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations; so it already has some advantage that should be pursued. India needs to strive to eliminate non-trade barriers and work upon restrictive market access in some countries, such as Canada. India is doing its commitment with regards to international and bilateral trade agreements but it is important that its partners in the Indo-Pacific are also doing their bit. Liberalisation entails a cost so India should instead choose cooperation that fits well in navigation and in other sectors. Similarly, any initiatives in the digital economy must be in the spirit of cooperation and not liberalisation because data localisation is an issue in the Indo-Pacific and in RCEP. There are divergent views. Indian then can work with like-minded countries to serve her purpose. There should be joint working groups on issues of economy and connectivity, many individual countries are doing vision reports but a larger synthesis is desired.

India’s geography provides a natural advantage in per nautical mile access from the big shipping line spreading from East and West so India’s cost coverage will be much less than many. So India has locational advantage as well as opportunities in marine transportation. But it requires that Indian ports are of international standards. There is some encouraging improvement but a lot more is desired. Likewise the Indian shipping industry requires significant support to be competitive. There are 78 value chains, private sector driven in the merchandise sector between India and East Asia which can grow with improvement in global economy. Since there are no negotiations or discussions on value chains in the Indo-Pacific; India can take the lead.

Maritime Security and Cooperation and, Capacity

Maritime cooperation is widely spoke of but capacity is required. Physical presence to respond to any maritime crisis is essential, followed by an organisation to respond to a crisis and then the wherewithal in the form of a good navy - comprising of Landing Platform Docks (LPD), Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD), hospital ships etc. Southeast Asia has limited capacity except for Singapore that has an Information Fusion Centre (IFC) and a crisis response centre and four LPD. The power of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) was seen during the MH-370 crisis when the Singapore IFC showed its capabilities in coordinating with merchant vessels. Through Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) and some other mechanisms, India’s capacity to respond has improved significantly.

India has the capacity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It has delivered impressively even in the absence of a Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mechanism. But IOR lacks organisational structure. Maritime security in the mandate of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) but no organisational code, so crisis in the past have been dealt through the Djibouti code of conduct and was resolved by western powers, and not IORA. The extent of inter-operability provided by multilaterals or trilateral needs to be seen when one talks about dealing with common challenges in the Indo-Pacific. The negative impact of piracy and other sea-based non-traditional challenges on economic activities is enormous.

India’s security concerns are different from its humanitarian concerns. India’s wherewithal is depleting and needs urgent attention. Naval build-up takes time therefore, the time to act is now.

An Action Plan for India

India does not have a strategy document yet but it is making a headway through its logistics agreements. It should sign more white shipping agreements. Taking its current capacities and wherewithal into account, India should primarily focus on the Indian Ocean and take everyone on board. IONS should be given more teeth. India should strengthen MDA, link up with IFCs in Madagascar and Singapore, intelligence-sharing and conclude and operationalise white shipping agreements. India should identify non-traditional security challenges and build an executive structure around it in the IOR.

India should involve as many countries as possible from around the Andaman Sea and also to our West not only for the criticality of energy supply but also for our diaspora. Perhaps an India-West Asia and India-East Africa dialogue can be initiated. There is a lot more than naval for India to do in the Indo-Pacific. The recent developments in Vladivostok and the talk of Far East is interesting since it adds a land orientation to the Indo-Pacific which otherwise is understood as something maritime. If India takes it to the Far East, then it will change the Indo-Pacific completely.

Lines of credits are slow in implementation and run into troubles at times. Government of India should come out to support of the Indian private sector in case of any problems, its reticence in this matter needs to go away. Indian companies need more of government support than lines of credit. Beyond the interests of the government, India needs to flesh out its wider interests in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the digital domain. India should negotiate its interest better.

If India wants to have a meaningful Indo-Pacific strategy it cannot remain outside the regional economic arrangements. There is chance of India being kept out of RCEP for its uncompetitive economy. Indian economy needs to seriously improve its competitiveness and this should go into the Government’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Likewise, would be India’s silence on e-commerce. There is little merit to speak of Indo-Pacific while excluding yourself of region-wide integration platforms.

Given the impact that geo-political constructs have on the subject of international relations, it is imperative that our syllabi look at Indo-Pacific with primacy of India, in the Indian Ocean as first order of priority. The Government should include pedagogical matter as agenda in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Event Date 
September 9, 2019

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
8 + 7 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us