Changing Multipolar World Order
By Dr. Srimal Fernando
The Indo-Pacific biogeographic region, rich in resources and connecting the contiguous waters of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific has gained traction in the past few years with the shift in the world's centre of gravity that has been propelling towards this region, in both geo-political and geo-economic terms.
As a geostrategic construct, the IndoPacific region goes beyond a geographical demarcation. In this region, both the US and India collaborate on a broad range of diplomatic and security matters such as defence, nonproliferation and regional cooperation.
As the two countries share a common strategic vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, India remains crucial for the US’s strategy in the region. In India’s foreign policy engagements, the Indo-Pacific is a brand-new area describing a modification in India’s strategic setting expanding its perils exclusively from its continental frontiers to its maritime area.
The growing interdependency between India and the US straddling numerous fronts is founded on mutual strategic interests. Over the last seven decades, the US’s diplomacy with the Indian subcontinent and its neighbouring nations has changed considerably. In the recent years the growing Indo-US ties in the IndoPacific region further endorses India’s importance in the South Asian sphere.
India and the Indo-Pacific Bloc
It was during the turn of the twentyfirst century that the foundations of India’s existing Indo-Pacific policy were laid. Sitting astride key sea lanes, India dominates the western end of the Malacca Straits that links the Pacific with the Indian Ocean. The India-US partnership is vital to secure the IndoPacific region and beyond which pivots around pragmatic balancing between major powers; the United States and China, to attain the desired foreign policy outcome. The US is regarded by India as a vital partner not only in its own transformation but also as the sole global superpower.
Southeast Asia being at the heart of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) and the Indo-Pacific is significant for India’s strategic interests. India perceives the centrality of ASEAN to its Indo-Pacific strategy. India identifies the IndoPacific as a geostrategic construct with ASEAN nations as the central link between the two oceans. The commitment to upholding a rules-based global order was focused on, during the recent Quad alliance meeting. The US, Japan, Australia and India known as ‘the Quad’ was reborn in 2017.
For its trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation, promoting India’s sub regional agenda through its Indo-Pacific policy with its southern neighbours; Sri Lanka and the Maldives are a vital factor in the Indian Ocean. Having an intact foreign and defence policy with its Southern neighbours, India needs to get these neighbouring nations on its side to build an environment of joint security and to improve connectivity of the exclusive economic zone between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Hence, of prime importance to India should be safeguarding the territorial integrity of these small island states.
India and the United States Partnership on Indo Pacific
First coined in the United States, the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ has been replaced by the notion ‘Indo-Pacific’. The IndoPacific region stretches from the Western coast of India to the West coast of the United States. The US approach is centered on maintaining the traditional balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region with other likeminded allies who champion ‘shared values’ of a rules-based order.
India is one of the US’s most important partners in the Indo-Pacific region. India's emergence as a primary global power and its role as a net security provider in the region are welcomed by the new US administration. In addition, the United States remains as India's largest and most important trading partner with increasing bilateral trade while the US is a main source of India's foreign direct investment. The India-US partnership will reinforce peaceful maritime security and trade positioning in this region. The US ties with these nations through its foreign policies could lay the basis for transformation for further development.
Sri Lanka’s Balancing Act in the Indo-Pacific
Sri Lanka has become the epicentre of great power rivalry in the IndoPacific region over the past decade. Sri Lanka sustains close relations with all the major powers in the Indo-Pacific region. The notion of a free and open Indo-Pacific region has been supported by Sri Lanka while emphasising that security and prosperity of the Indian Ocean region should be safeguarded by promoting a maritime order.
The US considers Sri Lanka to be an important partner in the Indo-Pacific region and the gateway to the Indian Ocean. Being an island nation and its close proximity to India are key characteristics that provide Sri Lanka with the strategic importance that is required to sustain its political and economic interdependence.
Therefore, safeguarding the territorial integrity of these small island states should be of vital importance to India. Both, India and Sri Lanka, consider each other to be mutually important for geopolitical and strategic reasons. Sri Lanka, as an Island Nation identifies the multilayered regionalism approach as a prospect to position itself as a trade and maritime hub in the Indian Ocean. While balancing other regional and global powers it is important for Sri Lanka to formulate an Indo-Pacific approach. It remains in the best interests of Sri Lanka to engage with these major powers through sustained collaboration in all spheres that could benefit the island nation.
Maldives and the Indo-Pacific Engagement
A key focus area of US foreign policy has been the Indian Ocean with noteworthy engagement and arrangements with respective South Asian nations. Geostrategically situated between the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca, the Maldives is looking for a cohesive strategy for its Indo-Pacific engagement which can ‘benefit Maldives own development priorities’. The US has signed a framework for defense cooperation with the Maldives to expand engagement in the strategic Indian Ocean.
The pact brings the island nation firmly into the ‘Indo-Pacific’ side of the emerging geopolitical maritime fault line pitting the US and its allies. The current Maldives’ government has openly stated that its foreign policy approach would be ‘India first’. Although Maldives is a small island nation existing within the close periphery of the Indian strategic sphere, it is a key buffer zone that divides the Indian Ocean from the east to the west.
Indo Pacific Concept Offering Viable Alternatives
The region’s power balance dynamics are rapidly reshaping the Indian Ocean region into a sphere of reoriented strategic disposition for both emerging powers and traditional powers. The US and India have a clear stake in seeing this unified vision of making the Indo-Pacific strategy a reality. Both nations need to take forward a diplomatic and developmental process in the region that is holistic geographically while offering viable alternatives.
About the Author: Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Adviser/ Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union.