Gone are the days when the world was ruled by a bipolar or unipolar franchise. The postmodern era is characterized by multiple polarities, particularly Asian powerhouses such as China, Japan, India, Thailand, Vietnam, along with other countries such as USA and Australia that have a unique interest in the region that represents more than 40 percent of the world GDP and is home to half of the world population while also constituting seven of the world’s largest militaries. Nations from around the world now recognise the changing strategic landscape and that their own interests can only be advanced by anchoring themselves in the Indo-Pacific region along with other allies and partners.
The word “Indo-Pacific” first appeared in the 1920’s when the German geopolitician, Karl Haushofer used the term in multiple works such as the Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean and Geopolitics of Pan ideas, whereby he underlined the role of anti colonial forces in China and India as supporting Germany against America, Britain and Western Europe domination. In the 21st Century, however, the geopolitical narrative is shaped by People’s Republic of China-PRC’s coercive drive to fuel a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific, through transgression of the international law, undermining human rights and threatening of the freedom of navigation of other legitimate countries, along with the possibility of expansion of nuclear missiles by North Korea and the prospect of climate change threatening to deluge the region through melting of glaciers and disproportionate rise in sea levels.
The importance of the region was emphasized by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his 2007 speech to the Indian parliament where he referred to the “confluence of seas as the dynamic coupling of seas and prosperity in broader Asia” while the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” was formally mentioned as an aim to be sustained by members of the Quad; USA, Japan, India and Australia by the US Department of State in 2019. The term finds mentions in numerous US strategic documents such as the National Defense Strategy (2018) and the National Security Strategy (2017). With an eye on the complex challenges facing the region, a joint statement was issued by the US President Donald Trump and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017 as follows,
“As responsible stewards in the Indo-Pacific region, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi agreed that a close partnership between the United States and India is central to peace and stability in the region. In marking 70 years of diplomatic relations between India and the United States, the leaders resolved to expand and deepen the strategic partnership between the countries and advance common objectives. Above all, these objectives include combating terrorist threats, promoting stability across the Indo-Pacific region, increasing free and fair trade, and strengthening energy linkages”.
Carrying forward the mantle forged by Trump, Joe Biden launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity in May 2022, whereby partners including Australia, India, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia and Japan would foster a cooperation with the intended aim to forge a connected economy through AI, privacy, digital economy rules, a resilient economy through better supply chain commitments, a clean economy through de-carbonization, green infrastructure and a fair economy.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also underlined the importance of the Indo-Pacific when, during his address at the Shangri La dialogue in 2018, when he said that the Indian Armed Forces, especially the Navy, was building partnerships in the Indo-Pacific for peace and security, as well as humanitarian aid and disaster relief:
“They train, exercise and conduct goodwill missions across the region. For example, with Singapore, we have the longest uninterrupted naval exercise, which is in its twenty-fifth year now. We will start a new trilateral exercise with Singapore soon and we hope to extend it to other ASEAN countries. We work with partners like Vietnam to build mutual capabilities. India conducts Malabar Exercise with the United States and Japan. A number of regional partners join in India’s Exercise Milan in the Indian Ocean, and participate in RIMPAC in the Pacific”, he said.
The close scrutiny received by the Indo-Pacific region is in line with the rise of the Chinese Communist Party-CCP and its ambition of becoming the world leader through the second largest defense expenditure in the world. Countries such as Brunei, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan and others have conflicting territorial claims in the South China sea, which does not bode well for the region unless the issues surrounding them are peacefully settled. Numerous military bases and airfields have been created by the CCP in the Parcel and Spratly Islands (despite promises made by Xi Jinping in 2015 to not militarize the region) while it has also tried to wrest control of the Japanese Senkaku Islands. The PRC also revoked its own promise by building an overseas base in Djibouti in 2017. Since formally announcing the “Nine Dashed Line” in 2009, the CCP has not offered any legal basis for its maritime claims. Furthermore, the Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention has firmly rejected the CCP’s maritime claims in the South China Sea as violating international law.
One way of obstructing CCP’s designated campaign to appropriate the Indo-Pacific region, especially the South and East China Sea by altering the territorial boundaries and undermining the rights of sovereign nations at seas is by engaging in multilateral forums such as the Quad and forging more of such strategic alliances between nations, to deepen interoperability and bolstering the warfighting capabilities of smaller nations which hold a significant strategic place in the region. To accelerate the decarbonisation of the region, more investment needs to be made in clean technology and health infrastructure that can mitigate the onset of deadly epidemics such as the recent Covid-19 virus.