Ratnaditya Singh Chavda
The world today is undergoing a fundamental political transformation as all of us come to grips with the virus spreading havoc worldwide. India and the United States, find themselves locked in a long-drawn battle with the Chinese Republic over the Indo-Pacific region. Military history is replete with instances where strategically important geographical features have acted as reasons or theatres of war. The 20th century that was marked by the two World Wars saw Europe as the epicenter of Conflict. However, over the last few decades, the west that was heralded as the powerhouse of the world, no longer holds that position, as with the advent of the 21st century we stepped into a truly ‘Asian Era’, marked by the economic and militaristic rise of countries like China and India. The economic forces unleashed by China’s economic rise are redefining the geo-strategic landscape. An example of this could be the increased Chinese presence in Northern Africa and the multi-trillion Dollar Belt and Road Initiative. The Indo-Pacific is one of the busiest zones in the world and is responsible for 75% of the world merchandise trade and contributes a whopping 60% to the Global Gross Domestic Product. Hence, it is but natural that we are experiencing a geopolitical trend wherein, some of the mightiest world powers are vying for a share in the region.
Immediately after the Second World War, following the invasion of Japan, America maintained an upper hand in the region, while India mainly focused on a continental policy, ensuring its security through its land borders. In 1971, Sri Lanka proposed the establishment of an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace (IOZOP). The notion focused on increasing the presence of Western powers and the building of foreign military bases in the region. However, the proposal was soon shot down by India, and surprisingly it was China that supported the Indians, in their belief that the two countries did not have bases anywhere and did not seek bases anywhere. However, in recent times the tables have turned, with the Chinese economy on the rise, the Republic’s leaders have adopted a rigorous policy of expansion. This is illustrated through both their Belt and Road initiative and militarisation of the South-China sea, which is in complete violation of the 2016 Hague ruling against Chinese actions. With several nations locking horns with the Chinese, India particularly stands out. In the face of growing Chinese expansionism, the country has shifted its attention from a completely inward-looking policy to one that promoted India as a regional leader, and a country that acts as an effective check to unbridled Chinese development.
India's actions in the region are a testimonial to the inclusive, free, and open approach that the country is trying to promote in the Indo-Pacific. In order to gear up for the challenge that lies ahead, India has recently invested a great deal in strategic cooperation with Indo-Pacific nations and at the same time strengthened ties with the United States to an extent where it has been granted the same status as that of a treaty country. India’s gradual shift from a continental policy to one that portrays it as an emerging maritime power can be divided into three parts; the first being its relation with the Quad countries, the second being the leadership role played by it among the member nations of the ASEAN, and lastly, its policy towards the nations in the Indian Ocean Region.
The Quad essentially consists of four key players in the Indo-Pacific; India, Australia, Japan, and the United States. Until recently the Quad acted as an informal platform for member countries to discuss viable areas of cooperation in the region. With the increasing Chinese presence in the region and the aggressive policies adopted by the Republic, the Quad countries have persevered to establish the Indo-Pacific, as an open, free, and inclusive region. As the vision put forth by the Quad countries stands in complete contrast with that of Chinese, the Quad has come to be viewed as a threat to Chinese interests. The Chinese insecurity was further heightened when the Quad nations decided to meet at the ministerial level for the first time in September 2019. Through the initiative, the Indian government has further augmented their ties with their American counterparts and recently conducted their first-ever tri-military exercise. The two governments have also invoked the Mutual Culprit Agreement that gives them unrestricted access to each other's military bases globally. Lastly, in a surprising turn of events, the Indian government has extended an invitation to Australia, to be a part of the Malabar Exercise. The last time we witnessed Australian involvement in the exercise was in 2007, which was followed by a string of sanction and diplomatic tensions towards India from the Chinese Republic.
The second important element in understanding India’s role in the Indo-Pacific and the regional leadership role it has assumed is its involvement with the ASEAN countries. ASEAN as an assembly of nations had essentially turned into a platform for debate rather than any form of constructive action. However, the Indian government has successfully breathed new life into it, with the emphasis on the centrality of ASEAN in India’s Indo-Pacific Framework and the ‘Act East’ policy. India has also strengthened its bilateral relationship to the comprehensive level with Vietnam in 2016 and Indonesia in 2018. In the last two years, India has played a leadership role in conducting joint military exercises with ASEAN plus nations and has tapped into the defence markets of these countries by selling Indian made military equipment, such as the submarines and the famous BrahMos missiles.
The last area of interest for Indian Foreign Policy in South Asia is India’s involvement in the Western Indian Ocean. India’s actions in the Indian Ocean Region are in line with India’s policies, which has seen the country not only try and moderate its territorial conflicts with its neighbors but at the same time aim at sustainable economic growth so as to generate resources to match the military and economic might of the other powers involved in the region. A clear example of India’s commitment to the region is ‘Operation Sagar’ initiated by the government during distressing times brought about the world pandemic. The main aim of the initiative is to provide material and medical assistance to the Indian Ocean Region nations. Another noteworthy trend is India’s pro-active role towards forging a strategic alliance with nations such as France and the United Arab Emirates, with the future of the Indian Ocean in mind.
With 95% of India’s trade by volume and 68% trade by value passing through the Indian Ocean Region, the country’s pro-active maritime policy is not only a result of increasing economic ambitions but more importantly an effort to protect the country’s present interests in the region. Recently, India was also granted infrastructure development rights for the Agalega island from Mauritius and the Assumption island from Seychelles. Further, the country has also been involved in developing the Chabhar Port in Iran, thus ensuring that the stability of the region is a prerequisite for Indian projects. The final step towards shaping the Indo-Pacific as a region marked with navigational freedom is greater Indian and International efforts through the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and Indian Ocean Rim Association, which stand for maritime security, cultural and trade promotions and fisheries.
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