The alternative vision of a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific Cooperation Organization (IPCO) is in sharp contrast to Xi Jinping’s China’s dream of ‘the 21st Century as an Asian Century’, which is essentially a communist euphemism for the Chinese Century.
The term Indo-Pacific is in vogue in geo-political discussions these days. The strategic concept of Indo-Pacific is not new and has been used widely in Weimar Germany in the beginning of the 20th century. In a series of books that he had written, German geopolitics expert, Karl Haushofer popularized the concept of Indo-Pacific in the 1920s. He envisioned an “Indo-Pacific” comprising anticolonial (read anti-British) forces in India and China, as Germany’s ally against the maritime domination of the Great Britain, United States, and Western Europe. During the colonial and the post-World War II times, a smaller part of the Indo-Pacific region was referred to as the “Indo-China” that currently corresponds to the South-East Asian region only. The concept of the Indo-Pacific was resurrected in the 21st century by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while addressing a joint session of Indian Parliament in 2007 when he referred to the confluence of two great oceans, Indian and Pacific as an arc of peace and prosperity and a diamond of democracy while introducing the quadrilateral security dialogue. Shinzo Abe visualized “the dynamic coupling as the seas of freedom and of prosperity” in the “broader Asia”. Since 2010 onwards the term Indo-Pacific has become an essential part of the geo-political lexicon, deeply loved and admired by the West and India, and riled, shunned and demonized by the communist China.
The Indo-Pacific region encompasses a vast stretch of landmass, two oceans, numerous smaller seas, islands, island chains and a thriving humanity that is more focused on raising their standards of living, human advancement, infrastructure development and economic growth. The recent incidents and militarization in the South China Sea, the Sea of Japan, the Philippines Sea and the Taiwan Straits have disturbed the traditional peace and tranquility in the Indo-Pacific region. The region as a whole and some countries in particular have rapidly industrialized while remaining peaceful. In this entire region, one country, i.e., Peoples’ Republic of China, has tried gradually and incrementally to become the rising hegemon with explicit expansionist claims on various island chains and natural resources in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of smaller countries. The façade of the peaceful and harmonious rise of China is over and has given rise to the “wolf warrior” diplomacy under the Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping, executed ably by his foreign policy underlings Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi. PRC has defied the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague on violating the sovereignty of the Philippines on the issue of Scarborough Shoals. China has violated the principles of the UNCLOS, which it is a signatory to. China habitually refuses to engage with multi-lateral organizations and tends to coerce smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific region in a bilateral framework. It uses unethical and coercive tactics including military threats, bribes, predatory lending and debt-trap diplomacy. China has acquired the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka along with surrounding land on a 99 years’ lease in lieu of unpaid debts for developing the economically unviable port project. China has issued special Chinese passports for these territories analogous to the British imperial practices in Hong Kong. An aggressive China is trying to control the UN and the Bretton Wood institutions while floating alternatives like AIIB (Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank).
Currently, there is a multiplicity of organizations that are prominent in the Indo-Pacific region’s geo-political architecture. We will acknowledge here the now-defunct, the existing and newly proposed and evolving institutions in the Indo-Pacific region so as to advance our thesis of a rising and shining Indo-Pacific community. Some of these organization include SEATO or the Manila Pact, APEC, ASEAN, ARF, IORA, TPP and the CPTPP, RCEP, Quad and PIF. SEATO was a dismal failure from geo-political perspective. Despite India’s persistent interest to join as a participating economy in the APEC process, the organization has not allowed India’s membership because of objections from multiple member economies including the US. Paralyzed by its charter’s dogmatic beliefs, ASEAN has been ineffective in tackling serious issues that threaten the region including Chinese claims on various islands and EEZ of member states. ASEAN in its current form is a dismal strategic failure and is more akin to a singing and dancing club devoid of any gravitas. ASEAN is wallowing in strategic inertia and cannot be expected to take security or strategic role in the Indo-Pacific, though it jealously guards the centrality of its existence and decision-making role in the region. India became a member and dialogue partner of the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) in 1996. India’s participation in the ARF demonstrates India’s increasing engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, both in the politico-security and economic spheres and underlines our commitment to the objective of sustaining regional peace and stability. The ARF is predicated on the centrality of the ASEAN as the major decision organization in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the ARF is only a consultative mechanism and does not act as a security provider in the region. India is an active member and partner of the IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) and its various mechanisms and projects. IORA has initiated a number of developmental and infrastructure projects in the rim countries. It will be in India’s long-term interests to consider joining the CPTPP after suitable changes, as both the US and the China are not part of the CPTPP. However, India’s focus on inclusion of services sector besides trade will remain as a stumbling block for membership in any multi-lateral trade grouping. RCEP agreement as signed on November 2020 has currently 15 member countries including China. India at the last minute refused to join the RCEP because of non-inclusion of services in the agreement and the underlying belief that the free trade agreement will give China right to decimate the Indian markets and manufacturing sectors. What we see now is the Quad version 3.0 becoming active. It will play a more and more significant security and geo-political role in the Indo-Pacific region. India is currently an active but historically somewhat reluctant member of the Quad. India is fallaciously perceived as the weakest link in the Quad by Western strategic experts. Quad’s future success is predicated upon the attitude of the US which will have to accommodate the strategic autonomy of all the Quad members instead of dictating the script as an established hyper-power. The PIF (Pacific Islands Forum) consists of 18 Pacific-island nations and territories including Australia and New Zealand. Its secretariat is located in Suva, the capital of Fiji. Japan has been very supportive of the PIF financially to avoid growing Chinese footprints.
For any strategically stable vision of the Indo-Pacific community, all the above organizations and institutions cannot be excluded from the emerging security dialogue. This proposed alternative vision of a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific community is in sharp contrast to Xi Jinping’s China’s dream of “the 21st Century as an Asian Century”, which is essentially a communist euphemism for the Chinese Century. India now has not only the “Look East” policy, but also an “Act East” policy. In the spirit of “Act East”, India is a strong votary of an open and free Indo-Pacific. India is already a part of the ARF mechanism and the leading spirit behind the IORA. India was never a part of SEATO military alliance. India toyed with the idea of joining RCEP, but refused to do so finally for a number of pragmatic reasons. Earlier this year, India told the UN Security Council that India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific as the free and open Indo-Pacific assumes the centrality of the ASEAN and the common pursuit of prosperity. Out of the three proposed free trade blocs in the Indo-Pacific region, namely, TPP, FTAAP and RCEP, only RCEP has survived but without India’s participation. China gave up its own proposal for the FTAAP in favour of the RCEP which was originally proposed by the ASEAN. TPP has metamorphosed into the CPTPP.
Keeping in view the strategic and expansionist threats from China and its rhetoric on the 21st century as the Chinese aka Asian century, we propose an alternative vision of a prosperous, peaceful Indo-Pacific community that is predicated on the twin pillars of the rules-based order (RBO) and the responsibility to Protect (R2P). We suggest that such a proposed formation of a new larger economic and perhaps a trade grouping in the Indo-Pacific region be formally called the Indo-Pacific Cooperation Organization (IPCO). This proposed umbrella organization will eventually unify all the regional stakeholders, e.g., the APEC, the ASEAN, the IORA and the PIF into a new vibrant, organic and peaceful community in this part of the world. Our proposal does not envisage absorbing the existing organizations or displacing the existing institutions but strengthening them from within while having a larger interactive and dynamic forum. Such a scenario would accommodate the needs of a rising but peaceful and prosperous Asia, align it organically into the wider Indo-Pacific region without coercion, fear, military threats, expansionism or economic exploitation. Primarily conceptualized as an economic community, it will leave the consultative, strategic and security issues to be dealt with by the ARF and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) or its future variants, the Quad Plus mechanisms. We envisage a multi-dimensional (economic, scientific, civil, mercantile, industrial, educational, medical, developmental and security) cooperation among the countries in the larger Indo-Pacific community, leading to an Indo-Pacific Cooperation Organization (IPCO) that will be an over-arching umbrella protecting the small countries, human populations, fostering peace, prosperity, scientific development, human advancement and mutual cooperation while avoiding the hegemony of a rising bully that seeks to destroy the peace and tranquillity while grabbing all the natural resources in the Indo-Pacific region.
Dr A. Adityanjee is President, Council for Strategic Affairs.