India needs to give shape to SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) for the Indian Ocean Region

The term “Indo-Pacific” has been in vogue for some time now. The term was mentioned occasionally a decade ago until the verdict of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Scarborough Shoal was thrown out by the People’s Republic of China. The incident was preceded by China’s aggressive reclamation of land to change the shape of things in the South China Sea. Worse, PRC claimed over 80% of the South China Sea as its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on the basis of its self created history of the nine-dash-line. It expected ships to log their movements through this area. PRC also declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the airspace above South China Sea and expected all aircraft flying through the area to take clearance or else get intercepted by its fighters and face harassment.

The world woke up to this and resisted such moves. Now the question is, will the PRC disregard the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in future as well in parts of the world where it has interjected its economic influence in countries that need resources for development and prosperity? China is everywhere, after all.

The term “Indo-Pacific” has gained traction since then. Commonly, Indo-Pacific is seen as a maritime entity since it is about the confluence of two oceans—Indian and Pacific. Geographically, the area extends from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of the United States, effectively what was under the watch of the then Pacific Command of the US and which now has been renamed as the Indo-Pacific Command. If geographical expanse be the defining factor, then the littorals of Indo-Pacific are inclusive. But the problem of including China divides opinions on the Indo-Pacific amongst its stakeholders. ASEAN has not embraced the term and addresses the area as Asia-Pacific as it has done since World War II. ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific has often been spoken about on various forums. Also, ASEAN, given its proximity to and economic dependence on China, does not wish to annoy China by calling the area Indo-Pacific.

During the presidency of Barack Obama, a re-balancing of American forces was announced, wherein 60% of US assets were to be deployed in the Indo-Pacific to tame the assertive posture of China in the South China Sea. However, with the change of guard at the White House, the appreciation seems to have undergone some changes. Though its pivot remains Asia, the US has begun to withdraw from multilateral fora and look inwards; although there is no let up on its overall security posture. President Donald Trump expects US allies and strategic partners to contribute to the larger share of the security burden. The US under him wants to increase the capability of its partners and allies, the larger agenda being business for US’ weapons industry. It’s also aimed at US’ partners to become a part of its security network to resist China’s assertive behaviour. In that sense, the Quad and JAI (Japan, America, India) should be seen as two subsets of the larger Indo-Pacific construct.

The Quad comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia is in its infancy, but if examined microscopically it reflects the threads of three regional or middle powers, all democracies, in three distinct geographies within the larger Indo-Pacific. If one has to put substance to the definition it would point at Indian leadership in the Indian Ocean Region, the Japanese leadership along with Indonesia, Philippines and possibly Vietnam in the South China Sea/East Sea and lastly Australia with New Zealand in the Pacific. These three are subsets of the Indo-Pacific and are backed by the US’ interoperable network.

The JAI model has been articulated by the three heads of government in two successive G20 summits. This combination has the economic and military might to ensure freedom of navigation, adherence to international laws and rule based order in the Indo-Pacific. With the possibility of France’s inclusion in this group, JAI could become another Quad. Contrarily, India’s stand is that in a rules-based order of the Indo-Pacific, there should be no exclusions. Theoretically, China could participate in this if it abides by the UNCLOS. But in a sense, that would marginalise China’s claims on the South China Sea, which is why there seems to be a pause.

Similarly, Quad appears to be four important pillars of resident powers in the Indo-Pacific. However, by that argument France, Indonesia and Vietnam could make a Septa of Quad, subsequently. These three nations are significant economic and military powers with the desire to resist China’s assertion. Therefore, this could form the framework for any future security architecture.

Amid all this, what is in India’s interest? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has very clearly spoken of SAGAR, i.e., Security And Growth for All in the Region. India’s economic prosperity and security is dependent on the entire region. With SAARC not having yielded results because of Pakistan’s objections, the Indian government has rejuvenated BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) in the last five years. Connectivity has been the theme for India’s Act East Policy. India’s share in trade with South East Asia has been minuscule, given her overall standing in the world. Also, India’s Northeast requires greater participation in the Modi government’s overall scheme of development. It is in this context that BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) and BIMSTEC+2 become very relevant. Therefore, while the larger canvas of Indo-Pacific calls for partnership in the security architecture, India’s own very immediate economic development is linked more to littorals in the Indian Ocean Region. Its connectivity (road, rail, sea, air, digital, etc.,) with the region is intrinsic to both economy and security.

To a maritime observer, Indo-Pacific does not seem to address the security concerns of India in the western Indian Ocean. The majority of the world’s trouble spots reside in this zone, which is also the energy lifeline of the developing countries. In a broader sense of the definition, Af-Pak, Iran-Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia and the Gulf do not seem to be networked with the Indo-Pacific framework. It is probably more to the eastern and southern Indian Ocean. The US Central Command has little indulgence, though it does address the Gulf and Arabian Sea in the US security matrix. But for India, SAGAR probably encompasses this entire region in which India’s leadership is well accepted. It is probably time for India, where people have demonstrated overwhelming support for PM Modi in the recent elections, to de-conflict the overarching concept of Indo-Pacific and shape SAGAR for the Indian Ocean Region. Economy and security go hand in hand. With the backing of the US and France at a 2+2 level cooperation and agreements like LEMOA and COMCASA or their equivalents, India has both necessity and capability to carve out a SAGAR in the Indian Ocean Region in the overarching concept of the Indo-Pacific.