|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
Close on the heels of India (in partnership with Australia and Indonesia) organising the fourth East Asia Conference on Maritime Security Cooperation at Chennai on February 6-7, 2020, India's National Maritime Foundation is gearing up to host the Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue on March 16-17, 2020 at New Delhi.
The pillars identified for the Dialogue are:
Who coined the term Indo-Pacific?
In November 2012, Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State had lauded India's role in the Indo-Pacific. But it is Gurpreet S. Khurana, Executive Director of the National Maritime Foundation at New Delhi, who is credited with the first use of the term Indo-Pacific in the context of strategic and geopolitical discourse, more than five years before Hillary spoke of Indo-Pacific. The term since then has gained currency and is used freely by nations and heads of states. In recent years, the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad concept have been introduced and advocated by various countries at various points in time. Simply put, the Indo-Pacific construct encompasses contiguous waters of the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The region is more in focus because of trade dependence, globalisation, and connectivity of the maritime domain and the changing nature of the maritime threat. The centre of gravity of conflict is focused on the Indo-Pacific given China's aggressive posture and global ambitions disregarding global norms and international conventions like UNCLOS. From making illegal territorial claims in the South China Sea and belligerence in the East China Sea, China is now making rapid advances into the Indian Ocean. Behind the euphemism of economic cooperation, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has strategic ambitions debt-trapping countries, which amounts to economic terrorism of the worst kind.
Maritime threats in the Indo-Pacific are becoming transnational, blurring physical boundaries and raising awareness to ensure security of sea lanes of communication (SLOC) and adjoining areas for unhindered movement of trade and energy. Viewed in larger context, the Indo-Pacific stretches from the eastern coast of Africa to Oceania (African shores to American shores) including the Pacific Island countries. Strangely, US does not consider China part of its Indo-Pacific construct since America's major or perhaps only focus in the Indo-Pacific is based on oceans. However, India has been highlighting Indo-Pacific as an inclusive construct for the whole region. India's location, jutting into the Indian Ocean, is also pivotal to the Indo-Pacific. In recent years India has been actively engaging nations in the Indo-Pacific through its Act East Policy (AEP) and mechanisms like the ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), East Asia Conference on Maritime Security Cooperation, Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC), Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) and the like. In 2018, India hosted leaders of the 10-member ASEAN for the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in New Delhi. Besides the summit, the leaders of 10 ASEAN nations participated in the 69th Republic Day celebrations as Chief Guests.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also introduced the concept of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region) and believes in an Indo-Pacific that is free, open and inclusive; that is founded on a cooperative and collaborative rules-based order. Now new vectors are emerging in the changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region that have bearing on India. US estrangement with Iran has brought China and Russia closer to Iran. The trilateral China-Russia-Iran naval exercise held in October 2019 besides China-Pakistan and China-Pakistan-Iran naval exercises are pointers to future alliances. India has mellowed its relationship with Iran to large extent in appeasing the US. Iran has indirectly been hinting about India downgrading its relations with Iran, which has strategic implications. There is already a viewpoint in the West that the US drone strike killing Iranian General Soleimani gave tactical victory to the US but the long-term strategic impact could be adverse (even catastrophic) for the US since Iraq too has rallied against the US, in addition to Iran. Similarly, US exiting Afghanistan lays the country open to Taliban, which may result in a Af-Pak radicalised region in the long run – would that be good for America in the long run and what about India's national interests? Also, US exit from Afghanistan may lead to President Trump hardening his stance further towards Iran in run up to the upcoming US presidential elections or after he wins it, which is likely. While all out US-Iran war is unlikely, conflict flashpoints can hardly be ruled out, which would be bad for our economy. Buying the story that Pakistan enabled US pullout from Afghanistan, Trump would likely go softer on Pakistan. Where does all this leave India? Finally, it is Russia's interests and involvement in the Indo-Pacific. Russia has been voicing concerns over the US-backed Quadrilateral (Quad) coalition comprising US, India, Japan and Australia, saying that introduction of competitive structures will create friction among the countries of the region.
Russia blames America's Indo-Pacific strategy for completely ignoring the existence of Russia and China while pushing its agenda for the strategically key region. As mentioned earlier, China is making rapid advances in the Indian Ocean but Russia has only limited presence here. Russia, China and South Africa had their first trilateral naval exercise with South Africa in November 2019. Trump now wants more NATO involvement in the Middle-East, including in Iraq. Syria is witnessing conflict between Syrian Government forces and Turkey, which is a NATO member. President Putin would logically be looking for increasing Russian presence in the Indian Ocean. As and when that happens, India would do well to keep the India-Russia Strategic Partnership and sensitivities of Russia in mind.