Homeland Security

Indo-Pacific: An Emerging Outlook for the 21st Century
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Issue Vol. 35.4 Oct-Dec 2020 | Date : 16 Jan , 2021

Strategically located in the Indian Ocean, India was a flourishing economic and cultural centre from the dawn of civilisation. As historian KM Panikkar in his seminal work ‘India and the Indian Ocean’, brought out, “Millenniums before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become an active thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic.” He further went on to conclude that India’s security, prosperity and even freedom is linked to the Indian Ocean and India needs to develop into a maritime power capable of maintaining supremacy in the Indian Ocean. It is a historical fact that neglect of the seas by Indian rulers from the 15th century eventually resulted in colonisation of the country. Panikkar, who had analysed the importance of maritime affairs for India, had referred extensively to the theories of Admiral Mahan in his treatise. In the 19th century, the Admiral had surmised that whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia, and that in the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided in the waters of the Indian Ocean. Soon after independence, India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, too had highlighted the significance of the Indian Ocean in the development of modern India.

Evolution of Maritime Policies

While independent India paid attention to the development of the maritime sector and thinkers such as Keshav Vaidya expressed the view of making the Indian Ocean into an Indian lake, it soon emerged that the Indian Ocean cannot be looked at in isolation or as a lake. The emergence of a multi-polar world at the end of the Cold War and the expanding globalisation of trade and commerce coupled with the growth of Asian economies and more so, the developments in India and China called for a wider view of the oceans. Thus, while the earlier thoughts were of the 21st century emerging as an Indian Ocean one, in the early part of this century, strategists conceived the concept of the Asia–Pacific as a region and the term Indo-Pacific emerged linking both the oceans into one strategic area. The growing energy and mineral resources needs of the developing economies of East Asia, China and Japan from the Arabian Gulf and Africa, and transportation of finished products from these nations to other parts of Asia, Africa and Europe, resulted in increased shipping between both the oceans. Some analysts are also of the view that the increasing dominance, including flexing of its military capabilities by a resurgent China and its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, raised alarms not only among littorals but also in all nations who have economic and security interests in the area. This resulted in the Indo-Pacific being considered in its entirety as one geo-economic and security zone.

While strategic circles had coined the term Indo-Pacific and the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe had spoken of ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ in his address to the Indian Parliament in August 2007, it possibly got its first official recognition when Australia brought out a Defence White Paper in 2013, showing the Indo-Pacific as a new theatre. Two years later, in December 2015, after a bilateral meeting between their Prime Ministers, India and Japan issued a joint statement on India and Japan Vision 2025, indicating a resolve to transform the India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership to working together for peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region and the world. The United States (US) indicating the Indo-Pacific as the new theatre in its national security strategy, renamed the US Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command in 2018. In 2019, ASEAN and France brought out documents indicating their visions on the Indo-Pacific.

As the concept of linkages between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans gained momentum, for India, it meant a strategic stretch from the Eastern coast of Africa to that of the Americas, which includes the South China Sea. Even merely looking East from the Indian subcontinent through the Malacca Strait, it meant a region covering the ASEAN, China, Taiwan, Koreas, Japan and Eastern stretches of Russia – indeed a major arena of economic and geo-strategic significance. The Indo-Pacific is a multi-cultural and multi-polar region accounting for nearly 60 percent of the worlds GDP and 65 percent of population. It is also a major repository of marine resources both living and non-living. Maritime trade and commerce transiting through the region including energy flows is equally significant and is close to 60 percent of global maritime trade. In case of India, nearly 55 percent of trade worth over $5 trillion passes through the South China Sea and its share with ASEAN nations alone being over 11.5 percent of its total world trade.

Indian outlook towards the Indo-Pacific gained a major fillip post the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018. In his address at the event, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the importance of oceans in Indian thinking since pre-Vedic times and of the Indian Armed Forces, specifically the Indian Navy building partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region for peace and security, as well as for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. He spoke of the Indo-Pacific as a natural region and as home to vast array of global opportunities and challenges linking destinies of the nations in the region. He emphasized that India’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas, will be inclusive to promote rule-based international order and to work together for the larger good of all nations.

It is also significant that while in the idea of Indo-Pacific, the term ‘Indo’ was to indicate the Indian Ocean, in many ways it has given India an opportunity to play a leadership role in the region. Looking back in history, the area is not unknown to India as it had extensive trade, cultural and religious links in the area. The influence of Indian culture is evident in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and through Buddhist links in Japan. Just prior to independence, in early 1947, India hosted an Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi and later played a significant role in the Afro-Asian conference at Bandung. While India lost prominence in the East Asian region from mid-1960s, the ‘Look East’ policy of the last decade of the 20th century enhanced Indian links in the area. The rise of China and its assertive political and military behaviour in the Western Pacific and expansion into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has encouraged many nations to look at India as a balancing factor. India is expected by them to play a major role in ensuring a secure maritime environment and to be a strategic deterrent to China’s expanding activities in the region. Indo-Pacific thus provides India a valuable opportunity to partner like-minded nations and major stakeholders in the region to further her national interests in the area.

China’s Imperatives in the Indo-Pacific

While examining the various facets of Indo-Pacific, one aspect needing special focus is China’s territorial claims in the seas close to its shores (or Near Seas) more specifically the East and South China Seas. China claims historical ownership over nearly the entire region and over the years, has mastered the art of ‘Salami slicing’ or gradually bringing small changes or making incremental gains, each of which by itself may not raise any alarms, but taken as a whole can bring about major strategic changes in the long run. In the maritime arena, this is being used to enhance her claims over island territories in the seas around her. In the East China Sea, the dispute over Senkaku islands is well known. Regular flare-ups have been taking place between Japan and China. East China Sea is estimated to be the repository of over 100 billion barrels of crude oil and seven trillion cubic feet of natural gas apart from fisheries resources. Sovereignty over the islands will enable exploitation of these rich resources. Strategically, China is also hoping that the control over the islands would enable it to gain free access to the Pacific between the chain of main Japanese islands and Taiwan.

China’s claims in the South China Sea, which date back to the founding of the PRC, cover nearly two million square kilometres or the entire sea and features Paracel Islands, Scarborough Reef and Spratly Islands. Once again, the area is appreciated to be the repository of natural gas and petroleum reserves in addition to rich fishing resources. Rival claims over these islands have been made by Vietnam, Taiwan Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. In 1974, China occupied Woody Island in the Paracel group and in 1995, it occupied Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. China has over a period of time, tried to expand its claims over the South China Sea (nine-dash line), by reclaiming land physically to increase the size of islands or creating new islands altogether and by filling up existing reefs. China has set up major infrastructure including airstrips on the islands. It has also established local governments and military installations and garrisons. It has also been attempting economic development in the area by oil exploration which in turn would enhance sovereignty in the area. China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, which was rejected by an Arbitration Tribunal under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2016, has been the root cause of the disputes over the South China Sea which threaten the stability in the region. China, however, considers that the UNCLOS does not apply as these are territorial disputes to be settled bilaterally.

India’s Maritime Policy

In keeping with the vision of developing the concept of Indo- Pacific, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had set up an Indo- Pacific Division in 2019. This has recently been enhanced under a new Oceania Division, which as per reports, would include Australia, ASEAN, New Zealand and the Pacific islands. The Indian Navy which has always played a significant role in enhancing India’s connect and reach involving maritime nations, has also stepped up its activities in the region to further the Indo-Pacific initiative. While the Indian Navy’s initial focus was in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), it always had links with other nations beyond the region. In keeping with the ‘Look East’ policy initially enunciated and the subsequent Indo-Pacific outlook, it further enhanced cooperation beyond the South East Asian nations deep into the Pacific.

Indian maritime forces, both the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard, have enhanced cooperation with other nations in a number of ways. Port visits by ships at regular intervals and on special occasions such as National days or to commemorate historical events, exercises with maritime forces of other nations, assistance for Search and Rescue, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) post major calamities, Operational interactions and Staff talks, Training and High-level visits and strategic interactions, have all helped increase India’s visibility and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. Among these, institutionalised regular exercises with maritime forces of nations across the world and more so, in the Indo-Pacific, coordinated patrols along maritime boundaries and anti-piracy operations have also enhanced cooperation.

Maritime Domain Awareness and Quad

Enhancing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) across the region is an initiative that would provide timely inputs on the developing situation across the Oceans, to initiate action as necessary, be it for humanitarian assistance or to thwart developing threats. The Information Fusion Centre set up at Gurugram in 2018, was a major step in collaborating with countries in the region and multinational agencies to enhance maritime awareness and share information. Mission-based deployment of the Indian Navy together with logistics support and operational turn around facilities in countries of the region, is another step to extend the outreach of the Indian Navy and expand Indian presence and visibility along the Indo-Pacific. Such deployments also provide an opportunity for India to further her strategic interests in keeping with the vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).

No discussion on the Indo-Pacific would be complete without a look at Quad or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping of four democratic nations with considerable maritime interests. Geographically, the four – nations namely India, Japan, Australia and the United States, are virtually in four corners of the Indo-Pacific. Following the Tsunami of 2004, the group combined to provide HADR. In 2007, the group met again unofficially on the sidelines of the Asian Regional Forum (ARF) meeting based on an initiative put forward by the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. Aimed at developing a free and open Indo-Pacific region it was seen by some as a coalition against China. While such an inference was denied by the countries involved, for a variety of reasons it made little headway. It was revived in 2017, coined as Quad 2.0 to develop the collective vision of a free open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, in other words to ensure the critical Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCS) in the area free of any influence. The focus has been on connectivity, sustainable development, counter-terrorism and maritime security, to promote peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected Indo-Pacific region. China has all along been raising a concern that Quad is conceived against it.

Even though they commenced well before the idea of Quad, the Malabar series of Naval exercises are linked to the concept of Quad. Originally started in1992, as bilateral exercises between the navies of India and the US, Japan and later, Australia joined with Singapore also being part of the exercise in 2007. China has always raised concerns about the Quad nations jointly exercising which resulted in the conduct of Malabar Naval exercises with just two or three members. While Australia was no longer part of the exercises for a while, Japan has been a regular participant since 2015. This year, Australia would also join in as announced after a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Quad in October this year. While the US has been talking of Quad partners needing to collaborate against coercion, official statements on the exercise states that the participants remain committed to a rule-based international order and are working together to uphold peace and stability across the region. Considering the economic and military capabilities of the Quad nations, a joint major maritime exercise such as Malabar has the potential to send a deterrent message to China. It is evident that future developments in Quad as well as Malabar exercises will be closely watched by China and other nations.

India’s Role in the Indo-Pacific Region

Against this backdrop, India needs to develop its strategic and economic interests in the Indo–Pacific region. India needs to put forward its maritime and strategic interests with a clear show of commitment in overall development of the region. Bilateral and trilateral ties not only with the Quad nations, but with other littorals need to be built up quickly. Cooperation can be enhanced by way of comprehensive economic partnership agreements on issues ranging from trade, infrastructure development, both on shore and off shore, and capacity building. Strengthening of ties between maritime forces of nations through exercises, extension of training facilities and overall cooperation to enhance maritime security and domain awareness, are other issues that could be looked at. India could also look to other non-traditional players such as Germany or Canada who could have interests in expanding economic ties with the nations in the Indo-Pacific region. France, having a presence in the Indian Ocean, is another potential partner for the Pacific. In all these tie ups, more than complete convergence of plans, issue-based cooperation could also be looked into.

China’s Concerns

As regards Chinese views and concerns on Quad, Malabar exercises or on emergence of Indian strategic interests in the Indo–Pacific, India needs to take a long term view of her interests rather than be concerned about reaction of China. It is for consideration that China factored only its interests while making major forays and expanding her geo-political reach in the IOR by developing ports or other facilities in Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, Iran and Myanmar. The People’s Liberation Army Navy of China has also been operating in the IOR. China has also been supporting countries in India’s neighbourhood whose activities have been inimical to Indian interests. China has also been quick to oppose trade or economic linkages between India and Taiwan. However, it is also a fact that India and China are part of several multi-lateral groupings such as Russia, India, China (RIC), Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). So, India needs to adopt strategies as needed to safeguard her national interests. This would include cooperating as necessary, with like-minded nations to ensure maritime security and freedom of operations in SLOCs in keeping with international rules and regulations.


In conclusion, it can be stated that the concept of Indo-Pacific is becoming more relevant today despite the efforts by China to underplay the concept. Apart from the US, Japan, Australia, ASEAN and India, even nations of the European Union have started showing interest in the concept. India’s view has always been that the Indo-Pacific is for peace, security, stability, prosperity and for nations to work together for global good by ensuring rule-based order and not against anybody. As far as India is concerned, the Indo-Pacific arena provides it a chance to become a significant player in the twenty first century. When countries such as Australia, Japan and United States with its Pivot to Asia, started to look at the strategic relevance of the Indo-Pacific, India emerged as a key player in their outlook being located in a position of advantage in the area. India was also clearly seen as a nation that could counter the growing influence of China in the region. It is very much in India’s interest to play such a role in view of the increasing presence of China in the IOR and more so, in other South Asian countries.

In keeping with the broad vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri La dialogue, India needs to use the situation to expand its presence in the Pacific region by leveraging partnerships with like-minded nations. While some of the smaller nations may avoid committing to be bound to a particular country, most would be more than willing to cooperate for their economic development. More importantly, most littorals are coming around to the view that a free and open Indo-Pacific remains the key to regional peace and prosperity. India, therefore, has the opportunity to emerge as a major player in the 21st century in the Indo-Pacific and needs to prepare a policy to further her overall strategic and economic interests. Needless to say that it would be a challenge to keep the Indo-Pacific vision relevant taking all stakeholders along and more importantly, to steer it free of conflicts towards a cooperative regional order.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Vice Admiral MP Muralidharan

was the first Commandant of Indian Navy Academy at Ezhimala.

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