Indo-Pacific is still is a work in progress but given its salience for the stakeholders, it is unlikely to disappear in the near future. It has emerged as an important part of the geopolitical landscape amidst an emerging world order, has attracted support from some major players, and has cemented its position through sustained high-level interactions that indicate a commonality of interests in specific areas, writes Valdai Club expert Nivedita Kapoor. The article represents one of the opinions within the framework of the discussion among the experts of the Valdai Club on the topic “Asia-Pacific Region or Indo-Pacific Region?”.
If there has been a constant in political geography, it is the fact that it “changes depending on political circumstances”, which is why the construction of regions in international relations is hardly a new phenomenon, having had a long history that is neither ‘arbitrary nor random’. The idea of the Asia-Pacific gained popularity during the Cold War period, driven by the economic growth first of Japan and then of several countries of Northeast and Southeast Asia. The US played its role in framing the region as Asia-Pacific rather than just Asia, in order to better position itself, especially in the ‘military-strategic’ domain. The US-China rapprochement after 1972 ensured that the region came to eventually include the three largest economies of the world — the US, Japan and China. Shaped by Cold War dynamics, these developments led to the formation of Asia-Pacific as a political-economic-strategic space, while simultaneously also being a ‘socially constructed’ one given the diversion from the usual limits on a region placed by geographical contiguity.
This version of Asia-Pacific saw India’s exclusion from the regional space due to a number of factors, including Cold War divisions, New Delhi’s limited capacity and policy of non-alignment, as well as the very specific social construction of the region. This gradually changed as the Cold War came to an end and India’s economic growth gained steam, leading to its own aspirations of expanding beyond South Asia towards the East to present itself as an important Asia-Pacific power. This shift coincided with the process of ‘interregional dynamics linking South and East Asia,’ which also reflected the rise in the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean, especially as a trade corridor.
It is thus hardly surprising that the evolving balance of power is once again impacting how a region is organised. The development of the Indo-Pacific is a geopolitical process that has eventually brought together the ‘security dynamics’ of East and South Asia, while also highlighting the role the US has played and continues to play in the region. Thus, instead of treating East Asia and South Asia as separate sub-regions (with China and India, respectively, as key powers), the Indo-Pacific thinks of the region as a ‘single strategic system’. These developments, propelled by the rise of China as a new, assertive great power, the overall growth of other regional powers and their apprehensions about the nature of Beijing’s rise, and the presence of an existing great power in the region seeking to maintain its primacy have collectively produced this Asia-Pacific vs. Indo-Pacific debate.
As with other regional stakeholders, these developments have had an impact on India’s positioning in the region. In the immediate post-independence era, India’s focus on the east was characterised by the narrative of ‘decolonisation and Asian resurgence’, but with limited economic and defence capacities, an impact across the wider region remained out of reach. However, once India liberalised its economy in 1991 and focused on the task of domestic development, the east acquired a renewed importance, leading to the announcement of the Look East policy. This was an early indication in the post-Cold War period of India’s more active stance in its eastern, Asia-Pacific neighbourhood — looking beyond the South Asian subcontinent — as being important for its future economic and strategic positioning. There was also a sense of faltering South Asian regionalism, wherein while India has good bilateral ties with most states in the subcontinent, it faces major challenges, including strained ties with Pakistan and increasing Chinese influence in its neighbourhood.
These factors meant India focused on expanding ties with the Southeast Asian states, Japan and South Korea, and rebuilt its relationship with the US, starting from the Clinton administration. It did not neglect its ties with China either, and expanded its economic partnership with Beijing in the post-1991 period. The two sides began talks to settle the border disputes and even agreed to establish a ‘strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity’ in 2005. However, Indian unease was palpable due to a steady rise in Chinese actions which it considered detrimental to its sovereignty and territorial integrity, including more frequent violations of the Line of Actual Control, China’s questioning of Indian control of Arunachal Pradesh, issuing stapled visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh and J&K, blocking Indian membership in NSG, as well as China’s construction of port infrastructure around the Indian peninsula. As a result, despite an expansion in economic cooperation, there was a steady rise in competition as well. In recent years, the building of the BRI through disputed territory between India and Pakistan, as well as major border violations in Doklam (2017) and Eastern Ladakh (2020) have driven bilateral ties to a new ‘nadir’.
In the meantime, the balance of power tilted in favour of China as it surpassed India’s economic growth and rapidly expanded its defence budget. This has led to a conclusion on the Indian side that China today is an ‘existential national security challenge’ and that a more active policy in the neighbourhood is indispensable if India hopes to avoid an even more unfavourable balance of power from emerging. For New Delhi, it is the demonstrable change in Chinese intentions that has led to a turn towards balancing tendencies — in response to a shift in its threat perception — giving a new dynamic to the relationship with the US.
The Look East policy, which was already expanding its geographic focus from ‘Southeast Asia to East Asia,’ was ‘complemented and reinforced’ by the Obama administration’s pivot to the East. These developments laid the groundwork for progression of the Look East policy to become the Act East policy in 2014, where the focus on Indo-Pacific became a central feature. This entailed an acceleration of engagement with like-minded regional stakeholders that include not only the US but also Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and even European partners like France and the UK at the bilateral and minilateral level. The recalibration of the regional balance of power alongside the shift of global geopolitics and geo-economics towards the East has also acknowledged the role of a rising India in this critical region.
Taken together, these developments in the post-Cold War period explain India’s willingness to reimagine the Asia-Pacific as the Indo-Pacific, which cements its position in this dynamic region that directly impacts its strategic interests. Meanwhile, New Delhi continues to pursue its policy of multi-alignment and does not believe that entering into an alliance with one or another power would fulfil its goal of being a future major power. Also, balancing against a power does not necessarily entail an abandonment of efforts to improve ties with the said opponent. In this regard, India has not given up on the diplomatic process to defuse tensions on the border with China.
The evolving Indian position has been aided by the experiences of other like-minded partners in the region, which are also economically engaged with China but concerned about its rising assertiveness, especially in its neighbourhood. Both Japan and Australia have seen a deterioration of their relations with China, heightening concerns about the nature of its rise. These two countries have also had a significant role in reviving the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which along with the US and India, has become a key grouping in the Indo-Pacific. Apart from China’s rise, the regional policies are also being shaped by the presence of the US as the existing great power here, which seeks to maintain its primacy even though it has experienced a relative decline of its position since the post-Cold War unipolar period. This has been seen not only in its active positioning in the Quad but also through the AUKUS pact as well as in its strengthening of its alliances in the region.
There is a recognition among key mid-level regional powers that despite their increasing capacities, a balancing policy vis-a-vis China requires the presence of the US, given the current distribution of capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. This makes the US-China relationship the key dynamic within the region but does not negate the agency of middle powers that can augment or diminish the balance of capabilities of the great powers within the specific regional system.
Also, one must be cautious while thinking about the Indo-Pacific, as it still remains a work in progress. While the current combination of powers that are committed to it bring together a formidable amount of capacity, several aspects of this regional reimagination are still being worked out. The most prominent is the economic dimension of the Indo-Pacific, the development of which has lagged even as the security dimension has gained strength. This has been a central criticism of the Indo-Pacific, especially since rising Chinese influence has been driven by the force of its economic strength and how deeply it is embedded within the region. While the US has been pursuing a policy of slow decoupling from China, an absence of a credible economic plan that can compete with Chinese dominance will be a difficult situation to reconcile for the states of the region whose economies are intertwined with China’s.
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) was unveiled only in September 2022 with four pillars of ‘higher standards and rules for digital trade, resilient supply chains, green energy commitments and fair trade, including rules targeting corruption and effective taxation’. While not a Free Trade Agreement, India has still opted out of the trade pillar for the time being. Also, the IPEF will need to demonstrate more substance and reveal more details with regard to implementation on the ground as the negotiations continue, before its viability can be fairly judged. In the meantime, rising US-China tensions in various domains give rise to fears of impact on already-stressed supply chains and further economic troubles, creating a dilemma between economic and security goals for the smaller states.
The eventual success of the Indo-Pacific thus depends on a variety of factors including the continued commitment of the US to remain engaged through cooperative mechanisms with allies and partners as well as Chinese actions in the region — which will both impact how regional middle and smaller powers frame their own policies. A more aggressive China will only fuel bipolar tendencies in the region, especially among the middle powers that matter, prompting them to move closer to the US and strengthening the Indo-Pacific. US actions will also be crucial in determining the response of partners and allies, especially if it makes unilateral moves that impact their interests and creates conditions for an active conflict without prior consultations.
Russia has expressed its opposition to the Indo-Pacific, Quad and AUKUS, seeing them as measures to contain China and isolate Russia. It also argues that these steps lead to formation of bloc tendencies and instead supports the region being defined as Asia-Pacific. This opposition has also been seen in the light of the breakdown of its relations with the West and increasingly closer engagement with China. India, which maintains a close strategic partnership with Russia, has for its part sought to include it in an expansive idea that will bring together the ‘confluence of the Eurasian Union on one side and the open, free and inclusive Indo-Pacific on the other,’ indicating its desire to not exclude its partner from a new regional conception. However, given Russia’s anti-West position and its already limited capacities in the East, this has been a difficult endeavour.
The on-going developments in the Indo-Pacific require a more focused regional policy vision and implementation from Russia regardless of the nomenclature, given that its pivot to the East has steadily lacked substance beyond arms and energy sales. Its faltering Greater Eurasian Partnership, weakening economic situation on the back of unprecedented Western sanctions and fears of a more drawn-out conflict in Ukraine all contribute to the difficulties in focusing on a region that has emerged as the key to future global geopolitics and geo-economics. In this regard, India would watch carefully the Sino-Russian alignment, especially in the aftermath of the on-going struggle in Ukraine, and how it impacts Moscow’s ability to be an independent player in the event of a India-China conflict.
Russia remains an important power, and India would be loath to see its partner in a weaker position, which negatively impacts its own policy of multi-alignment. At the same time, New Delhi cannot ignore the key challenge of China in its neighbourhood, which will continue to take priority in Indian foreign policy, given that an inability to manage it will impinge upon its own future ambitions. Due to the salience of the region for India, it will be eager to see how Russia develops its regional relationships — both with China and other regional stakeholders. A Russia that is not over-dependent on Beijing will be a net positive for India.
New Delhi’s measured response to the Russian opposition to the Indo-Pacific indicates that more than the rhetoric, it would be its policies on the ground — especially vis-a-vis China — that will shape India’s view of its strategic partner in the region. In many ways, the ball is in the Russian court on this issue — its policy towards Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific is in need of an overhaul. The policy direction it takes, the quality of relationships it builds and the capabilities it brings to the table will ultimately determine the Indian outlook towards Russia in this reimagined region.