Confluence of the Two Seas – An excerpt pulled out from the 16th century Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh’s explanation of the vast body of water that connects the diverse continents, has come to define the contemporary geopolitical aspirations of great powers. The concepts of Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific have gained prevalence within the policy frameworks of great powers over the years. As a result, the United States and China have set their own strategies and countermeasures against each other in their bid to gain global supremacy. The great power politics has presented both concerns and opportunities for regions and countries that fall under the aspirations of such powerful states and their allies.
Karl Haushofer, a German geographer, is touted as one of the first theorists who introduced the term in strategic studies by defining the Indopazifischer Raum, i.e. the Indo-Pacific space. Haushofer, who had spent a considerable time in Japan during his military career as a part of a German mission, had emphasized[i] “the geographic impact of the dense Indo-Pacific concentration of humanity and cultural empire of India and China, which (…) are geographically sheltered behind the protective veil of the offshore island arcs”. His explanation that furthered the theoretical pursuits of geopolitics was based on his belief that these states were beginning to create a greater space of influence in world politics and would serve German interests well to align with them.
Addressing the Indian Parliament in August 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underlined a vision to be built by the “two democracies” that envisaged furthering the liberal thesis of an interdependent economy advanced by shared values of the free oceans. Efforts to connect the Pacific and the Indian Oceans have solicited great policy deliberations in addition to being scrutinized. The Quadrilateral Alliance or Quad, which includes Australia, India, Japan and United States, is perceived by China as a bid to contain its aspirations in the South China Sea.
The concept the Indo-Pacific developed into a policy outlook for the first time in the defense White Paper issued by the US citing China’s advancements in the region as a necessity to develop an Indo-Pacific discourse. This gained momentum in global discussions when the US released its National Security Strategy in 2017 and the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) in 2019. The latter highlighted the Trump administration’s prioritization of the Indo-Pacific region. The conceptualization of IPS might have been necessitated due to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in addition to Beijing’s increase in economic influence around the world in recent years.
Evolving rhetoric: An effort to balance
The idea of the Indo-Pacific has been a focal concern for several policy researchers. It comes following the Asia-Pacific terminology promoted by the Obama administration and the Look East/Act East policy that surged in India, gaining momentum post the rise of the East Asian Tigers. In the midst of the surmounting literary works surrounding the debate of the emerging trends in the region, [ii]Dr. Lawrence D. Prabhakar observed the seven “frameworks” within which the Indo-Pacific has been realized: i) constructivism, ii) a shift in power relations, iii) a balance of power strategy, iv) the independent regional choices of the great powers, v) the alliance of democratic states and principles, vi) regionalism, and vi) the idea of commons. The documents released by the U.S. can be construed to be an effort to balance a potential threat it perceives as its immediate economic and military rival.
In the 2019 Strategy Report, the U.S. has envisioned a strategic partnership with India to counterbalance China’s reach in the surrounding region. India, for a long time, had built its own Indo-Pacific strategy differently as it had been adopting the strategy of balance of interests. With China’s increasing advancements in the Indian Ocean, India has strengthened its involvement within the Quad through several bilateral defense partnerships with its members. It has also declined to be a part of the China-led BRI.
India’s outlook towards the Indo-pacific was highlighted when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi coined the term SAGAR at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018. It stood for Security and Growth for All in the Region, emphasizing India’s broadening relations with Southeast Asia and claiming that its “interests in the region are vast” and the “engagement is deep”. Echoing the rest of the members’ viewpoint, India has now outlined its own strategy in the Indo-Pacific keeping the Southeast Asian at the center and also focusing on the need for an inclusive and rule-based space.
China’s maritime outlook and its political and economic interests in the Indo-Pacific region frame a crucial point of analysis for scholars who argue that the strategy adopted by some states is an inclination towards maintaining a strict balance of power. China’s rise has prompted several states to believe that a check is needed, amongst which the Quad remains as the major proponent of such a view.
South Asian perspective
To come to a regional perspective of the South Asian space in the debate, it is necessary to observe not only the policy development and outreach done by several states, but to look through the layers of the theoretical underpinnings that have built the strategic thought.
The region consists of its biggest maritime and a pre-eminent power in India. While Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have access to sea, the landlocked states of Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal stand at a peculiar junction of having to ascertain their own roles amidst the growing maritime security concerns. The small states of the region have often found it difficult to maintain their autonomous and unified capabilities as member-states of the region to address the power associations concerning powers not only in their vicinity but beyond as well. While the US Strategy Report finds a spot for every South Asian state within the prospects of its security or defense collaboration, India remains at the core of it.
For states in South Asia, a rarely explored dimension of the current geopolitical developments can be witnessed. These small states face several trends of asymmetries in their relative capabilities with bigger powers in their neighborhood. Prominent issues of concern are periodic clashes between nuclear powers India and Pakistan, a weakening regional association and an uncanny situation of normalcy cum rivalry between India and China. [iii]A deep cultural history binds these states, but the region seems to be divided due to the lack of a regional construct in a stable organization module. For Nepal, as an example in this situation, its role has subsisted at a scale of asymmetric economic dependence on India and is now exploring the avenues for deeper cooperation with China.
The power dynamics are changing, with a consensus on the fact that Asia is not only emerging as a promising market for many, but also as a hot spot for security concerns. Tucked between these aspects of great power relations, South Asia falls under the seemingly varied geopolitical aspirations of its pre-eminent power – India that is pitted against a titan – China, which has set out on its goal to define the Asian century. The transition from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific does not just entail a wider maritime security reach – it defines the change of interests within power relations in the twenty-first century. It changes the way people think, and the way states behave, determining the future that this idea could create.
[i]Haushofer, Ernst. An English Translation and Analysis of Major Karl Ernst Haushofer’s Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean. Translated by Lewis Tambs and Ernst Brehm. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.
[ii] Prabhakar, Lawrence D. “The Emergent Vistas of the Indo-Pacific.” In Indo Pacific Region: Political and Strategic Prospects, by Vijay Sakhuja Rajiv K Bhatia, 5-16. New Delhi: Vij Books India Pvt Ltd, 2014.
[iii]Cohen, Saul Bernard. Geopolitics: The Geography of International Relations . 3rd Edition. Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.