The Malabar naval exercises involving the Japanese, the US and Indian navies are being held for the first time in American waters off Guam, an island territory held by America in Micronesia in the western Pacific Ocean. The exercise contributes towards increasing the level of mutual understanding, inter-operability and sharing of best practices between the three navies, it is said. But it also foregrounds the construct of the Indo-Pacific as an interconnected geographic space and indicates India’s interests as going beyond the Indian Ocean.
The term Indo-Pacific has come into usage in the past decade. Australia, Japan were early adapters to the Indo-Pacific expression, which was given an extra fillip by US President Donald Trump in his national security strategy and more recently by the American decision to rename its Pacific naval command for the region as the Indo-Pacific command. US defence secretary Gen James Mattis explained the rationale for the renaming as recognising the significance of the Indian Ocean and the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans to reflect the changing reality. He also described India as the fulcrum of security in the Indo-Pacific region.
prime minister Narendra Modi put forth the Indian strategic vision on the Indo-Pacific in his address to the Shangri La Dialogue held in Singapore last week. He described the Indo-Pacific as a “natural region” that stretches from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of America. He called it a “free, open, inclusive region”, which includes all nations in its geography as also others beyond it who have a stake in it. Along with articulation of India’s understanding of the Indo-Pacific concept at the annual Asian security dialogue, Modi also included discussions with Indonesian, Singapore and Malaysian leaders with a focus on maritime cooperation issues during his three-nation tour.
The increasing use of the Indo-Pacific nomenclature has raised questions in the Southeast Asian region where the Asia-Pacific appellation has been the accepted term to denote the economic cooperation along the Pacific.
There is unease in the Asean region over being sidelined in the new concept. China is taken as the dominant Asian nation in the Asia-Pacific, while it would be one of the Pacific nations in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing sees Trump’s enthusiasm for Indo-Pacific as a way to reduce China’s importance in the larger maritime region.
Modi sought to assuage Asean sentiments by emphasising that the Southeast Asian region was the geographic core of the Indo-Pacific and was central to the future progress of the region. In a bid to reassure China, Modi said: “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited member, or as a grouping that seeks to dominate.”
Indo-Pacific has melded with the newly revived Quad (Quadrilateral) for many strategic analysts, mainly because it was the Quad nations that were among the first to adopt the Indo-Pacific nomenclature. The Quad came up even as China launched more assertive activities in the South China Sea region. Comprising Japan, India, the US and Australia, the Quad was revived in November 2017 when representatives of the four countries met at the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. Among other things, the Quad laid stress on a free and fair Indo-Pacific region.
Revival of the Quad has caused some disquiet in the region. Beijing has clearly voiced its concerns about what it perceives as an anti-China grouping, Russia has raised the subject in bilateral talks with New Delhi while the Asean countries are unsure of the role of the four nation group. The Quadrilateral had come up in the wide-ranging discussions Modi had with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi last month, when the Russian leader had also mentioned Chinese apprehensions regarding the four-members grouping.
The Malabar exercises have also been linked to the Quad because of its membership, but India has emphatically asserted that the Malabar exercises were not part of Quad activities. Australia was not invited to participate despite Canberra’s stated desire to be a part of the Malabar exercises.
India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific is not directed at any country. As Modi said, it was normal to have partnerships on the basis of shared values and interests; India worked with its partners for a stable and peaceful region. “Our friendships are not alliances of containment,” he added.
As India embraces the Indo-Pacific concept, Modi has rebalanced ties with China and Russia following two bilateral ‘informal’ summit meetings with extended discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Putin. Russia remains a key partner for India and a new directed charted for ties with China. In the multipolar world, India’s growing partnership with the US would be balanced with the warm traditional ties with Moscow and cordial relations with Beijing and a closer engagement with friendly countries towards its east and west.