International relations, National security | South Asia

6 May 2022

Despite initial wavering, India has emerged as a major stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific, explicitly supporting the growth of the concept and focusing on an inclusive approach for the region, Chander Shekhar writes.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific has become more explicit and assertive in recent years. Almost all the major powers in Asia have played one card or another to protect or shape the potential of the Indo-Pacific region.

Among them, India has emerged as a major stakeholder in the region, with its focus on an inclusive approach where its interests converge with those of other regional powers through various mechanisms and organisations.

Importantly, India is shifting away from strategic ambiguity to strategic freedom, with the goal of making its own decisions and shaping a future of the Indo-Pacific which is free from military confrontation and the provocative tactics that have been present in the region in the past.

The history of Indian foreign policy suggests that it works hard to keep to what it sees as Indian values and norms. A basic ‘non-violence’ principle has been a popular customary norm in Southeast and East Asian countries, as like any country that has experienced the use of force, is understands its long-term importance to foreign and domestic policy.

The doctrine of vasudhaiva kutumbhakam – meaning literally ‘the world is one family’ – has been a key policy orientation in India’s foreign policy. Although, naturally, realism and preparedness to use force do have their strategic importance in any foreign policy outlook.

More on this: India and China’s push for influence in Sri Lanka

After independence, India fought against what it saw as the evils of the global order, such as colonialism and imperialism. Accepting international diversity, it worked to foster community harmony and unity, bringing countries together that were often ignored by major powers in the early decades of the Cold War.

This focus on international peace and security have been vital objectives of India’s post-independence leaders, and that legacy is now finding its way into India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific.

Its outreach and engagement have been imperative to the advancement of the Indo-Pacific concept. Most importantly, in recent years India has made part of that outreach the explicit propagation of the Indo-Pacific vision.

At the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi related his country’s engagement with other countries in the Indo-Pacific, saying “to the East, the Malacca Strait and South China Sea connect India to the Pacific and to the most of our major partners – ASEAN, Japan, Republic of Korea, China and the Americas…Our interests in the region are vast, and our engagement is deep.”

More on this: Putting India in the Indo-Pacific

Through BRICS (a forum of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the East Asian Summit, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), India has used its membership to pursue strategic autonomy.

For instance, while the country is currently dependent on Russia for its defence equipment, India has started the Atmanirbhar Bharat project, designed to produce its arms in India. Its contributions in the United Nations also cannot be overlooked, especially in peacekeeping, and its cultural capital and overseas diaspora also play substantive roles in reinforcing India as a rising power in the Indo-Pacific region.

It is notable too that India has been opposing the military nature of any organisation that could disturb the established status quo and peace, leading to some concerns, at least at first, that it may be the least enthusiastic member of the Quad. For India, the Quad must serve the common good, not simply ‘balance’ against Chinese power.

As such, India has supported the Quad’s role in non-military activities, such as vaccine partnership among all four members. Ultimately, India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific is one focused on the common good in the region.

What this shows is, as India has increased its stakes in economic, strategic, security, defence, cyber, technological, space, and digital cooperation with its neighbours in the Indo-Pacific, it has stayed committed to the inclusive nature of the region by keeping to its word on the importance of “ensuring broad inclusive growth in the Indo-Pacific”.

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