In December 2020, India’s Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) Gen. Bipin Rawat remarked “the presence of more than 120 foreign warships in the Indian Ocean and a race for strategic bases that will gain momentum in future reflects the growing global interest in the region”. Addressing the Global Security Summit virtually, he also said the Indo-Pacific region in general and the Indian Ocean region in particular will remain vital for transit and world trade.
The world is in a state of constant flux, witnessing a repositioning from Trans-Atlantic to Asia. This is coupled with the gravity of global economic and military power tilting towards Indo-Pacific resulting in significant political, economic, and social changes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
This contested maritime theatre is home to important sea lines of communication (SLOC), and the presence of key choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz connecting Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, Mozambique Channel, Bab el-Mandab Strait connecting Gulf of Aden & Red Sea and the Strait of Malacca between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra island. No wonder, the IOR plays a significant role in shaping the power dynamics of the region and globe as a whole.
The IOR also has flourishing trade accounting for around 60% of the global GDP. It also faces a multitude of non-traditional security threats such as marine piracy, illegal fishing, trafficking of drugs, terrorism, natural disasters, and environmental hazards. Together, the Indian & Pacific Ocean region together possesses vast reserves of strategic marine resources including offshore hydrocarbons, sea bed minerals, rare earth metals, poly-metallic nodules etc., fuelling resource competition and geopolitical rivalry. China’s behaviour in South China Sea (SCS) against its littorals with legitimate claims over SCS are an example.
China’s aggressive postures, expansionist foreign policy, economic muscle, military modernization, and power projection concern regional and extra-regional countries in the Indo-Pacific (IPR) & IOR. China’s use of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ to buy pseudo military bases under the guise of commercial ports across the Indo Pacific, such as Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka) along with its overseas naval base in Djibouti adds strategic dimensions to the power play dynamics in the IOR.
Each nation in the IOR is pursuing different political, economic, and strategic appetites in the IOR, leading to differing priorities and lack of a definitional consensus. This has delayed formations of groupings which are still short of alliances.
PM Modi highlighted India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018. In 2019, India established an Indo-Pacific Division in its External Affairs Ministry that engages collaboratively with BIMSTEC, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Mekong Ganga Cooperation, the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation, and similar groups. India is also active on platforms such as QUAD, ASEAN, Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative, Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, Asia Africa Growth Corridor etc.
In October 2020, foreign ministers of QUAD member nations met in Tokyo. Observers hailed the QUAD+ (with South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand) which came into being to address Covid-19 challenges in the region. QUAD may not be considered to have considerable financial resources, strategic consciousness, and defence capabilities in the IOR, but it is a positive step in devising an institutional framework.
The IOR is a pivotal zone of strategic competition and falls at the geo-economic crossroads of global trade and commerce. Hence, just as global powers scramble for strategic bases in the IOR, stability and peace in the IOR is indispensable for global security.
As a privileged player, India is geo-strategically located at the Ocean’s centre. Global and extra-regional powers are hedging on India’s obligations for a peaceful and rule-based IOR. Western powers like the US and UK are seeking to counter-balance China’s rise. Post BREXIT, UK emphasized it is looking East and identified India as a key pillar in that strategy. Other countries including US, France, Germany, Australia and Japan have initiated similar strategies, delineating IOR as a ‘theatre of strategic relevance & opportunity’.
Other global powers operating in the region suffer from the ‘tyranny of distance’, but India’s location gives it advantages in terms of economic and military capability. However, as the world shifts towards multi-polarity, balance of power and clash of cultures among countries, it presents a diverse set of challenges for India. To counter such constraints, India conducted a virtual trilateral dialogue with France and Australia in September 2020. The focus was on enhancing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the strategic rationale, their stake in ensuring a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific order.
While bilateral and multilateral dialogues, such as the 2+2 Dialogues and Quad, are established groupings in the Indo-Pacific, the recent times have seen emergence of ‘minilaterals’. There is an India-U.S.-Japan trilateral and an India-Australia-Indonesia trilateral taking shape concurrently. At Japan’s insistence, India, Japan, and Australia agreed to initiate a grouping to reshape global supply chains presently dominated by China. Moving beyond strategic uncertainties, such minilaterals have stroked a convergence in interests by effecting ways to discuss emerging issues in a flexible, informal, and non-binding manner.
It is time India thinks out of the box in striking such balances, in order to maintain policy autonomy while strengthening capability to overcome internal and external challenges. That will determine India’s standing in the world, and particularly in the IOR.
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