External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stoutly defended the Indo-Pacific concept at the Raisina Dialogue 2021. It was the strongest defence India has ever made, and blunt at that. It gains importance from the fact that this concept has not only been denounced by China, which is not surprising, but by Russia too. That Jaishankar was vigorous in his comments soon after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opposed the concept during his recent visit to India and alluded to it obliquely as “Asian NATO” shows that India is no longer willing to be defensive on the issue.

China could argue that the concept is intended to counter its maritime expansion. Though if China had not made illegal claims in the South China Sea, took control of and militarised reefs in these waters, even creating artificial islands by dredging to extend its military reach in this space, the Indo-Pacific concept in this defensive sense, driven by China’s illegal sovereignty claims and concerns about the massive expansion of its navy, would not have emerged.

Russia’s strong and repeated opposition to the concept, however, does not appear to have any compelling logic, as the concept is not directed at it strategically. Russia is not acting illegally in the western Pacific, it is not challenging Japan in the East China Sea, and nor is it threatening Taiwan. It is not frenetically expanding its navy, nor is its operations in the western Pacific or the Indian Ocean a cause of strategic concern. Russia has no version of China’s maritime silk route; it is not developing ports in key locations in the Indian Ocean to support its maritime expansion with military objectives.

If Russia’s intention is to lend diplomatic support to China and oppose the US plans to curb China’s ambitions, there is little reason, from India’s point of view, to implicitly criticise India’s support for the concept that derives its logic from China’s adversarial policies towards India. New Delhi, in fact, has sought to bring Russia into the fold of the Indo-Pacific through initiatives such as the Vladivostok-Chennai maritime corridor. Besides, India is doing regular maritime exercises with Russia in the Indian Ocean and has done them in the Pacific too. India regards Russia as a legitimate Pacific power. Russia also has close ties with countries like Vietnam which has been subject to Chinese bullying tactics in the South China Sea.

Tracing History

Minister Jaishankar drew a historical perspective to show that links between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific are not new, and that India has been central to them. He said what is obvious but not discussed as part of contemporary strategic view of this geographical space, that the Indo-Pacific concept has deep civilizational roots, considering the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism from India to Southeast Asia, all the way across the Malacca Straits to Vietnam as witnessed by the Champa kingdoms, and beyond to the east coast of China. The expansion of trade between India, the Arab world and Southeast Asia brought Islam to the region, with Gujarati Muslims reputedly playing an important role in this. Jaishankar mentioned the Indo-Arab contacts as part of the seamlessness of the India and the Pacific, pointing out also the historical connections in the reverse between Indonesia and the east coast of Africa. The political, economic and military link between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific continued under British-ruled India, a point that Jaishankar did not need to mention. Indian troops were used by the British in their opium wars with China.

India lost its own agency in developing ties with Southeast Asia during the colonial period, but sought to recover it after Independence, and even before, with the Asian Relations Conference and with Jawaharlal Nehru reaching out to China as well as Indonesia as a founding member, and so on.

The Cold War, dividing the world into two camps, put a strategic distance between India and Southeast and East Asia, which, after its end, was sought to be bridged by our Look East policy under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, evolving later into a more vigorous Act East policy. This policy began with an initial focus on Japan, followed by a steady expansion of India-ASEAN ties. India became a dialogue summit partner of ASEAN, and a participant in many ASEAN-led institutions, including the East Asia summit. The last actually accepts the Indo-Pacific concept at its core, in its own way. The fact that all ASEAN leaders attended the R-Day celebrations in 2018 as chief guests underlines the reality of the Indo-Pacific concept that Jaishankar has spoken of. Divorced from the security dimension, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) too accepts the seamless reality of the Indo-Pacific concept.

Balancing Interests

The Indo-Pacific concept as initially proposed by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with its emphasis on democracies—US, Australia, India and Japan—coming together to meet the Chinese challenge in the East and South China Seas reflects the concerns in the region arising from the threatening rise of China and its aggressive expansionism. The dichotomy at the heart of this concept is that the security threat comes from a country with which the four others have the closest economic links. How then to address security concerns without derailing vital economic ties? The economic cards in China’s hands are formidable, even as China’s military capacities have become a powerful deterrent. Hence, the diplomatic line that the Indo-Pacific concept is not directed at any country, that it is inclusive, that it seeks to promote a rules-based order, and so on. Prime Minister Narendra Modi went as far as stating at the Shangri La dialogue in Singapore in 2018 that the Indo-Pacific concept was not a strategy, implying that it was merely a rules of the road concept in essence that all could join.

It is true that in recent years official and academic discourse has spoken of India’s security perimeter extending from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca, which is effectively the Indian Ocean. India’s resources being limited and its naval capacity not yet sufficient to assume more responsibilities, the focus has been on developing and retaining the capacity to increasingly dominate the northern Indian Ocean. This effectively limited India’s maritime defensive concerns to the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

The rise of China, its maritime ambitions extending to the Indian Ocean, the development of the corridors to the sea through Pakistan and Myanmar, the Chinese naval base in Djibouti and a projected base in Pakistan, the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, Chinese anti-piracy operations being a learning exercise for long operations far away from home bases, and, of course, deteriorating bilateral relations with China, have inevitably led to India accepting the security linkages between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. That the western Pacific is the launching base for Chinese naval expansion in the Indian Ocean is an obvious reality.

A Sense of Self-confidence

Jaishankar’s explanation of the emergence of the modern Indo-Pacific concept as a product of globalisation, multipolarity and the willingness of the US to work with others should be seen in this context. He does not see it as revival of the Cold War, rather a firmer end to it. It is being put in this way as India does not wish to get trapped in the binaries of the erstwhile Cold War. The objective situation vis-à-vis China has no parallel with the US-Soviet Cold War paradigm. India is also wary of a situation that will prevent it from maintaining an independent relationship with Russia, which will become difficult if the old Cold War mentality developed, given that the US treats both China and Russia as adversaries. For India, it is right to project the Indo-Pacific concept as a return to history.

As a corollary, the minister has defended the Quad, listing its broad agenda that covers 10 subjects—climate change, humanitarian operations, emerging technologies, resilient infrastructure, countering disinformation, maritime security, regional and global issues etc.—as evidence of its constructive agenda. It was not intended as a message to anyone, according to him. He is right as from India’s point of view the Quad should have a broad agenda so that the benefits of cooperation go beyond maritime security. It should create frameworks that would assist India’s all-round economic and technological advance.

Most significantly, Jaishankar robustly countered the charge that a new Asian NATO was emerging, calling such criticism as “mind games”, a kind of “guilt tripping” in other words. He made the point forcefully that India was not a NATO member, and that India knows what it can do and what it can’t. He asserted that India does not have an alliance mentality unlike others, and that India was making a “national choice”. The sting in his remark that no country can exercise a veto on who we meet and what we discuss, on what we can do and what we can’t shows a remarkable change in our diplomatic discourse that has begun to reflect a new sense of self-confidence.