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The Changing Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific

Tanvee Shehrawat

The inception of AUKUS, a trilateral security agreement between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, has pushed the Indo-Pacific into agenda discussions in foreign policy circles and the mainstream media. Understanding the strategic ramifications of the deal is central to navigating the politics of maritime security in the region. The world’s economic “centre” has long since shifted towards the Asian continent, owing to the economic prowess of production giants, namely China and India. A flourishing economic landscape invites foreign investments and leads to multiple external stakeholders that want a seat on the table. Considering the rise in economic prosperity and foreign investment in the region, it is no surprise that the region has come to occupy a central position in mapping the geopolitical trends of this century. 

The Chinese military has systematically amped up their presence in the region, with the Chinese navy quantitatively surpassing that of the United States. The AUKUS agreement has sent shockwaves in the region, due to the nuclear-powered submarines it promises to help Australia build. This threatens to drastically change the existing status-quo in the region, which is the undeniable might of the Chinese naval prowess. The Quad, an informal grouping with the United States, Japan, India and Australia, promises to bring forth strategic talks. The security assurance of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” was introduced by Japan in 2016 with a core interest in protecting free navigation in the region. The pretext here is that global commons may be under threat due to the fortified occupation of an openly revisionist China in the region. 60 percent of the global trade value transported through oceans passes through the Indo-Pacific, making a free and open navigation of utmost economic and strategic importance.

However, it isn’t just trading links via the Indian and Pacific oceans that have attracted this attention; the volatile situation in the South China Sea also houses a series of territorial disputes. Coupled with the weight that India brings to the table as a rising power with an apparent geographical advantage in the Indian Ocean. Often referred to as Asia’s maritime underbelly, the Indo-Pacific became a unitary geopolitical construct due to its enormous economic opportunities and security challenges. Geography and politics alone may seem insular to a larger world arena, but the geopolitics of a region can be of tremendous influence beyond international borders and continents.

The Relevance of the Region

The realisation of the potential that the Indo-Pacific holds has been prevalent since the rise of China in 1978. China’s humongous economic influence is best testified by the fact that it is the number one trading partner in sheer number to over eighty countries in the world. In the region alone, ASEAN countries and their economies are interdependent on trade with China. 

The line of energy supply, particularly oil routes that come from the Middle East to Asia, passes through the Indo-Pacific. Stemming from the strategic importance that derives directly from Japan acknowledged the continent of Asia as the confluence of two oceans. The Gilliard government in Australia established a new national security policy that dealt with the term Indo-Pacific. The recognition of the strategic importance that the region played has been evident over the years and continues to become more relevant by the day. The phenomenal increase in economic interactions among areas in the South, Northeast, and Southeast Asia have now established trade links of tremendous importance.

Another example of the massive economic relevance of the region is the Strait of Malacca, between Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, which links the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean via the South China Sea. The strait is the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf and Asian markets, making it the most heavily travelled shipping channel globally. Yet another example, Singapore, among the most critical ports in the world, also happens to be situated in the Malacca strait’s southern end. If this strait is made vulnerable, it could seriously fracture global supply chains and energy lines. The economic and strategic relevance of the region are heavily intertwined and coupled with rising political and military assertiveness in the region; it makes for a range of stiffly invested interests in the region.

The Indo in the Indo-Pacific

The eminence of India in today’s world is reflected in the Indo-Pacific. India’s prominence isn’t merely due to the prevalence of India’s geographical standing in the region but also the growth that India has come to represent globally today. A safe maritime environment that acts as the harbinger of economic progress to a promising geoeconomic region becomes the responsibility of prominent actors such as India to ensure. Earlier known as the Asia Pacific, the renaming of the region to the Indo-Pacific reflects the reality of India’s role in this context. The United States, by acknowledging the move away from the term Asia-Pacific, has also elevated India’s strategic position. In hopes of containing rising Chinese dominance, the United States has employed India to be a crucial ally and actor in shaping the geopolitics of the region. However, this also challenges India to exert its influence in the region. Sharing a long land border with China with their history of repeated aggression could potentially answer the more prominent role India seeks in the region’s affairs.

For instance, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue referred to as the Quad earlier in this inquiry, is a grouping that China frowns upon. Despite it being labelled an “informal” grouping, it promises a platform for strategic talks and military exercises between India, the United States, Australia and Japan. The effort to balance or counter China is a narrative that China has openly dismissed. However, India has sought to bring its idea to the promise of an open and free Indo-Pacific. With the development of AUKUS, however, India has expressed concerns over being singled out by a second US-Australia grouping. There’s fuel that’s been added to the fire of an already vulnerable dynamic. 

Sea Links, a Threatened Hegemony, and Balance 

Global commons, or resources that are available to all nations, do not fall under any form of national jurisdiction. With globalisation and the diversification of global supply chains, the oceans are of immense value as a global commons and public good. The caveat here is that with global commons, there is no concept of ownership. In a world where self-interest drives pre-eminent political actors, this creates a vacuum that nations seek to address in the form of multilateral or international agreements. Such agreements often reflect the need to balance a particular actor in the arena or simply serve as a means to display one’s relative power. The AUKUS pact is an excellent example of this, and it is meant to balance the presence of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the question arises whether there is a need to balance a country in its home continent? Neo-realism, the defensive strand by Kenneth Waltz, argues that the rise of regional hegemons is the only way to ensure survival. The notion of a balancing coalition that is formed to prevent the rise of a dominant power, is perfectly illustrated by the increasing relevance of regional groupings in the Indo-Pacific region. The protection of an economically valuable common good however, might also serve as a convenient smoke screen to promote militarisation and disturb harmony due to the threatening nature of pacts such as the AUKUS.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has occupied the centre stage as a global hegemon. Under the Bush administration, the New World Order established the United States’ role as a power to be reckoned with, one whose prowess was not limited to just the American subcontinent. With the rise of China in all spheres, this hegemony is threatened. However, a more nuanced reading of the rise of China would come when we break free from the notion of “balancing” the increase of any strong emerging state. The Cold War mentality of bipolarity should be long gone by now. The focus should shift to multilateral cooperation rather than centralising power in the hands of one global leader. 

The Way Forward- What does the Indo-Pacific Promise? 

Following the pandemic, the realisation that non-traditional security threats require cooperation among national actors has been subverted. There have been instances of aggravated disputes in India, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar, among many others. Instead of moving towards cooperation, the world order seems to move farther away from it. Instead of fostering healthy competition, an arms race appears to be unfolding in the Indo-Pacific, which calls for alarm. The threat of predatory economics is a valid one, but countering it with militarisation is a questionable tactic. Recent developments can have ramifications on the ability of the region to maintain peace, but as of now, the final verdict could tilt in either direction. China is an unreliable actor, and controlling it is a laborious exercise with little scope of quantifiable success. The United States appears to be demonising China, and under the pretext of balancing or countering it, it is actively pushing for the militarisation of an already volatile regional dynamic. Besides this, pacts such as the AUKUS are also actively attempting to incite a reaction from China. An arms race unfolding is unlikely. However, it isn’t pleasant to poke the bear in an attempt to scare it away. A more comprehensive strategy grounded in cooperative negotiation still has potential, but with indirect confrontation the balance in the region continues to get heated as each day passes.

Tanvee is a third year undergraduate at Ashoka University studying Political Science and International Relations.

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