The efficacy of Donald Trump’s efforts to consolidate the QUAD-solidarity among its constituents – the US, Australia, Japan, and India – may be debatable. And that is due to the hesitation by many countries, including India, to perceive the QUAD as an anti-China association.
But Trump’s contribution towards making the construct of “Indo-Pacific” a geopolitical reality, of which Quad is an important feature, will be his lasting legacy.
Trump has awarded Legion of Merit — the prestigious award conferred by the President of the United States upon Heads of State or Heads of Government of other countries in the highest degree of the Chief Commander — to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — all great supporters of the Quad and Indo-Pacific construct. But since it is essentially a military honor, the move has been misconstrued by many to be essentially a military measure to thwart China’s aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific.
But once the military dimension is overlooked, Indo-Pacific as a political and economic entity is gaining global recognition. Till two years ago, many leading countries — particularly the European powers, ASEAN countries, and Russia — were hesitant to even use the term “Indo-Pacific”; instead, they were more comfortable in using what was a geographic term of “Asia-Pacific”.
But things are changing, with hitherto reluctant powers like Russia, Germany, France, and Britain now openly talking of the importance of the Indo-Pacific, by transforming their geographical imaginations due to economic, geo-political, and diplomatic trends of recent years.
The Indo-Pacific region (IPR) is a geostrategic construct rather than an established geographical notion. It was conceived by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a 2007 speech in the Indian Parliament, where he described the idea as “a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.” This concept of deep inter-linkage between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean has gained much currency since then, thanks to its promotion by Abe, Modi, and Morrison in general and Trump in particular.
I am deeply honoured to be awarded the Legion of Merit by @POTUS @realDonaldTrump. It recognises the efforts of the people of India & the US to improve bilateral ties, reflected in the bipartisan consensus in both countries about the Indo-US Strategic Partnership.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 22, 2020
In 2013, Australia released its Defense White Paper identifying the Indo-Pacific as the new theater. In 2015, India and Japan issued the first joint statement on the Indo-Pacific and the world. In 2016, then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific vision. In 2017, Japan launched its report on free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.
In 2017, the United States identified the Indo-Pacific as the new theater in its national security strategy, with the US Department of Defense subsequently characterizing the Indo-Pacific as “the single most consequential region for America’s future.” In May 2018, the United States renamed the US Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. In June 2018, Modi presented India’s Indo-Pacific vision at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Conceptually anchored in the two great ocean spaces, the IPR is bounded more by political realities than by strictly geographic imperatives. Naturally, there have been divergences in its definition.
For the US, it extends up to the west coast of India which is also the geographic boundary of the US Indo-Pacific command whereas for India, as highlighted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his keynote speech at the Shangrila Dialogue in 2018, it includes the entire Indian Ocean and the western Pacific, starting from Africa to the Americas, which covers both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Japan and other countries’ description of the IPR seems to be in tandem with that of India.
Now the IPR is seen to be encompassing countries located on the American or African/Middle Eastern rims of the Pacific and Indian Oceans as “littoral states” on the one hand and “inner” nations, stretching from the Indian sub-continent, up through Southeast Asia to China and the northeast Asian countries of Japan and the Koreas, on the other. Thus, it encompasses continental, peninsular, and archipelagic landforms.
IPR’s waterways, comprising most of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with the inner seas and vast bays, form the integrated pathways vital to the global economy, linking Europe and the western hemisphere with the world’s workshops. The Indo-Pacific now accounts for close to half of global economic output and contains more than half the world’s population. It is a region vital to the peace and prosperity of the entire globe.
US confers 'Legion of Merit' award on PM @narendramodi
In recognition of PM's steadfast leadership & vision for India's emergence as a global power, & his exemplary contribution for advancement of 🇮🇳🇺🇸 ties & promoting global peace & prosperity.
— Taranjit Singh Sandhu (@SandhuTaranjitS) December 22, 2020
There is now an emerging consensus, save that of China, on the importance and sanctity of maritime connectivity, open sea lanes free from any single country’s domination, rules-based order sanctified by international laws, and deepening peaceful political and economic engagements among the countries, including China, of the Indo-Pacific.
That explains why on December 21, Russian Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev said that Moscow, so far at the forefront along with Beijing in resisting the idea of Indo-Pacific, “understands and supports India’s inclusive vision of the Indo-Pacific based on international law”. Until recently, Russia repeatedly argued against the use of Indo-pacific which it termed as an American idea to contain China and draw not only allies Japan and Australia but also India to Washington’s goal.
In 2018, France unveiled its own Indo-Pacific strategy, highlighting its acknowledgment of the region as the world’s economic powerhouse. For France, the Indo-Pacific is also a key region when it comes to the governance of the commons and multilateralism. Paris views it to be a key region when it comes to the governance of the commons and multilateralism. At the same time, there is now recognition that China’s rise is increasingly challenging French interests in the region. All told, France considers itself a resident power and an “island state in the Indo-Pacific“, given its overseas territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The gradual undermining of the status quo in the South China Sea, in complete violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has long been identified in Paris as an issue of global significance. Through its Indo-Pacific strategy of a “multipolar and inclusive” region, France expects to protect better its national interests. So much so that in October this year, President Emmanuel Macron has appointed the country’s first ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, Christophe Penot, one of France’s most senior diplomats who till recently was the envoy to Australia.
Importantly, on September 2, 2020, Germany, which was very skeptical otherwise about the term Indo-Pacific, became the second European country after France to adopt policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region “Germany—Europe—Asia: shaping the 21st century together,” in which the country for the first time officially endorsed the concept of the “Indo-Pacific.”
Heiko Maas, German Federal Foreign Minister, says that as an internationally active trading nation and proponent of a rules-based international order, Germany must not content itself with remaining on the sidelines, as a mere observer of the dynamic developments in the IPR.
“We have a strong interest in promoting multilateral approaches in the region and, above all, in strengthening ASEAN – with a view to consolidating a multipolar region embedded within a multilateral, rules-based system. I would also like to support this within the framework of the Alliance for Multilateralism initiated together with my French counterpart,” he emphasizes.
— IANS Tweets (@ians_india) July 31, 2020
The UK has not officially pronounced its strategy regarding IPR as yet, but during the recent India visit of British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (December 14-17), London manifested its “Indo-Pacific tilt”, particularly in strengthening defense ties in the maritime security domain. Boris Johnson’s government is reportedly in agreement with the interim findings of the UK’s Policy Exchange think tank’s Indo-Pacific Commission that India and the wider Indo-Pacific region must form the essence of a manifesto of what a Global Britain looks like in the 2020s and beyond in the post-Brexit era.
Policy Exchange had convened an international Indo-Pacific Commission of current and former political, military, and thought leaders to help frame the scope of what a new UK strategy in the Indo-Pacific should be. Chaired by Stephen J. Harper, the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada, the commission represented the UK, India, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.
With inputs from each regional expert commissioner, the Policy Exchange recently released interim findings as part of a report entitled ‘A Very British Tilt: Towards a new UK strategy in the Indo-Pacific Region’. And as the title suggests, the crux of its analysis is that the UK must have a decisive strategy for the region, including appointing a Special Envoy from within the government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), for the purpose of pursuing clearly defined goals.
Even the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has adopted the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ after more than a year of negotiations in June 2019, after President Trump proposed the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy during his Asia tour in 2017. The main initiative for drafting the ASEAN vision of the Indo-Pacific was taken by Indonesia.
The above developments make it clear that the IPR construct is here to stay, China’s stiff resistance notwithstanding. So much so that countries are now talking of “Quad –Plus”, again another initiative by the Trump Presidency. In May 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a foreign ministers’ meeting of the IPR on the novel disease of Covid-19 and the post-pandemic state of the international order, which included the representatives of India, Japan, and Australia, the Republic of Korea, Brazil, and Israel.
Later, New Zealand and Vietnam also endorsed the idea of the common endeavor across the Indo-Pacific region to counter the spread of the virus, develop vaccines, address the challenges of stranded citizens, and mitigate the impact on the global economy and uphold the “fundamental Indo-Pacific principles of openness, transparency, respect for sovereignty and adherence to international law”.