The "Indo-Pacific" is a strategic construct that arose at a time of a potential transition in the Asian security order. The recurrent use of the term in the first series of strategic documents released by the Trump administration – the US National Security Strategy (2017) and the US National Defense Strategy (2018) – has made it clear that for this government, the Indo-Pacific is a key global-strategic framework. By doing so, the United States joined Australia as the second nation to officially adopt its use. Canberra has already employed the Indo-Pacific mental map to outline its grand strategy in the region in its defense white paper in 2013, and it was explicated again in the foreign policy white paper of 2017.
The term however is not new in any sense. The concept, first promulgated by an Indian naval officer and scholar, was popularized by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his 2007 "Confluence of the Two Seas" speech to the Indian Parliament. Abe’s speech went further, urging the United States, Australia, Japan, and India to venture into a quadrilateral security dialogue. Informally, termed "the Quad", this loose grouping was abruptly disbanded the first time around, when in 2008, the Kevin Rudd led Australian government left the grouping to assuage Chinese sensitives. A decade later, the re-emergence of the "Quad" at the sidelines of the 2017 East Asia Summit in Manila signifies the onset of a new dynamic of Asian security around a "free and open Indo-Pacific".
The normative use of the term Indo-Pacific is usually accompanied by reservations about a "rising China" and its impact on Asian security. As one of us wrote recently, the idea of the Indo-Pacific rises from a ‘potential power transition in Asia by the (re)emergence of China as a great power’ instigating ‘the need to view the Indian and Pacific Oceans as an integrated geostrategic entity’. Unsurprisingly, the same series of US strategy documents that formalized the use of the Indo-Pacific term also made multiple references to China as a "revisionist power". China's militarization of the South China Sea and its navy’s forward presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean have made countries in the region apprehensive about the scope and scale of China’s strategic ambitions, bringing to fore the need for a new and resilient security order. One constructed around a 'free and open Indo-Pacific' seems to fit the bill for many.
That said, the geographical extent of the Indo-Pacific has never been clearly defined collectively by regional powers, and remains open to interpretation. According to recently-retired United States Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris’s famous quip, "it extends from Hollywood to Bollywood", and this is mostly true for how Tokyo, Canberra and Washington D.C. view that geography. However, for India, the Indo-Pacific represents a larger maritime theater, one that unites its primary area of interest to its secondary area of interest. India’s strategy towards its east is primarily dedicated to countering China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and looks to secure Indian economic and strategic interests in the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok. For this purpose, India may go as far as maintaining a forward presence in the South China Sea and combine efforts with the ‘Quad’ in other parts of the Western Pacific Ocean. However, the Indian Navy’s Maritime Security Strategy document places considerable focus on the Western Indian Ocean, mostly because it sources almost 65% of its energy supplies from the Middle East as well as because of the fact that more than seven million Indian migrants reside in that region. Maintaining its sea lines of communications (SLOCs) towards its west, therefore, is crucial to any Indian 'Indo-Pacific' strategy.
A natural question, therefore, for Indian strategists – as they contemplate backing a new security order in the Indo-Pacific – is whether the Western Indian Ocean is to be considered part of the Indo-Pacific for all other major regional actors, notably the three remaining members of the Quad. As noted earlier, the definitional incongruence between Pacific powers and India may well represent the first fracture in the Indo-Pacific construct. At the 2018 edition of the Raisina Dialogue, the Indian Navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, advanced the construct while underscoring the continental connotation of the region. The implication was not lost on the audience. It is in the troubled continental Middle East that India and the US have had significant differences in the past, whether that be around US interventions in Syria and Libya or its mollycoddling of Pakistan.
For example, many in New Delhi wonder: is Iran an Indo-Pacific nation? If so, then that country would represent a site of significant divergence between India and the United States. Iran has been a traditional energy supplier to India, at the moment it's third largest, and the recent Chabahar port development project represents India's intent to project itself as a constructive maritime power around the Strait of Hormuz and in the Arabian Sea. That project itself is partly a response to China's development of the Gwadar port in neighboring Pakistan as part of its mega "Maritime Silk Road" initiative, and partly to offer an alternate trading route for land-locked Afghanistan. On the other hand, US-Iran relations can best be described as a quagmire. After the Obama administration and its European partners meticulously negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 to curb the Iranian nuclear program, President Trump withdrew from the arrangement and reinstated strict sanctions on Iran in May 2018.
Clearly, India's economic agenda in Iran cannot fructify when Indian companies operating there could also be subject to secondary sanctions. Additionally, such American action would result in a serious downturn in US-India relations. Second-order consequences of this could ripple across to India’s east, leading to further reticence on the part of New Delhi to be entangled in America's disputes with China over the South and East China Seas. Chabahar also represents a test case for Indian economic power in the Indo-Pacific, and anything other than success of the port development project will bear ill for India’s image as a "net economic-security provider" for smaller Asian states like Afghanistan. Absent America, India clearly needs other non-resident powers to realize its own vision of the Indo-Pacific, accented on the Western Indian Ocean.
The European Union (EU) fits the billing. The two European countries that partnered with the United States in the JCPOA negotiations and lead the EU politically in the international area – Germany and France – can fill the space vacated by a truculent United States in the western Indian Ocean as India's partners of choice there. For example, should the EU find a way to insulate itself from post-JCPOA US sanctions, Germany and France could become valuable partners for India to develop the Chabahar port. Additionally, in the Western Indian Ocean, France can be a valuable security partner given its maritime presence through a naval base in Djibouti as well as in the islands of Mayotte and Reunion. India should leverage its strategic partnership with the French, and consolidate the recently signed logistical agreement by maintaining a strategic presence on the islands.
The Western Indian Ocean is in India’s primary area of interest, and the Strait of Hormuz is a vital node in Indian energy imports SLOCs. The United States needs to realize this strategic reality of New Delhi, and contemplate the larger implication of its positions on the Middle East on the overall dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. The recent decision to have an Indian defense attaché at the US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain signaled closer collaboration between the nations in the Arabian Sea. Having said that, if Washington does not rethink its posture towards Iran, India’s European partners should be more than willing to step up and assist India in its own Indo-Pacific vision.