The Indo-Pacific region encompasses large oceanic and territorial areas between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, bordered by Japan, India and Australia. The geopolitical significance of the region has grown as a result of the major powers’ extensive reliance on sea routes for the transportation of energy resources and commercial goods. For instance, the South China Sea has not only emerged as one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways but has become one of the most controversial geopolitical hotspots, pitting Chinese territorial claims against the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s emphasis on a rules-based order.
Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy was initiated by then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson in late 2017, pushing New Delhi into a prominent role in the Indo-Pacific. The vision of freedom of navigation in Pacific waters was promoted to challenge Chinese assertion of sovereignty in the South China Sea. An alternative development model in the Southeast Asian region with resources to feed it was seen as necessary to roll back the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
While the countries of the Indo-Pacific region viewed the American security umbrella with suspicion as its resources and commitments to the region kept fluctuating post-9/11, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted to allay these concerns by announcing a $113 million investment in new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives in July last year. This was followed by a pledge to provide $300 million in new security funding for the region in August.
US Vice President Mike Pence made a tour of Asia in November last year that included representing Washington at the US-ASEAN Summit and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (president Barack Obama skipped the meetings in 2013) as well as visits to Australia, Japan, Papua New Guinea and Singapore to promote the American vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region. However, his visit was viewed with suspicion in Beijing and prompted China to warn external powers to refrain from disrupting its plans to draft a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
On December 31 last year, President Donald Trump signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) authorizing the allocation of $1.5 billion for developing “a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled United States policy for the Indo-Pacific region, and for other purposes” indicating a shifting of US focus to the Indo-Pacific region, which appeared more evident in the administration’s reluctance to stay militarily entangled and squander resources in Syria and Afghanistan.
On the other side, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the Indian Ocean New Delhi’s strategic priority soon after assuming office, and then visited Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, as well as several East African nations along the Indian Ocean littoral. He invited Seychelles and Mauritius to join the existing maritime security cooperation arrangement between India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka in 2015 and emphasized “a future for Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region.”
India, in its efforts to enhance its Pacific role, and Japan, aiming to broaden its role in the Indian Ocean, concluded a summit meeting paving the way for a military logistics pact that would give each country’s armed forces access to the other’s bases. The leaders of both countries agreed to strengthen naval and maritime-security cooperation and collaborate on projects in third countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Besides, both countries made efforts to accentuate their respective positions by seeking more engagements with Southeast Asian countries.
India articulated its Look East policy to foster close ties in the region while Japan provided development assistance for infrastructure and human resources across the region and encouraged Japanese firms to channel foreign direct investment towards ASEAN. Notwithstanding its focus on a free and open Indo-Pacific, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies were viewed more as Japan’s proactive strategy to roll back Chinese influence.
For instance, Abe’s plans to expand investments in the Pacific islands were reportedly meant to enhance Japan’s influence vis-à-vis China where Xi Jinping’s administration spent billions in aid. The number of bilateral maritime exercises has increased among the Quad members and there has also been multilateral maritime cooperation. For instance, India, Japan and the US are conducting “Malabar” naval exercises to defend freedom of navigation and over-flight in the Indo-Pacific region where two-thirds of global trade traverses.
Quad members and China will remain embroiled in the Indo-Pacific for various reasons. First, while it would be a difficult task to roll back the BRI, which has already penetrated deep into the economies of many countries abutting the region irreversibly in the shape of loans, goods and workforce, there will be an invigoration of efforts by Quad members to challenge it and roll it back. Projects under the BRI are being reshaped and reoriented to the needs of the local economy by China to sustain them.
Second, there will be attempts by Quad members to bring the Southeast Asian region into their sphere of influence. Indonesia, the most prominent power of the region pursues the idea of unity of the region and observance of the principle of neutrality. Australian Strategic Policy Institute observed in the context of the region’s foreign policy posture that despite a sharing of concerns between the Southeast Asian nations and the US and Japan about Beijing’s role, “ASEAN has always been inclusive [and] uncomfortable with security alliances.”
Third, there will be efforts by other Quad members to force a change in New Delhi’s balancing position based on a multi-alignment policy and the viewpoint that its Indo-Pacific strategy is open to engagement with countries outside the Quad. India will also try to enhance its position by entering deeper into the strategic ambit of members as it did by signing Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018 with the US to avert a Chinese threat even while it would not like to estrange the powerful neighbor with which it not only shares border but growing trade relations. This would, however, give rise to more misperceptions, speculation and vacillating power configurations in the Indo-Pacific region.
Fourth, the European Union (EU) is likely to be a new strategic player in the region. The EU’s aspiration for strategic autonomy has become evident in French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for instituting a “real European army” (independent of NATO) last November, which was propelled by American unilateral disengagement from the Iran deal and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF). The EU’s recent “Strategy on Connecting Asia and Europe” has been anchored to foster a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Notwithstanding sharing a common vision, the roles of the Quad members and those of the EU may be at odds based on their strategic objectives.
Fifth, Japan’s frosty relationship with Korea, including the democratic government of South Korea, which is related to issues dating back to World War II (Korean women were coerced into providing sexual services to Japanese troops) will provide a level playing field to China and invigorate the competition in the Indo-Pacific.
Sixth, China will have to invigorate its role further not only to preserve the BRI but to maintain its strategic interests and security as well.