Commentary / Japan

It’s too early to write off the Indo-Pacific strategy

by Stephen R. Nagy

Contributing Writer

In an age when illiberalism appears to be gaining steam all around the world, one of the biggest geopolitical challenges for Asian democracies is to how best to deal with China’s rise.

One of the answers to this conundrum is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which Tokyo is promoting as a strategy to maintain the international liberal order in the region.

But the much talked about idea is running into trouble as of late, as India, one of the key components of the strategy — has been displaying mixed feelings about it. Last month at the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore, security experts were perplexed when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who chaired this year’s forum — made a tepid speech and even refrained from mentioning the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which is comprised of democratic giants like the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

It is ironic, as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept is traced back to Indian naval officer Capt. Gurpreet Khurana, who first wrote about the geopolitical concept in early 2007 in an article titled “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation.”

Back then, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific was mostly a geographic concept describing the maritime space extending from the littorals of East Africa and West Asia — through the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean to the littorals of East Asia. The term placed India as the hub between the developed economies of the Asia-Pacific to the rising economies in Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Africa.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during his first term in August 2007, built on the theme as the “Confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” and “the dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” of the larger Asian geographical region.

Notably, Abe’s vision to focus on building stronger relations among East, Southeast and South Asian littoral areas to balance an increasingly assertive China was the crucial motivation behind the initiative. Unfortunately, Japan’s leadership promoting the Indo-Pacific concept hit a hiatus when Abe threw in the towel as prime minister later that year.

The concept re-emerged in Australia’s Defense White Paper in 2013. The inclusion reflected Canberra’s foresight that to secure Australia’s geopolitical interests, it would need strategic concepts for operating in the Indian Ocean region, including with regional partners with similar strategic interests.

In November 2017, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific received more fanfare and salient rebuke from China when U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned the idea on several occasions during his numerous speeches with regional leaders.

Japan, Australia, the U.S. and India have all begun to refer to the term in official statements and documents. Together with the Indo-Pacific concept, the Quad idea was resurrected in 2017 by focusing on seven themes promoting the international liberal order: a rules-based order in Asia, freedom of navigation and overflight in the maritime commons, respect for international law, enhancing connectivity, maritime security, nonproliferation and terrorism.

Clearly, these are responses to China’s growing assertiveness in the region. Most consequentially, the militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea, the declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, “lawfare” tactics surrounding the Senkaku Islands and the encirclement of India are all reasons for the Quad to resurface and for concerned states to coalesce around the Indo-Pacific concept.

The bad news is that statements emanating from the four countries indicate a divergence in the emphasis and specificity related to the core themes.

The U.S. and Australia were the only members who used the term “Quadrilateral,” while Japan refrained from stressing connectivity to avoid any connotation of containment.

Most striking, though, is India’s vacillation on freedom of navigation and overflight in the maritime commons, and respect for international law.

India’s lack of commitment on these core issues raises the question of what does this mean for the future of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and the Quad? And how will this impact the delicate balancing needed to manage China’s re-emergence without conflict?

India’s vacillation is a reflection of its capabilities and its own geopolitical rivalry with China.

In terms of military capabilities, India lags behind Japan, Australia and the U.S., all of which have been engaged in joint training with cutting-edge military technologies for years. The levels of military development, equipment and training in India would be difficult hurdles to overcome to create a fully integrated and synergistic military force fully capable of ensuring a rules-based Indo-Pacific.

Indians are realistic about their current abilities to engage in a head-to-head geopolitical competition with China.

While growing, India’s military power, industrial base and wealth are well behind China’s. An ill-considered and ill-timed overt commitment to pushing back against Chinese assertiveness could backfire in ways that India deems detrimental to its national interests, such as the Indo-Pakistan border area, the disputed territories between China and India, or China’s deepening influence in India’s periphery such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

And yet, all of this does not mean that the Quad and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific are doomed. Despite India’s reticence, there is ample room to deepen and broaden both concepts while maximizing India’s role.

First, we must keep in mind that this is still a nascent framework in an age of dynamic change. Look at NATO. Its strength is built on its commitment to collective defense. Due to differences in size, capabilities and global reach, particular NATO members have different roles and outputs within the organization that allows for synergy and to remain a cohesive institution.

As with NATO, the Indo-Pacific framework and Quad should focus on the relative advantages of each member state while upholding values that meets the overarching theme of promoting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

India’s central position within the Indo-Pacific, its population and enormous resources suggest that its role may be a supportive one in terms of being a dynamic economic alternative, a norm diffuser and leader in terms of promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific framework to wavering states in the region, and a role model for how developing states can contribute to multilateral security frameworks in military and non-military ways.

India’s role would not be ossified as a supporter. Rather, it would evolve with its own growing economic, political and military capabilities and the fluctuating geopolitical conditions in the region as we see an escalation or de-escalation in the U.S.-China rivalry and competition for regional hegemony.

Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University based in Tokyo. Concurrently, he is a distinguished fellow with Canada’s the Asia Pacific Foundation.