Despite decades of successful implementation of multiple regional cooperation policies in East and Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific concept is yet to be institutionalized. This paper attempts to examine the challenges that face institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific concept by focusing on previous foreign policies and their significance in the region. Based on the findings, recommendations are generated in the manner in which Indo-Pacific can successfully be institutionalized.
Regional cooperation and economic integration in East and South East Asia began decades ago. While some countries such as India were reluctant to join the regional ties, they eventually complied due to the need to grow their economies and strengthen territorial defense. Since then, various regional and international foreign policies have been established in the area, with the primary objective of enhancing socio-economic and political ties, and fostering social order. Although majority of these policies are widely accepted and institutionalized, some such as the Indo-Pacific concept have received massive opposition from some countries such as China. This unsuccessful attempt to institutionalize the Indo-Pacific concept forms the basis for this study. The purpose of this article is to explore the history of regional cooperation between India and Southeast Asia, India’s foreign policies from “Act East” Policy to the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”, ASEAN’S Strategic Positioning in the regional geo-politics of major powers, geo-strategy of Indo-Pacific, challenges and opportunities that face the Indo-Pacific concept and potential solutions for successful institutionalization of the concept.
India and Southeast Asia: A Historical Perspective
During and after the post-cold war period, India and Southeast Asia shared cultural, economic and religious ties. Scholars observe that India spread its cultural influence on Southeast Asia during the raids conducted by Cholas on Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (Saran, 2018). As Cholas, a dynasty of Southern India, raided Southeast Asia, it greatly spread the Indian culture of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, which was later adopted by a large population of people living in the region. This led to the building of several Southeast Asian temples in Angkor Wat in Cambodia (Saran, 2018). In addition, India’s and Southeast Asia’s relationship was shaped by their rich economic ties. Notably, during the premodern period, the two regions traded in textile, which was manufactured in India; and spices and woods, which were natural products from Southeast Asia (Otsuka & Sugihara, 2019). The trade pattern, cultural and religious influence were the deepest ties between Southeast Asia and India in the post-cold war period.
While India and Southeast Asia shared multiple cultural and religious ties, the two regions were virtually disengaged due to political reasons. Scholars argue that one of the most significant reasons for their disengagement was the occurrences in the 1980s, where India, through its then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, exhibited naval ambitions (Bajpaee, 2017). From this event, Southeast Asia perceived that India was trying to gain leadership power in the region, and as such, the two countries developed mutual mistrust.
India’s relation with Vietnam and establishment of ASEAN was also a cause of political disengagement with Southeast Asia. In particular, New Delhi’s support for Vietnam invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia) ruined the relationship between India and Southeast Asia, amidst the planned diplomacy dialogue to include India in ASEAN (Bajpaee, 2017). From time immemorial, India and Vietnam had been allies, and so was New Delhi and Hanoi. Thus, New Delhi was in full support of Vietnam when it invaded Southeast Asia, and replaced the communist administration with the Vietnamese-installed Phnom Penh government. India’s decision to support Vietnam marked the beginning of a major set back in its relations with Southeast Asia. Furthermore, some scholars argue that creation of ASEAN led to poor political relations between India and Southeast Asia. India viewed ASEAN as “an instrument of neo-colonialism and reincarnation of South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) (Bajpaee, 2017, pg.349). In India’s perception, ASEAN was established with the intentions of enabling member states to exert economic, political and cultural pressure in the region. For this reason, India developed suspicions about Southeast ambitions to control all economic and institutional linkages in the area, an aspect that compromised their political ties.
Generally, India and Southeast Asia’s political relationship before the “Look East”, “Act East” and other recent policies was characterized by ups and downs. While cultural, religious and economic ties brought the two countries together, political relations caused disengagement. India’s political relations with Southeast’s “foes”, such as Vietnam facilitated the disengagement. Similarly, the mutual mistrust between the two nations was a root cause of their long decades of virtual disengagement. Notably, effort by India to elevate its position in the region was viewed as leadership ambitions by its counterpart. Furthermore, Southeast Asia’s decision to form a treaty of trade in the region was perceived as an attempt to exert power and control. All these factors shaped India’s and Southeast Asia’s relationship in the historical context.
From “Act East” Policy to the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”
Despite its previous fallout with Southeast Asia, India began efforts to re-engage with the region through various foreign policies, including ‘Look East’ policy that de-phased to ‘Act East’ policy, and eventually led to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. According to scholars, the ‘Look East’ policy was an initiative by the Rao government to deepen economic and security ties with India’s eastern neighbors (Pande, 2017; Ahmed, 2019). Nations in East Asia were bourgeoning economic powers, and with its geographical positioning in the region, India could secure supplies for its economy by developing ties in the area. In addition, the policy was aimed at strengthening India’s position in the region (Ahmed, 2019). Back then, China was increasingly gaining dominance in the South East, which was a potential threat to India. As a way to avert China’s dominance, India resolved to cultivate strategic relations with the South East countries. Basically, the objectives of the ‘Look East’ policy were to boost India’s economy through trade, nurture its security links, and strengthen its position in the South East region.
After a while, the ‘Look East’ policy culminated into ‘Act East’ policy. According to scholars, this change was facilitated by the already established economic ties between India and the South East region, and the need for India to play a substantial role in Asia-Pacific (Ahmed, 2019). India had cultivated socio-economic and cultural ties with Southeast and East region; thus, it was high time for the country to be an active player in major activities of the region. Jaishankar (2019) adds that the ‘Act East’ policy differed from the Look East policy in multiple ways. Notably, the policy had a wider focus in scope and objectives. For instance, the Act East policy involved four different elements: need to secure the Indian Ocean, deepen strategic partnerships with other balancing powers including Japan, Australia and Russia, integrate with Southeast Asia and manage differences with China (Jaishankar, 2019). India, through the ‘Act East’ policy, was determined to develop economic and security ties with the Indo-Pacific, and elevate its position by being part of the nations that balanced power in the region.
Since implementation of the ‘Act East’ policy, India’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific has become stronger. This is evident from India’s decision to embrace the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ (Bajpaee, 2017). Notably, the Indo-Pacific has long been considered a region of economic prosperity due to its close proximity to the Pacific and Indian Ocean, which are major trade centers. For this reason, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific was established to facilitate connectivity in the region in order to promote economic prosperity while strengthening good governance, mutual benefits, and cooperation among other principles. Since its establishment, India has shown great support for the Outlook, which is a sign that the country is willing to expand its economic and political ties to regions in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, India’s adoption of the Outlook is a clear indication that the nation no longer perceives ASEAN centrality as an instrument of neo-colonialism, but as a guide for promotion of socio-economic, political and cultural cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
ASEAN’S Strategic Positioning in the Regional Geo-Politics of Major Powers
ASEAN is strategically situated in the geo-politics of major powers. For instance, on one hand ASEAN maintains a geographical proximity with China, one of the emerging superpowers, and a country that is rapidly exerting its power in the Southeast Asia region and over its maritime borders. Similarly, ASEAN is strategically situated in India, a country that is slowly rising to power. Apart from its geographical proximity to these nations, ASEAN is also strategically positioned in the geopolitics of other major powers such as United States. Although United States is not part of the Southeast Asia region, it shares international ties with ASEAN by being a member state. ASEAN strategic positioning in the regional geo-politics of these major powers is an arsenal as the intergovernmental organization can easily balance diplomacy and cooperation among the countries.
ASEAN strategic positioning in the regional geo-politics of major powers enables the organization to meet its primary objectives. For instance, scholars observe that while ASEAN has limited military power, it relies on its strategic position among major powers to restore peace and punish conflicting countries. Notably, it is argued that ASEAN uses political means to balance power in the region by sending signals to member states and international communities regarding illegitimate or unjust behavior of target states (Koga, 2018). In turn, ASEAN receives international support from the external great powers, which impose material punishment upon the target state (Koga, 2018). For instance, given that ASEAN maintains international relations with United States, it can easily gain political, military or financial support to counter an unjust or unruly behavior in target states. As such, it may be argued that ASEAN relies heavily on the political stability of major powers in the region to fulfil its role of balancing power.
Apart from relying on its external great powers, ASEAN strategic position also enables the organization to balance power in the region. For instance, since ASEAN is located between India and China, it can effectively exert its normative constraints through diffusion of its rules in Southeast Asia (Koga, 2018). Koga (2018) also emphasizes that ASEAN centrality in the region allows the organization to “tame the regional great powers politically, shape their behavior, and ensure regional stability” (pg. 50). In particular ASEAN, constructs norms and enforces standards of behavior across its member states. Given its geographical proximity to these great powers, such as China, ASEAN is able to instill these norms in the region.
Geo-Strategy of Indo-Pacific: Emergence of a New Era
After ASEAN, Indo-Pacific has recently become a highly debated concept across East, Southeast Asia and United States. In a report issued by United States, the new era of Indo-Pacific provides the opportunity for nations to safeguard sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity (Cossa & Glosserman, 2019). Koga (2020) also emphasizes that the concept aims at shaping regional order in the Indo-Pacific. Evidently, this new era is a drastic shift from initial alliances formed by countries in the Southeast, whose primary objective was to strengthen economic ties. Instead, the Indo-Pacific is viewed as a strategy for nations to not only foster trade links, but also combat territorial threats and geopolitical problems by forming alliances with their neighbors.
The concept of Indo-Pacific has been received differently among various countries. In fact, some nations such as China prefer Asia-Pacific to the new concept of Indo-Pacific. In addition, Indo-Pacific strategies differ among the Indo-Pacific Four nations that have shown great interest in the concept (Choong, 2019). For instance, scholars observe that the ASEAN approach towards Indo-Pacific constitute elements of connectivity and infrastructure and rejects some principles of free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) (Choong, 2019). In particular, ASEAN and Indonesia are more focused on ensuring that a seamless connectivity, in form of infrastructure and institutions is achieved in the long run. In addition, connectivity through people, in terms of collaboration, is a key objective of ASEAN Indo-Pacific strategy. Contrarily, United States approach constitutes all the elements of the FOIP including exclusion of China and loss of ASEAN centrality (Choong, 2019). In fact, with the ongoing conflict between China and United States, it appears that the latter is more focused on ensuring that China’s rising power is controlled.
Japan is also among nations that have taken a different approach in the geo-strategy of Indo-Pacific. While the concept was initially aimed at shaping regional order in the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s focus mainly lies on increasing its defense capabilities. In particular, the country is greatly committed to enhancing national defense through its internal capabilities and alliances with other major powers such as United States (Koga, 2020). This move is aimed at safeguarding the country’s boundaries against territorial attacks. Similarly, Japan’s commitment to strengthening its military defense is viewed as a strategy to counter the shifts in the regional balance of power (Koga, 2020). As such, Japan’s Indio-Pacific strategy encompasses two approaches, of regional order and national defense, with the latter being the most imperative.
Similarly, India, is also showing great interest in the new concept of Indo-Pacific. However, unlike other nations that have adopted the concept, India considers Indo-Pacific as the region “from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas” (Rajagopalan, 2020, pg.78). In other words, India’s priority in the region is to establish strategic economic linkage with not only East and Southeast Asia, but also the area in the Indian Ocean, South China and the Pacific, with the aim of strengthening its position in the region.
While officials argue that India’s decision to adopt the Indo-Pacific concept is based on economic interest, this stance has been contended by many. According to some scholars, India’s Indo-Pacific is a geo-strategy to avert China’s rising power in the region. China’s assertiveness in the South China seas has been raising concerns in India. Notably, India relies heavily on the South Sea for trade links, and is concerned about China’s assertiveness on its freedom to navigate the area (Rajagopalan, 2020). As such, the Indo-Pacific is perceived as a strategy by India to balance power in China and prevent any adversities that may arise from its rampant dominance in the region.
Apart from balancing power, India’s adoption of Indo-Pacific is viewed as a foreign policy for military planning. For a while now, ASEAN member countries and some Indian officials have expressed their concern about Chinese naval forays into the Indian Ocean (Rajagopalan, 2020). As such India’s decision to adopt the Indo-Pacific concept is perceived as an attempt to enhance its military capability by partnering with countries in Indian Ocean, South China and the Pacific, to counter China’s actions in the region.
Challenges and Opportunities
While the Indo-Pacific concept provides an opportunity for regional cooperation among states, its institutionalization is subject to multiple challenges. First, the concept has an ineffective ideational leadership. In particular, majority of the scholars advocating for the initiative are policy analysts and political scientists, thus, their focal point deviates from economic cooperation and regionalism (He & Feng, 2020). As a concept intended to shape regional order through trade, security and international relations, Indo-Pacific may not fulfill such objectives if its loosely defined by scholars that do not consider economic regionalism as a core element. Besides, treaties that have been successfully institutionalized before such as Asia-Pacific were facilitated by economists (He & Feng, 2020). As such, the current shift in ideational leadership from economists to policy analysts creates a challenge in institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific concept.
Furthermore, institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific faces the challenge of a weak ideational leadership from the epistemic community. So far, all nations that have shown interest in the policy either lack a common interest or have a different opinion about the scope of the concept (He & Feng, 2020). Up to date, it still remains unclear on the specific region covered by the Indo-Pacific. For instance, Australia and United States consider Indo-Pacific as the original Asia-Pacific region and India (He & Feng, 2020). Based on this perspective, the two country’s interest appear to be limited to the two regions. Similarly, Japan regards Indo-Pacific as the area that lies between Asia and Africa, across the Pacific and Indian Ocean (He & Fang, 2020). On the other hand, India considers the area from Indian Ocean to Pacific Ocean through Indo-Pacific straits, South East China and Philippines seas as part of Indo-Pacific (He & Fang, 2020). Undoubtedly, India’s perspective of the concept is broader compared to the rest of the quad countries. This variation in the geographic demarcation of the Indo-Pacific poses a challenge to institutionalization of regional cooperation since only two quad nations share a common perception of the concept.
Weak executive leadership also poses a challenge in institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific. Since the concept was first debated in the foreign policy discourse, it has received less support from major powers, making its institution quite difficult. Patterns of countries that have previously advocated for and led in institutionalization of the policy is a clear indication of the weak executive leadership. For instance, during the early stages, the concept was first led by Japan (He & Fang, 2020). After a while, Japan received support from three other countries, United States, Australia, and India, to form the Quad Four. However, Australia withdrew from the Quad, compromising the strength of the executive leadership (He & Fang, 2020). This withdrawal affected institutionalization of the concept since there lacked sufficient leadership to tackle operational obstacles in the regional cooperation. Thus, for the Indo-Pacific to be institutionalized effectively, executive leadership of the foreign policy must be restored.
China’s rising power in the Asian region also poses a great challenge to institutionalization of Indo-Pacific. Arguably, China’s adoption of the policy is crucial for success of regional cooperation for various reasons. First, South China Sea is a strategic location for global shipping trade, and an area of interest for Indo-Pacific countries due to its economic value (He & Fang, 2020). However, China is reluctant to embrace the Indo-Pacific because it believes that the strategy of the policy is to avert its rising power from a geopolitical perspective. Therefore, amidst China’s assertiveness in the Southeast Sea and reluctance to embrace the foreign policy, it may be difficult for the Quad four countries to fully benefit from the regional cooperation, since maritime border conflicts will continuously disrupt the economic integration.
China’s reluctance to adopt Indo-Pacific is also a challenge to institutionalization of the concept from an executive leadership perspective. Notably, China’s rising power and control over the South China sea has contributed towards withdrawal of major powers from executive leadership of Indo-Pacific. For instance, scholars argue that Australia withdrew from the Quad 1.0 to cultivate its relations with China (He & Fang, 2020). For years, Australia and China have maintained strong trade relations. Studies show that trade between the two countries rose from 1 per cent to approximately 25 percent between 1972 and 2011 (Culas & Timsina, 2019). From these statistics, it is evident that the two countries are in a mutually beneficial trade treaty. Hypothetically, Australia’s involvement in executive leadership of the Indo-Pacific would raise concerns about its attempt to aid a policy that allegedly constraints China’s rise, which would ruin its trade relations. Therefore, the fact that China is constantly rising in power, has trade relations with major powers, and exhibits reluctance to adopt the Indo-Pacific concept creates dilemma among major executive leaders and compromises institutionalization of the policy.
Regardless of the challenges facing institutionalization of Indo-Pacific, there are multiple opportunities at the member states’ disposal. Major powers have shown great interest in the policy, and are more likely to boost its institution. For instance, for the past few years, United States has exhibited a high momentum to promote Quad 2.0 and FOIP (He & Fang, 2020). Notably, president Donald Trump has progressively emphasized the need to revive the initial idea of the quad by forming quad 2.0. United States is a major power that has the military and economic capability required for the international system (He & Fang, 2020). As such, its current momentum regarding the matter is an opportunity for other states to utilize in institutionalization of economic and regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
Economic and regional integration in India and Southeast Asia has developed in different phases. In India, regional ties began with the ‘Look East’ Policy, which culminated to ‘Act East’ policy, ASEAN and the current Indo-Pacific concept. All these policies have presented different opportunities and mutual benefits in the region. The Act East policy, for instance, enabled India to deepen strategic partnerships with other major powers in the east and Southeast. In addition, the policies have had geopolitical and geostrategic importance in the region. For instance, ASEAN strategic position among major powers has enabled the intergovernmental organization to avert rising power in the region, and to diffuse its normative constraints to Southeast. Furthermore, ASEAN strategic position has enabled the organization to gain support from major powers, despite its limited military capabilities.
Nonetheless, some of the currently established concepts in the foreign policy discourse continue to face major challenges in institutionalization. For instance, the Indo-Pacific remain a highly debated concept due to its varying strategies across the Quad countries. In particular, there are varying opinions regarding regional demarcations of the Indo-Pacific. In addition, inadequate and weak ideational and executive leadership pose a major challenge to effective institutionalization of Indo-Pacific. If these challenges are not overcome soon, there may be no prospect of regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
In my opinion, successful institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific concept requires a strategic approach that involves incremental steps. First, it is essential for the Quad countries to build trust and confidence among middle and major powers (Vignesh, 2015). From a political perspective, some powers such as China are reluctant to embrace the concept due to mistrust. In particular, the country is concerned that Indo-Pacific, especially, FOIP, is a strategy to constrain its rising powers. Given the geo-strategic relevance of China in the economic success of the region, there is need to ensure that trust is rebuilt, for the country to be part of the international system.
Secondly, institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific requires a clearly defined framework that is free of conflicting interests. So far, the Quad countries have failed to establish a clear geographical demarcation of the Indo-Pacific. Notably, United States and Australia are the only nations that share a common perspective about the concept. In addition, the interest of some nations in the Indo-Pacific appears to be broader than that of its partners. Besides, it is evident that the existing loosely defined framework consists of conflicting interests. For instance, some nations such as Japan are interested in enhancement of defense rather than regional order (Koga, 2020). Similarly, United States FOIP is seemingly a strategy to contain China’s rising power in the Southeast Asia. The fact that all nations which show interest in the concept have varying motives is a constraint that can only be overcome through development of a clear and unbiased architecture.
Ultimately, successful implementation of the concept of Indo-Pacific relies on peace and stability of the region, thus, harmony is a prerequisite that cannot be overlooked. If the emerging security issues in the Indo-Pacific region are not handled effectively, it may be difficult to establish regional cooperation. As such, it is recommended that existing ASEAN principles are used complementarily with the concept of Indo-Pacific. Notably, diplomatic talks should be established to solve the existing trade conflict between United States and China. In addition, regional alliances should be used to combat any adversities that may arise from China’s rising power and naval activities. If ASEAN principle of consensus and diplomatic talks are utilized, it will be easier to maintain peace for successfully instillation of the Indo-Pacific regional cooperation.
Ahmed, Z. (2019). India’s Act East policy and North East India: A critical review. International Journal of Research in Social Sciences, 9(9), 1-11.
Bajpaee, C. (2017). Dephasing India’s Look East/Act East policy. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 39(2), 348-372.
Choong, W. (2019). The return of the Indo-Pacific strategy: An assessment. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 73(5), 415-430.
Cossa, R., & Glosserman, B. (2019). Regional overview: Defining and refining the Indo-Pacific concept. Comparative Connections, 21(2), 1-12.
Culas, R., & Timsina, K. (2019). China-Australia free trade agreement: Implications for Australian agriproducts trade and farm economies. Australasian Agricultural & Resource Economics Society.
He, K. & Feng, H. (2020). The institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific: Problems and prospects. International Affairs, 96(1), 149-168.
Jaishankar, D. (2019). Acting East: India in the Indo-Pacific. Brookings India Impact Series 102019. Brookings Institution India Center.
Koga, K. (2018). ASEAN’s evolving institutional strategy: Managing great power politics in South China sea disputes. The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 11(1), 49-80.
Koga, K. (2020). Japan’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ question: Countering China or shaping a new regional order? International Affairs, 96(1), 49-73.
Otsuka, K., & Sugihara, K. (2019). Paths to the emerging state in Asia and Africa. Springer.
Pande, A. (2017). From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s foreign policy. HarperCollins Publishers India.
Rajagopalan, R. (2020). Evasive balancing: India’s unviable Indo-Pacific strategy. International Affairs, 96(1), 75-93.
Saran, S. (2018). Cultural and civilization links between India and Southeast Asia: Historical and contemporary dimensions. Springer Publishers.
Tertia, J., & Perwita, A. (2018). Maritime security in Indo-Pacific: Issues, challenges and prospects. International Journal of Scientific Relations, 14(1), 77-95.
Vignesh, R. (2015). The proposal for an Indo-Pacific treaty of friendship and cooperation: A critical reassessment. Journal of ASEAN Studies, 3(1), 22-31.