In a pivotal move projecting a new set of national interests, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, barely a day before the Shangri La Dialogue began, announced that the US Pacific Command will now be called the US Indo-Pacific Command. The name change, seen by observers as a tactical move against Chinese military and economic hegemony in the region, is just symbolic for now, as it won’t immediately result in any major alterations to the command’s maritime boundaries or assets in the huge area spanning from East Africa to America’s Pacific coast.
The move by the US highlights the increasing significance of India in Washington’s strategic thinking and also marks India’s re-entry to the American government’s “Asia Nexus.” While the Obama administration was much more hesitant to replace “Asia-Pacific” with Indo-Pacific terminology, the Trump government has used the term not only in official documents but also at multilateral meetings.
It is worth noting that the announcement came just a week before the much-anticipated and strategically significant Malabar 2018 naval exercise, an annual trilateral event involving the US, Japan, and India. This year it’s being held in Guam, and it comes at a time of territorial disputes between China and littoral states in the resource-rich South China Sea region. China has been aggressively expanding its military bases on disputed islands to strengthen its territorial claims.
Why and how did the term “Indo-Pacific” recently gain prominence? The spirit of the term was first captured during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s speech to the Indian Parliament in August 2007. He talked about the “confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” as “the dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” in “broader Asia.” The first official use of the term appeared in Australia’s Defence White Paper.
At the recent Shangri La Dialogue, Modi called the Indo-Pacific “a natural region” that stretches from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of America
The turning point was a joint statement issued by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump after the former’s state visit to the White House on June 26, 2017. As stewards in the Indo-Pacific region, Trump and Modi agreed that a close partnership between the United States and India was central to peace and stability.
At the recent Shangri La Dialogue, Modi called the Indo-Pacific “a natural region” that stretches from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of America. He called the building of a “stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region” an “important pillar” of India’s partnership with the United States. At the same time, Modi emphasized that India’s conception of “Indo-Pacific” is not directed against any other nation (read China, which has expressed reservations about the concept). Modi also rejected the conflation of the Indo-Pacific idea with that of the “Quad” – the forum for consultation between India, US, Japan and Australia.
The use of the term “Indo-Pacific” anchors the historic and contemporary reality that South Asia, specifically India, has a major role in shaping present and future discourses, and also providing security in the region. This infuriates China, as it sees itself as a future hegemon, both regionally and globally.
In 2016, the US and India signed a Logistics Exchange Agreement that reinforced their bilateral security ties and makes it easy for the two countries to conduct joint military operations in the Indo-Pacific region. Without a doubt, the agreement was aimed at countering the escalating maritime assertiveness of China in the region. America continues to contribute to Indo-Pacific stability, revitalizing the free and open rules-based international order.
In the same year, the United States designated India a “major defense partner” with the goal of strengthening military cooperation, increasing information-sharing and cutting red tape to facilitate defense deals. It has emerged as India’s No 2 weapons supplier, closing $15 billion worth of deals over the last decade. America now aims to topple Russia as the largest weapons supplier to India, whose trade volume has sharply declined over the last decade.
The renaming will ultimately continue to be a symbolic act and will have little real impact until US-India defense cooperation escalates to the level of ministerial discussions and there is greater cooperation between the various military commands of both countries. A lot is expected from the upcoming first two-plus-two ministerial dialogue between India and the US scheduled for the first week of July.
The Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical construct is here to stay. Renaming the command is tactically significant, as it indicates that the US accepts that the Indian Ocean and Pacific region is becoming a single competitive arena. It is evident that the stage is being set for a great maritime game in the Indo-Pacific.
While India’s commitment to playing the game is praiseworthy, there are high-priority organizational and functional impediments that it will have to overcome. Otherwise, Modi’s “Act East” commitment will merely be a gimmick.