The term Indo-Pacific has been increasingly in use in diplomatic and academic circles since 2010, and appears to have been first used by Gurpreet Khurana, an Indian naval officer, in his paper on India-Japan cooperation over oceanic security. Hillary Clinton is the first world leader to use the term in 2010 when in her capacity as the Secretary of State, she commented, “We understand how important the Indo-Pacific basin is to global trade and commerce,” she said.

Since then, no American President used the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ till President Trump recently avoided the expression ‘Asia-Pacific’ and repeatedly mentioned their interest in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ on the eve of the President’s five-nation Asia tour. For analysts, the subtle nuances of this fascination for a new construct are quite engaging.

Jayita Mukhopadhyay (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Women’s Christian College, Kolkata) writes that the main theoretical reasoning behind a switchover from “Asia-Pacific” is that it is no longer correct to think about South Asia and East Asia separately. While “Asia-Pacific” conventionally focuses on the area from North Korea to the southern tip of China, “Indo-Pacific” includes countries on the Indian Ocean coastline, South-east Asia, and Australia, Indonesia, and New Zealand. At the heart of that area are two oceans ~ the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. “Indo-Pacific” blurs the division between these two stretches of water. By that token, the word “Indo” could mean more of “Indian Ocean” and less of “India.”

Although the repeated use of the concept of Indo-Pacific by President Trump is an explicit acknowledgement of India’s growing preponderance in the region, this according to Mukhopadhyay begs the obvious question: Has India really arrived on the theatre of geo-politics of the Asia-Pacific in such a big way?

Ever since the 1990s, there has been a steady shift in the foundational aspect of India’s foreign policy objectives and interests. The Look-East policy has metamorphosed into Act East Policy with the objective of enhancing India’s engagement with ASEAN and East Asia. Analysts believe that Modi’s assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific is indicative of growing confidence and ambitious re-evaluation of India’s self- perception about its role and importance in the affairs of the region. It signifies the arrival of India as a major player in the strategic chessboard of the region. Any attempt to contextualise the concept of Indo-Pacific must take into account this emerging scenario.

At the same time, Prime Minister Modi’s meetings in Manila need to be seen in this perspective. His arrival was preceded by the first meeting of the India-U.S.-Japan-Australia quadrilateral that ended with statements on cooperation for a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”, a direct signal that it will counter China’s actions in the South China Sea if necessary. Modi’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump saw a similar emphasis on cooperating in the Indo-Pacific.

India should be conscious of hard realities

While all these augur well for India’s regional status, Jayita Mukhopadhyay (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Women’s Christian College, Kolkata) writes that “the hard reality is that with magnificent projection of power comes intense responsibilities to act on them….. India’s Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN till now has had a limited impact; many connectivity projects are experiencing significant time-and-cost overruns; India has been hesitant to throw its weight around in the cauldron of the South China Sea dispute…..”

In the circumstances, “India should rather walk the tight rope of balancing China strategically while engaging with it economically in several important fora, such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. India also needs to follow up on the initiatives it has taken in the region, for example by deepening relations with the small Pacific Island nations. It should take forward the agenda of the ‘Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation’ (FIPIC) by providing economic and technical assistance to these countries in combating non-traditional security threats like climate change and soft-pedalling the supremacy of its democratic set-up vis-à-vis China which can buttress its regional stature. Given China’s wary reaction to Quad with the comment that regional cooperation groupings should ‘avoid politicising or excluding countries,’ India should downplay any attempt to project the grouping as a front to counter Chinese influence….”

An aggressive China needs an aggressive response from India

On the other hand, Grummet Kanwal (Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi) suggests a robust approach by India. In the count of the Quad discussions and the Modi-Trump meeting, he writes that a “US-India strategic partnership makes eminent sense as a hedging strategy for both countries.

“Though it will be a gradual and long-drawn process, a cooperative security framework may eventually emerge from the discussions now being initiated by the leaders of Quad. Together with the US and its other strategic partners, India must take the lead in working towards the establishment of an architecture to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and for the security of the global commons ~ air space, space, cyberspace and the sea-lanes of communication to enable the freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade…….

“The Quad ~ the concert of democracies ~ should be gradually enlarged to include other strategic partners such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam to realise its true potential as a force for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

Cooperative security, according to Kanwal “does not necessarily require a formal military alliance. Cooperative security entails the sharing of intelligence; joint counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation efforts; upholding the rules and norms governing maritime trade; providing help to the littoral states to meet their security needs; helping to counter piracy, arms smuggling and narcotics trafficking; and, undertaking joint humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations in the region.

“India’s area of strategic interest now extends from the South China Sea in the east to the Horn of Africa in the west. In order to discharge its growing responsibilities towards regional security, India must upgrade its military capacities for intervention operations in the Indo-Pacific. Two rapid reaction-cum-air assault divisions backed by air support, air lift and sea transportation and logistics resources for 30 days each will be required by 2025-30. It will then be apparent to potential adversaries that India will not hesitate to intervene in conjunction with its strategic partners if its vital national interests are threatened in its area of strategic interest.”

India must attain true “strategic autonomy”

Stepping into the debate, Arun Prakash, former Chief of the Naval Staff notes that “the Modi government, in a dynamic foreign policy transformation, has not only backed a stronger strategic partnership with the US, it has also converted “Look East” into a more positive “Act East” policy and initiated a more intense engagement with the Gulf and West Asia. Emphasising inclusivity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), Prime Minister Narendra Modi encapsulated this thought in the watchword, SAGAR, signifying “security and growth for all in the region”. SAGAR should become the leitmotif for India’s maritime diplomacy.”

Against this backdrop, the former Navy Chief notes that it was a disagreeable surprise to read in the September 2017 issue of the respected US Naval Institute Proceedings, an article, which, bluntly described Indo-US maritime engagement as, “a security cooperation courtship that never gets past the first date”, and then asked rhetorically, “If India is not ready, willing or able to play in the maritime security cooperation game, what is the benefit of trying to force it?” Prime Minister Modi would, “therefore, need to bear in mind that while visionary leaders may strategise on a grand scale, their policies will be only as good as the implementation on ground by bureaucrats, technocrats and diplomats.

“This aspect assumes salience in light of the November 2017 revival of the India-Australia-Japan-US quadrilateral (or Quad) dialogue. Representatives of the four maritime democracies met ahead of the East Asia Summit, in Manila, for “consultation on issues of common interest in the Indo-Pacific region”. The renewal of this dormant grouping and repeated use of the term Indo-Pacific by President Trump seems to have generated a degree of animation in strategic circles….”

While each of the four participants, no doubt, has its own national interests to advance, the Admiral sees “no reason for China to suspect containment or “ganging up”. In fact, if all goes well, there is no reason why the Quad cannot, subsequently, become a pentagonal or a hexagonal partnership.”

Nevertheless, in the face of a rising and aggressive China, the Admiral suggests that if India is to resist domination by former “it will need hand-holding — moral and political — for a few years. At the same time, it must boost its military muscle by urgently modernising the armed forces. Above all, India must attain true “strategic autonomy” through an infusion of advanced technology for its defence-industrial complex. The choices before us are few and stark; and being a member of the Quad — a concord of four democracies — has many potential advantages that India could adroitly exploit, in many spheres.”