Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean: what is the Indo-Pacific?

It begins with a princess and a royal marriage.

Almost 2000 years ago, a young woman named Suriratna, made a journey of thousands of kilometres, over land and sea, passing through the North Indian plains, onwards through eastern India, and from there, across the Bay of Bengal, through the straits of South East Asia, into the Eastern Pacific, to make landfall in the then young kingdom of Korea. Suriratna was a princess of the ancient kingdom of Ayodhya, in northern India, the birthplace of India’s legendary royal lineage of Lord Ramachandra of Ayodhya. The princess of Ayodhya had travelled across the lands and seas to forge a marriage alliance with King Kim-suro, the first monarch of the Karak Dynasty. Princess Suriratna’s name would be recorded in history, as the beloved Queen Hu. With her descendants of the Karak clan, still maintaining their bonds with Ayodhya, their maternal city the Princess-Queen is a historical symbol of the ties of memory that bind people across time and space. In the context of our age, we could call her the historical ambassador of the Indo-Pacific.

A brief history of the Indo-Pacific: the re-making of a region

The term Indo-Pacific has been around in geopolitical discourse for a few years. Alfred T. Mahan mentioned the term in his survey of the importance of sea power in history in the early 20th century. However, in recent years, the term has acquired mimetic properties in terms of international relations and diplomacy in Asia. The term was popularised most ardently as a matter of public discourse by Hillary Clinton, in an essay in Foreign Policy in 2011, as she, identified the region from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas as the key driver of global politics, calling for more engagement with China, and an upgrade of ties with regional powers, to build ‘Indo-Pacific’ alliances. The Secretary of State of the United States of America was only giving a solid, public articulation to President Barack Obama’s proclaimed foreign policy priority of ‘pivoting’ to Asia. The pivot was not merely a policy initiative as much as it was a ‘magnetic’ reaction to shifting power dynamics on the global stage, in terms of world power distribution, Asia, with China as the dynamic centre, was already the new pole in the post-GWOT (Global War on Terror) world.

the return to Asia/the return of Asia after the Global War on Terror

The 21st century had already been proclaimed as the era of the long-cycle swing, or return, of Asia to its historic status as the centre of global wealth generation. Ideas such as the ‘End of History’ proposed by Francis Fukuyama were subjected to misguided ridicule even before they were understood, precisely because of the geopolitical inevitability of Asia’s rise, following its geoeconomic revival – a deterministic certainty in the Paul Kennedy tradition. In the United States, certain sections of the foreign policy elite articulated the need to plan and put into action, a programme for making the 21st century a ‘new American century’, a second recurrence of the post World War global order.

Curiously, some imagined that just as the Pearl Harbour like event ‘forced’ the United States into becoming the leading global power, following its military victories against the Germany/Japan alliance after the Second World War, a similar ‘event’ would allow a similar course of events in the 21st century. September 11 became that event.

What followed, in the GWOT, was, in a sense, a parody of the imagined grand plan of global domination. Al-Qaeda was no USSR. But with the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the spillover into the ‘greater Middle East’ the United States, under the Presidency of Barack Obama, began retreating from its sphere of influence in West Asia and the Middle East. And thus, the pivot to East Asia. And in China, the enticing prospects of a new superpower rival, to kick start the engine of great power rivalry. So necessary, in the scheme of things.

the pivot to Asia; partnerships, alliances and rules of the game

Unlike the GWOT, the idea of the Indo-Pacific was not an American foreign policy invention to begin with. It was a natural reaction to shifts in global geopolitics – at least on the surface. So, it would survive the shift in Presidential regimes.

Even if in terms of policy focus, the shift from Barack Obama to Donald Trump was more slightly more tectonic than than from Bush to Obama there remained continuities between all transitions.

The foundations of the new Asian alliance system had been laid by President Bush in his second term. A key step in this was the nuclear deal with India – the Indo in the Indo-Pacific. As President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India carefully nurtured the US-India relationship back from the brink in aftermath of the United States’s sanctions on India (in reaction to nuclear tests conducted by the previous regime of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee) policy circles began to talk of the ‘natural partnership’ between the two democracies – with emphatic stress on the democratic nature of polities. India, along with the old allies, Japan and Australia, was to be a key building block, of the new Indo-Pacific.

This was the setting up of the new great game of the Indo-Pacific. (The Old Great Game referred to the 19th century contest between Tsarist Russia and British India for control of Eurasia.)

However, whose game was the Indo-Pacific to be? Who was setting up the pieces on the board, with what intention – it remained to be seen.

the Great game of the Indo-Pacific

As mentioned before, the term Indo-Pacific had acquired mimetic properties, shifting from country to country, in active osmosis between policy circles, it became a vague, catch all term for the new era of alliance building in South to Eastern Asia. Writing in The American Interest, Rody Medcalf, proposes the December 14, 2005 East Asia Summit as the founding day of the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific, Medalf, writes should be built on the foundation of institutions surrounding the ASEAN countries, as they bring in other regional powers, especially India and China, into closer cooperation. This vision stands in contrast to the second idea of the Indo-Pacific as a region built around relationships between democracies, beginning with the Quadrilateral proto-alliance between Japan, Australia, the United States, and a reluctant India.

In practical terms, the idea of the Indo-Pacific remains vague. Except for the United States.

where in the world is the Indo-Pacific?

Hillary Clinton’s Indo-Pacific had carefully located. the eastern edge of the Indo-Pacific in the Indian subcontinent, ignoring that the Indian Ocean washes the shores of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This was intentional perhaps so as to not inconvenience the command structures of the United States global military presence. On May 31, 2018, the US Pacific Command was finally renamed the INDOPACOM, according to Defense Secretary James Mattis ‘in recognition of the increasing connectivity of the Indian and Pacific Oceans’, while outgoing commander of the former PACOM (Pacific Command) noted, it meant that ‘great power competition is back’.

For the United States, the Indo-Pacific is a geostrategic arena – in other words, the United States is not just setting up the board but creating it. The formation of the INDOPACOM has forced a rethink of the terms on which the Indo-Pacific is being created, and its imperatives, especially for countries that fall within its reach. In the previous decade, the discourse around the Indo-Pacific had a distinctly different tone. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had called for ‘a stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region’, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Japan to play the role of promoter of rules across two inseparable oceans, while Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa called for a treaty that spanned the region to protect its status as the engine of global growth. The ‘great power rivalry’ dynamic was underplayed even by the United States as John Kerry, the then Defense Secretary, referred to a transforming Burma as the Indo-Pacific’s corridor of growth.

why then is the Indo-Pacific

So, then, why does this region exist? Does it even exist as a truly coherent world region? Our opening story referred to one idea of the Indo-Pacific founded on ancient historical connections between the cultures and people of this wide region. What we framed as the ‘Great Game’ of the Indo-Pacific stands in contrast to the idea of a cultural arena, or a zone for engagement. One thing is for certain, countries in this region, of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, as such, what the Indo-Pacific is or why it even exists is a matter that is still up for debate.