When discussing the Indo-Pacific, John Henry Saxe’s poem of the blind men and the elephant comes to mind. His blind men likened the elephant to a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, or a rope, depending on which part each had touched.  In a similar manner, leaders in the region focus on only one of the Indo-Pacific’s multiple facets and then attempt to “sell” their vision to others.  There is no believable common long-term vision for the world’s most economically vibrant region, let alone a plan to realize that vision in the face of various challenges.

Notwithstanding its professed allergy to the term “Indo-Pacific”, China was the first to spot the region’s demand for infrastructure and execute a composite strategy designed to realign the strategic landscape throughout both oceanic faces of Asia to its own advantage.  The “Road” part of its Belt and Road Initiative uses newfound economic strength to obtain “preferential, non-competitive and exclusionary arrangements that propel its ambitions to create economic dependencies, gain political influence and eventually impose hegemonic power”.  Military elements of its strategy include the creation of the world’s second largest navy and its provision with experience in distant water operations; creation of bases and dual-use facilities that will provide logistic support to forward deployed forces; an anti-access/area denial strategy designed to deter external interference; and modification of its command structure and domestic law to enable expeditionary operations. In the process, China has deliberately subverted established international law that it voluntarily ratified; unilaterally seized disputed areas; militarized them to deter external interference with its coercive actions; used grey zone operations to change the status quo; and changed a global paradigm governing the free use of the oceans that has prevailed for nearly four centuries. All this while, China professes “the independent foreign policy and the cultural tradition that values peace and harmony”, claims that it has “never provoked a war or conflict” in the last 70 years, and says that it “respects the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries and supports the social systems and development paths they independently chose.” That the gulf between China’s words and actions is large or that a regime that brutally suppresses domestic dissent cannot be trusted to accommodate dissent at the international level matters not a whit. What does matter is that China has increasingly imposed its will on South China Sea nations and has a tested paradigm to expand its region of influence .

A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region,” acknowledges the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy. But cynics might hold that previous U.S. misconceptions about China as a responsible stakeholder and efforts to rally others in the region to that point of view is responsible for the current competition. They would also read the initial failure to grasp the implications of the Belt and Road Initiative as signs of strategic myopia.  Moreover, though the 2017 NSS talks about encouraging aspiring partners, championing American values, and achieving better outcomes in multilateral forums, the economic elements of its strategy are not helped by withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the perception that “America First” is at odds with encouraging partners or promoting democratic values. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s observation that “In foreign policy, we don’t always live up to our principles, nor do we always make the wisest decisions” resonates with readers.  The Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, necessarily military focused, talks of preparedness, partnerships, and promotion of a networked region. However, memories of an administration that turned a blind eye when China became assertive in the South China Sea and produced the half-hearted pivot to Asia shape regional perceptions of preparedness; the examples of Taiwan, South Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan create the perception that the United States’ record in supporting partners has not been particularly impressive; and withdrawal from the TPP is seen as evidence of interest in the promotion of a networked region only on U.S. terms.

The outlook of medium powers toward the Indo-Pacific is similarly confusing. Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific vision rests on the establishment and promotion of the rule of law, including freedom of navigation and free trade; pursuit of economic prosperity through physical, people-to-people, and institutional connectivity; and a commitment to peace and stability through capacity building and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. But aspirations are never enough. None can doubt Japan’s economic commitment to Indo-Pacific integration. What creates doubt is Japan’s dependence on the United States for the military commitment required to fulfill these lofty aspirations, creating the perception that Japan will follow the U.S. diktat. Its renewed interest in the BRI and economic engagement with China adds to these doubts.

Australia seeks a region in which “adherence to rules delivers lasting peace, where the rights of all states are respected, and where open markets facilitate the free flow of trade, capital and ideas.” It also depends almost totally on the United States to fulfill these aspirations. At the same time, China is its largest trading partner, accounting for nearly a quarter of its total trade. Commercial considerations and political influence cultivated with considerable foresight ensure that China has a strong lobby in its favor in all Australian parties. This will keep Australia ambivalent until a direct threat materializes.

India’s objectives in the Indo-Pacific, identified by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri-La Dialogue last year, encompasses five S’s: Samman, Samvaad, Sahyog, Shanti, and Samridhi (respect, cooperation, dialogue, peace, and prosperity). India seeks the cooperation of all (including China) toward achieving these objectives. Statesmanship, however, lies in developing fallback options to ensure that they are attained even if a revisionist or hegemonic power is not cooperatively inclined. There are, however, no indicators of a fallback strategy, resulting in India being squeezed between revived great power competition and long-held geopolitical dogma.

Finally, ASEAN, at the fulcrum between the two oceans, has lived in China’s shadow for centuries and continues to do so. ASEAN until recently resisted any discussion on the Indo-Pacific out of fear of alienating China. Its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific even now views the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean through the lenses of economic integration and ASEAN centrality; as “a region of dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry; a region of development and prosperity for all.” It does not, however, acknowledge the reemergence of global geopolitical rivalry; the failure of ASEAN led mechanisms in the South China Sea; the complete breakdown of ASEAN unity in the face of Chinese coercion; and the exclusionary nature of its ongoing negotiations with China on the Code of Conduct for the South China Area, which could result in undermining principles of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which it professes to respect. Security, the bedrock requirement for peace and prosperity, remains dependent on the goodwill of others.

It is natural that the great powers of the day seek to dominate the Indo-Pacific through control of the vital oceanic connector. Unless, however, all stakeholders can come together to find mutual understanding and an acceptable via media, their different perceptions and outlooks could result in destructive conflict. There is, therefore, much in a name, especially when it is the Indo-Pacific.

Photo: B Balaji

About Lalit Kapur

Commodore Lalit Kapur is a veteran with over 35 years of service in the Indian Navy, including in diplomatic and tri-service appointments, and holds three master’s degrees as well as a deep interest in maritime history and the Indo-Pacific. He is currently a senior fellow at the Delhi Policy Group.