To a question from this newspaper, the US Defense Secretary said, ‘We need to recognise the growing significance of the Indian Ocean, the Indian subcontinent and India itself’.

 

A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where he essentially spelled out India’s vision of the rapidly changing Indo-Pacific region, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who was one of the speakers at the same conference, spoke assertively on China’s growing influence in the region and on why US Pacific Command needed to change its name to Indo-US Pacific Command. On Saturday, while answering a question by The Sunday Guardian on the significance of the name-change, the US Defense Secretary replied, “We won’t change the name of the Command if it won’t reflect what actually its focus is. We are looking right now at the role of the Indian Ocean, with the largest democracy in the world coming into its own with economic progress—that’s India. We need to recognise the growing significance of the Indian Ocean, the Indian subcontinent and India itself. So, I wanted to make certain that the title reflected the reality. There is a change in reality, the world is changing.”

Mattis went one step further by saying, “Underneath that there are things going on. We are dealing with a priority theatre. We have replaced first generation fighters with fifth generation fighters. We have added capable fleets of ships in the last two years. We continue to address this theatre as a priority and it’s properly defined now as Indo-Pacific Command.”

A day before, on Friday, Prime Minister Modi, while delivering his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual event that discusses global security and defence, and is organised by the 60-year-old think-tank International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) at the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore, had said, “The Indo-Pacific is a natural region. It is also home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges. I am increasingly convinced with each passing day that the destinies of those of us who live in the region are linked. Today, we are being called to rise above divisions and competition to work together.”

Modi’s speech in the region came after his visit to two important ASEAN member countries, Indonesia and Malaysia. Just before Modi’s visit started on 31 May, Mattis had announced in Hawaii, “Relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability. In recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, today we rename the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command.”

While talking to The Sunday Guardian, former Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar said, “The theme of the conference was Indo-Pacific. PM Modi spoke of rule based order, ASEAN centrality, inclusiveness and territorial integrity. He gave a strong message to ASEAN countries. It was reassuring. The world is changing. Under Donald Trump America is changing the rules of its global approach. So, it’s obvious India is thinking how to position itself in the best way.”

Jaishankar, who till recently was a part of PM Modi’s core group, added, “India’s relationship with America is steadily improving. India’s relationship with China is complicated but a positive message came out after the Wuhan meeting (between Modi and Xi Jinping). After Sochi (where Modi and Vladimir Putin met), relations with Russia emerged stronger. Modi’s visit to Indonesia, meeting Mahathir Mohammed so early in Malaysia and IISS speech are widely appreciated in this part of the world. I think, Modi has pressed all the right buttons.”

In Singapore, in the audience addressed by the Indian Prime Minister were more than 550 scholars and leaders from 44 countries who were well aware that the American move to change the name of its military command was largely symbolic, aimed at reflecting its new national priorities.

However, when asked to react, China preferred to wait. Senior Colonel Zhou Bo of Ministry of National Defence, who was present at the event, was cautious while participating in the debate here.

Aware of the sensitivity of the name-change, and the sub-text that goes behind that change, PM Modi took care of the nuances involved in the changing policies of the stakeholders in the region to suggest that the new name or shaping was not directed at any country. He said in his speech, “The ten countries of South East Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilisational sense. Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific. India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific Region is, therefore, a positive one. And, it has many elements.”

Dr C. Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore said that the American move was not aimed at China and should not cause any concern. He told The Sunday Guardian, “The new reality is that China has risen, its footprint in the region is growing. Its maritime capacity is expanding in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, India’s influence in the Pacific region is going to grow. Historically, the US has been the dominant power in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The US is responding to a new geography that’s emerging, marked by the rise of China and India. It’s a complete misreading to say that this is against China. The Chinese will be coming to the Indian Ocean. Neither India nor America is denying that. The question is what kind of framework we should create in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Jaishankar said, “The Indo-Pacific is largely a maritime concept. Three years ago, Modi laid out the concept of SAGAR, after it this is the most substantive speech on issue. Maritime domain matters to India. He said India as a country is defined as ‘north of the Oceans’. Modi is saying there is connect between Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean and India’s interest goes beyond Indian Ocean. He talked of maritime influence in a larger scope than before.”

The hotel, after which Shangri-La Dialogue is named, is on the short-list of venues that may host the likely meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Kim Jong-Un on 12 June.

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