Indo-Pacific Strategy is the outcome of the shift of power from the West to the East.
Chinese academics, like others, have attributed the coinage of the “Indo-Pacific” construct to Gurpreet S. Khurana, who first explained it as a concept in an academic paper titled “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation” published in the Strategic Analysis in January 2007. The construct referred to a maritime space stretching from the littorals of East Africa and West Asia, across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean, to the littorals of East Asia. The term didn’t find much currency in the Chinese discourse—even if it was referred to by the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe during his speech to Indian parliamentarians in August 2007—for they believed that India was out of the Asia-Pacific construct and since when it became a Pacific or an Indo-Pacific country? Irrespective of Chinese reservations, the construct has been readily accepted by the Indian strategic community and the national leadership alike.
China started to feel discomfort as the construct started to appear in the official discourses of governments. It appeared in “Defending Australia and its National Interests”, a defence white paper issued by the Australian government on 13 May 2013, where the term was referred to as many as 56 times. The paper referred to it as a new “strategic arc” and “system” in which the US ally, Japan will remain a “major power”, with India playing an “increasingly influential role”. In June 2013, the idea of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor was conceptualised during the US-India Strategic Dialogue of 2013 in New Delhi. The joint statement that was issued at the end of the dialogue reaffirmed India and the United States’ shared vision for peace and stability in Asia and in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Both “reaffirmed the importance of maritime security, unimpeded commerce and freedom of navigation, and the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in accordance with international law”. In the joint statement issued during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit in June 2017, India and the US pledged to promote stability across the Indo-Pacific region, increasing free and fair trade, and strengthening energy linkages. Similar statements emanated from the first and the second quadrilateral talks between Japan, India, the US and Australia in 2017 and 2018, however, the construct of Indo-Pacific must not be confused with the formation of the “Quad”. More recently, during the Indo-Pacific Business Forum held in Washington, Donald Trump’s administration announced $113.5 million in immediate funding to seed new strategic initiatives in areas such as enhancing US private investment, improving digital connectivity and cybersecurity, promoting sustainable infrastructure development, and strengthening energy security and access.
References to “free and open Indo-Pacific” have often been interpreted as countering China’s assertiveness in the South-China Sea and the Indian Ocean Region with willing and able US allies in the region. Since the US has deemed China as a “coercive”, “revisionist” power following “predatory” economic policies, and with India being projected as a “lynchpin” in the US strategy, China has denounced the Indo-Pacific Strategy as a containment theory aimed at diminishing China’s geopolitical and economic influence. Undoubtedly, the Indo-Pacific Strategy is the outcome of the balance of power shifting from the West to the East. It has been estimated that by 2050 the region will account for over 80% of the global GDP.
Earlier in May, when the US renamed its Pacific Command (PACOM) as US Indo-Pacific Command (USIPC), China reacted strongly in an editorial published by the Chinese edition of the Global Times, saying that the “two long-term goals of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy is the mutual strategic depletion of China and India”. It compared the strategy to “a big pit”, which it said, would bury the rise of both China and India. Chinese scholars such as Yang Rui and Wang Shida from the Communication University of China and China Institute of Contemporary International Relations posit that India will continue to readjust its policies to best serve the Indo-Pacific Strategy, so as to realise the “dream of becoming a great power”, meanwhile, counter China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and “balance China’s rise” by joining the US and other countries. Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of International Relations says that the main purpose of US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy is to establish an Indo-Pacific geopolitical order that targets China on the one hand, and formulates a trade rule, centred on the US on the other.
As regards the US injecting $113.5 million in the region, Chinese academics see the security in command shifting to economy in command in the Indo-Pacific, but are still sceptical of the US and its allies committing investment in the region. Ma Xiaolin, a professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, has snubbed it as the “economic edition” of the Indo-Pacific Strategy working in tandem with its “military edition” in the region, the main motive of which remains to counter China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. Prof Ma has pronounced it as the “barking dogs seldom bite” phenomenon. According to him, since the Indo-Pacific region overlaps with China’s “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, Southeast and South Asian countries eagerly want to board the “Belt and Road” ship and improve their lot. China’s strong economic ties with the ASEAN, irrespective of its disputes with various member states in the South China Sea, will make it difficult for the Southeast Asian and smaller South Asian countries to forgo their interests, believe Chinese scholars.
As far as India is concerned, they still question India’s relevance in the Indo-Pacific strategy. In the words of Zhang Feng, an adjunct professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, India, undoubtedly is an Indian Ocean country. When did it become a “Pacific country” or an “Indo-Pacific country”? According to him, India’s primary concerns are in the Indian Ocean, therefore, its strategy is the “Indian Ocean Strategy” and not the “Indo-Pacific Strategy”; and it is merely because of the confluence of its “Act East Policy” and Southeast Asia that it has endorsed the Indo-Pacific Strategy. He argues that the bottlenecks in India’s strategic capability have limited India’s investment in the South China Sea and Pacific region. He believes that India rejoining the Quad was the outcome of its malevolent relations with China before and during the Doklam confrontation. Post the Doklam truce, especially after the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping unofficial summit in Wuhan, China appears to be very positive about what Prime Minister Modi spoke at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore.
Was it a rebalancing of India-China relations at the unofficial summit or was India being sensitive towards Chinese sensitivities? Or was it about the differing perceptions on Indo-Pacific and India’s own vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), which made Prime Minister Modi make it clear during his speech at the Shangri-la Dialogue that “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”? India’s vision for Indo-Pacific, according to the Chinese, is a positive one. And, why not when the “six elements” such as openness, inclusivity, common prosperity and security, globalisation and connectivity, except “freedom of navigation”, largely conform to the Chinese notion of the “new type of international relations” and “community of shared future” paradigm? Indo-Pacific Strategy is certainly not limited to the Quad, as it has already incorporated Mongolia and Indonesia in it, with many more likely to join. The security and economic engagement of the US and its partners in the Indo-Pacific will continue to make China nervous, however, integrating security, economic, and development investments still may be a difficult task.