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The inclusiveness of a Free and Open Indo Pacific construct vis a vis China

By Shiveti Biswas.

The inclusiveness of a Free and Open Indo Pacific construct vis a vis China
The term Indo-Pacific is comparatively a very recent and an evolving concept in the domain of international relations which consists of some of the most powerful economies of the world. Though the concept of a Free and Open Indo Pacific(FOIP), reflects an inclusive image of the region, manifesting much cooperation and coordination between the stakeholders in terms of trade, security and international order, how inclusive does it remains for the largest and one of the major players of the region?

What is Indo Pacific?

Geographically, the stretches of Indo-Pacific can be marked from the eastern shores of Africa to the western coast of the United States, given some variations in the definitions with respect to each actor and its own geographic positioning in the ocean. It can be simply understood as what the name itself suggests, as a zone of the merger of the two major oceans of the world i.e. The Indian and the Pacific Ocean. As Japanese Prime Minister Mr. Shinzo Abe during his visit to India in 2007, had for the very first time introduced the term in his parliamentary address as the “Confluence of the two seas”.

When pondered Geo-politically, even though the indo – pacific space has always existed, what recent advancements in the international order led to the term being increasingly used in the lexicon of foreign affairs reports, speeches, white papers etc? The answer to this question comes with certain political connotations and practical implications depending on the transnational imaginations, deepening economic links, great power competitions and the perceived rise of China.

Strategically speaking, the emergence of the concept can be understood as the direct consequence of the rising insecurities of a relatively declining USA vis a vis the rising dragon, China. Along with US, the fears of this realistic Sino-centric state in the pacific and the Indian ocean is also increasingly warred by the other super powers of the region such as Japan, Australia, some of the South East Asian nations and last but not the least, India.

Why Indo – Pacific?

Strategically and politically speaking, the construct of the Indo –Pacific can be very conveniently stemmed back to the consequences that lead to this region gaining traction in the last few years from the other powerful nations in the globe. The reasons for the same can be seen via multiple dimensions as follows:

  1. In order to enhance globalization, trade interdependence, connectivity of the maritime domain and the addressal of counterterrorism, non-proliferation and cyber issue.
  2. To strengthen the shared commitment to maintain and strengthen a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in which all nations are sovereign, strong and prosperous.
  3. Focus on the shared support for a free, open and inclusive region that fosters universal respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight and sustainable development is the other aspect which is most talked about in the formal setup, and
  4. And lastly plus most importantly, the global anxieties with respect to the rise of China, leading to an intensification of the regional competition and a discursive stability, particularly concerning the Asian regional order.

China’s rise in the Indo Pacific

China’s rise has been ubiquitous and in multiple forms. Its foreign policies have been pretty aggressive as compared to that of USA’s. Courtesy to its sturdy presence throughout the parts of Africa and Eurasia, that are well endowed with oil and minerals, it seeks to secure the port access throughout the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea as well, which connect the hydrocarbon-rich Arab-Persian world to the Chinese seaboard. Given its favorable location in the map, China’s continental power expands from Central Asia to the South China Sea, from the Russian Far East to the Indian Ocean which is quite evident and not so favorable for the other actors in the region. String of pearls, Belt and Road initiative (BRI), China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Maritime Silk Road, the both covert and over military and naval operations, its modification of the national boundaries in Oceania, Southern and South east nations, and last but not the least, the growing investments and market dominance, have become an ever greening concern for the bothered nations that fall in and around the sphere.

The construction Indo- Pacific and China’s exclusion
With its vast land mass and fast-growing economy, along with its ambition to pursue regional hegemony, China is viewed as a natural candidate to dominate Asia. And the other superpowers, especially USA, Japan, India, Australia and the South East Asian nations that have an important role to play in the region definitely cannot afford this. Hence the very construct of the Indo Pacific germinates primarily from this contest of Asian hegemony and rivalry.

The notion of Indo Pacific is a product of Pentagon’s AirSea Battle plan, also known as ‘pivot to Asia’ (Medcalf, Heinrichs, and Jones 2011) serving the dual purpose of both constraining the rise of a ‘peer competitor’ in Asia and preventing regional integration from being ‘inward looking and exclusive’ (Ciorciari 2011). With US recognizing the importance of the role of Indian ocean in accordance with the Pacific, the role of the Indian peninsular lying in the epicenter of the Indian ocean, made it strategically and commercially more viable for USA as well as India to optimally explore and utilize the caveats of the region. This lead to increased number of joint naval and military exercises in the troubled regions and strengthening of the security ties, along with the enhanced trade and commerce, in turn, fitting with the very clever anti china image of the US.

Likewise, growing concerns over China’s increasing dominance when coupled with USA’s growing interest in the region and a rising India, gave impetus to other major nations such as Australia and Japan and other South East Asian nations to delve their attention towards the dynamics of the Indo Pacific sphere. As early as 2007, while visiting India, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2007) proposed ‘a dynamic coupling’ of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans ‘as seas of freedom and of prosperity’. The importance Australia places on the Indian Ocean can be observed in the 2013 Defence White Paper, which is considered the country’s first official document to cite “Indo-Pacific.” Similarly both Japan and Australia have essentially made efforts to not only cooperate with US alone, but attach a similar importance to India as well, given its vast economy, its steady development, growing proximity with the US, location of the nation, political dimensions and already thriving bilateral and multilateral ties with both the nations.
India’s perception of Indo Pacific.

In the backdrop of the several perspectives held by the various partner nations with regard to India, with countries like the US, Australia, Japan and Indonesia perceiving Indo-Pacific as Asia Pacific plus India, trying to embed India into the strategic dynamic of Asia Pacific, hence wanting India’s presence in the South China Sea, East China Sea, basically to counter China, India stands different .It seeks to cooperate for an architecture for peace and security in the region, ‘An Arch of Freedom’, as Japan terms it. But does it’s actions reflect the same?

Given China’s growing proximity with Pakistan, the continuous violations of the global norms and the upsurge in border tensions to India’s recent exit from RCEP in November 2019, India’s policy has majorly been two folded i.e. Hedging and Balancing. Given the long-standing mistrust between India and China, a strategic logic is not far below the surface. For example, the 2007 India’s Maritime Military Strategy defines the South China Sea as a maritime area of interest for India (Scott 2013). Since the 1990s, India has expanded its joint naval exercises with all South-East Asian countries and extended its military presence in the western Pacific through multilateral exercises with the US, Japanese, Australian and Singaporean navies, Quad is again a very visible projection of the same. Although not explicitly mentioning its strategy, analyzing India’s actions and keeping in mind the recent advancements, it’s pretty visible that India’s indo-pacific strategy is not very inclusive of China.

The way ahead
Although, but naturally, China keeps vary of all the developments in the Indo – Pacific, it still continues to play its cards in its own way in assessing the international environment by signing numerous FTAs with the ASEAN and other small nations, joining the multilateral organizations, through its soft power diplomacy and increasing its market dominance and investments. China has undoubtedly emerged as an indispensable force in the global order. Yet considering the turmoil around the Strait of Malacca, increasing counteractions by its neighbors and the growing insecurity in the region, it cannot afford the exclusiveness in the region. Similarly excluding China from the regional order is no way the solution for the looming instability in the region. Indo Pacific is a discourse in action. Both the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of nations, the growing anxiety, mistrust and other dilemmas are subjected to the social actions and constructions created by the stakeholders. But for the time being, the current position and conceptions of the nations in the region is not at all even close to the nomenclature it was supposedly endowed with, i.e. a ‘Free, Open and an inclusive Indo-Pacific.’ But then again, as Shakespeare quotes, “What’s in a name?”

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