The objectives of New Delhi’s Oceans Initiative get substantial traction by the provisions related to political, security and maritime cooperation in the Action Plan that in turn facilitate coordinated engagement of India and ASEAN in addressing emerging geostrategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
Geostrategic stability in the Indo-Pacific region has taken center stage in shaping the dynamics of India-ASEAN strategic cooperation in recent years. In that context, New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) proposed at the 14th East Asia Summit in Bangkok in November 2019 is considered as a landmark intervention by India and a potential game-changer in propelling robust engagement between India and ASEAN partners based on convergence of strategic interests in politico-economic and sociocultural frontiers while ensuring safety, maritime security and stability in the crucial Indo-Pacific region. The newly adopted Plan of Action (2021-2025) during India-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held in September 2020 is all set to add further momentum to the roadmap articulated by IPOI in bringing India and ASEAN members closer, working together as natural partners in tactical and strategic manner.
The argument here is that the comprehensive nature of India-ASEAN Plan of Action (2021-2025) synergises with strategic framework of India’s IPOI and facilitates the attainment of overarching equilibrium in the sensitive Indo-Pacific corridor in a more meaningful, effective and tangible manner. The symbiotic implications of the ambitious new Plan of Action emboldens the strategic elements of IPOI and makes it a formidable geopolitical construct that has the power and capability to ensure maritime security, shared progress, territorial integrity, and international-rules based system in the region. With India and ASEAN partners completely acknowledging the ardent necessity to expand connectivity, strategic, economic and pluralistic cooperation, and sustainable infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific, the roadmap envisaged by IPOI is all set to provide the much needed power balance and geostrategic equilibrium in the greater Indian Ocean region.
India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific has been clearly articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018 in which he stated the geographical space of India’s idea as starting from Africa to the Americas, which covers both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Modi also advocated free, inclusive and open maritime order in the entire Indo-Pacific region. Later in Bangkok in 2019 while unveiling the roadmap of IPOI, Modi further emphasised multilateral cooperation between India and ASEAN and said:
“We should recognise the imperative for all states in the regions with interests in it, to work collaboratively to safeguard the oceans; enhance maritime security; preserve marine resources; build capacity and fairly share resources; reduce disaster risk; enhance science, technology and academic cooperation; and promote free, fair and mutually beneficial trade and maritime transport.”
Concurrently, the Plan of Action (2021-2025) allows for India and ASEAN to explore commonalities, identify priorities of mutual concern and develop appropriate mechanism towards ensuring long lasting peace, security and shared prosperity in the critical Indo-Pacific region. Keeping the traditional complexities of maritime contestation in the Indo-Pacific in perspective and in conjunction with rapidly evolving geopolitical rift lines in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, the Action Plan rightfully calls for deepening cooperation in an entire gamut of issues of mutual interests including boosting trade and economic cooperation, investment, energy cooperation, information and communication technology cooperation, connectivity and people-to-people contact between ASEAN and India, while specifically emphasising the strategic need towards accelerating concerted efforts in ensuring maritime security, defence and intelligence sharing, capacity building along with enhancing counterterrorism and cybersecurity measures. The stress on security paradigm along with capacity building in defence and intelligence issues enshrined in the new Action Plan emboldens the philosophy of India’s Oceans’ Initiative that further intends to promote institutional engagement at India-ASEAN domain while aiming to extend India’s power dynamics in the region.
With several ASEAN countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam currently locked in territorial dispute and maritime claims with China in the South China Sea in conjunction with bitter standoff between India and China across LAC in eastern Ladakh, the consolidation of IPOI towards intensifying strategic cooperation between India and ASEAN becomes all the more important in maintaining security and stability in the sensitive Indo-Pacific maritime corridor. The objectives of New Delhi’s Oceans Initiative get substantial traction by the provisions related to political, security and maritime cooperation in the Action Plan that in turn facilitate coordinated engagement of India and ASEAN in addressing emerging geostrategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. Additionally, the Plan of Action (2021-2025) propels extensive cooperation between ASEAN members and India in bilateral and multilateral dimensions in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight, uninterrupted trade and commerce, and resolution of outstanding maritime disputes in accordance with international law and in conformity to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Importantly, as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines tend to pivot towards India in resolving territorial and maritime disputes in the Indo-Pacific, the institutional construct of IPOI gets further consolidated. On similar lines Singapore, Thailand, and Myanmar have repeatedly shown inclination towards India as a huge market base with strong democratic fabric in terms of enhancing economic and trade engagement and socio-cultural connectivity as envisaged in the Plan of Action.
While Malaysia and Cambodia generally tend to pivot towards China they also are quite cognizant of India’s power base to counter Chinese hegemonistic design while providing for huge market for trade and commerce. Simultaneously, the already existing trilateral engagement between India, Australia and Indonesia has been providing significant impetus to the vision and objective of IPOI towards ensuring open, secured and stable Indo-Pacific. Much to such collaborative diplomacy, the recent invitation of India to Vietnam to join IPOI resonates growing convergence between New Delhi and Hanoi to enhance strategic cooperation in conformity to IPOI and ASEAN’s outlook on Indo-Pacific to achieve shared security, prosperity and inclusive growth for all in the region. All these developments factor in towards manifestation of the overarching objectives of IPOI and providing a level playing ground to effectively contain Chinese maritime and territorial contestation.
The context of ASEAN centrality as envisaged in IPOI perfectly synergises with India’s ambitious Act East Policy, and other geostrategic interventions such as East Asia Summit and Quad configuration (comprising India, the United States, Japan, and Australia) in order to ensure security and stability in the Indo-Pacific maritime corridor that constitutes a major sea trade route connecting the Indian Ocean with the Pacific. The very reference of Modi in his address to the 75th UNGA on 16 September 2020 about , as well as India’s commitment towards enhancing security and inclusive economic growth in the Indo-Pacific region is in sync with the vision of deepening strategic cooperation with ASEAN members on multidimensional nomenclatures.
The trajectory of unfolding alignments in tune with the overarching construct envisaged by Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and based on convergence of strategic interests of India-ASEAN architecture is bound to create far-reaching ramifications while impacting the geodynamics of the greater Indian Ocean region. The upcoming 17th ASEAN-India Summit is certainly going to be a defining moment when New Delhi and ASEAN are expected to push through pressing agenda and hammering out effective roadmap aiming at unitedly addressing rapidly evolving geopolitical challenges in the critical Indo-Pacific region.
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Debasis Bhattacharya is currently working as Professor at Amity Business School Amity University Gurugram. He is also Managing Editor of the Centre for BRICS Studies ...Read More +