As the Air Marshal says that India is ready for a two front war, there is a need to look at the growing tension developing in the Naval side and the apprehensions China’s expansive growth is causing in the region. Every occasion there is an Indo-Japan summit in New Delhi or in Tokyo, the term Indo-Pacific gains tremendous attention and features in most analyses discussing India-Japan relations. The term has colonial origins with the Indonesian archipelago being referred to as the Indo-Pacific by the Dutch during their occupation. The term further had dubious usage by the much maligned German geographer Karl Haushofer in his work on German-Japanese relations prior to the Second World War. The term also has been used by bio-geographers looking for contiguous presence of fish species in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. However, during the last decade the term has been preferred over ‘Asia-Pacific’, which served the geopolitical purposes of Cold War.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his first term addressed the Indian Parliament in 2007 and invoked the term to denote the “confluence of two oceans” in which, both India and Japan has stakes. Gradually it witnessed increased usage among the academia and intelligentsia and academic centres have been organized and established around the Indo-Pacific region. The most important states using the term are Japan, Australia and India. However, this regionalization needs to be understood in the emerging geopolitical realities of Asia and the ‘pivot to Asia’ in the US foreign policy. There is now a general acceptance that China is a force to reckon with in the international system. Indo-Pacific is also one of the responses to the economic rise of China and the belligerent attitude, which it has displayed in its neighbourhood in matters related to the South China Sea and East China Sea.
The three main protagonists of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ Japan, Australia and India have their respective reasons to feel insecure by a rising China and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is a convenient and effective geopolitical construct to interact and shape the discussion. There have been arguments that the term is a geopolitical code for containing China as was the term Asia-Pacific to contain the USSR. Such formulations on containment have relevant salience as the geographic location of the three main actors indicates viz. Japan is located in the Northwest Pacific and has maritime disputes on the Senkaku/Diayou islands with China, Australia located at the Southwestern periphery of the Pacific Ocean and also abuts the seas close to the Chinese mainland and India has land borders with China of over 3000 kilometres located south of China. An alliance of these three countries, which Beijing recently formulated its apprehensions against and warned India against entering an alliance with Japan, can be a potent tool to check China’s growing influence in the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. Nonetheless, the geopolitical construction of the Indo-Pacific holds significance with Chinese naval submarines making routine sorties in both the Oceans with increasing regularity.
India, Australia and Japan on the other hand, have been continually conducting naval exercises both in the Indian Ocean and the seas close to the Chinese mainland. An interesting feature of these naval ventures is that the United States has played an important role and this is in correspondence with the ‘Asian pivot’ formulated during the Obama presidency. Some Southeast Asian nations including, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam have also collaborated with these powers during these naval ventures. More recently India, Japan and the United States conducted the joint MALABAR naval exercise against which the Chinese made strong observation. These naval exercises have witnessed participation from nations from Africa as well, which fits well with the geopolitical construction of the Indo-Pacific.
However, the geographical expanse of the Indo-Pacific needs to be clarified as the term seeks to cover a vast expanse from the eastern coast of Africa to the western reaches of the Pacific and thereby also covering the entire Indian Ocean in its fold. The Indo-Pacific Governance Research Centre at Adelaide, Australia has formulated two definitions of the region and quite surprisingly one definition includes China as an actor in the region. Some scholars attribute this to the growing economic ties between Australia and China wherein China has become the main importer of raw materials from Australia. Nonetheless, the region in its geographical manifestation is hardly conceivable as this is a vast expanse with extreme diversity in terms of geographical conditions and range of actors with equally diverse security orientations.
Indo-Pacific, however, holds tremendous geopolitical value if the Chinese naval reach and expansion in terms of establishment of bases has to be countered effectively. The reasons are very clear, i.e. China’s naval presence so far has been limited to the Indo-Pacific only. Furthermore, it needs to be underlined here that the region caters to more than half of the total world trade in terms of transport linkages and freightage in which the Chinese have a substantial stake. To allow Beijing to have a stranglehold on this huge trade network will be a strategic fallacy for important players in the region including the United States. Thus, the partnerships, alliances and agreements under the rubric of Indo-Pacific need to strengthen and create a strategic framework wherein no single power can become hegemonic.