Event ReportsPublished on Sep 23, 2019
Implementing the Indo–Pacific: APEC and other steps for integrating the region

A panel discussion was organised with a delegation from the Perth USAsia Centre and ORF faculty on ‘Implementing the Indo-Pacific: APEC and other steps for integrating the region’. The key speakers for the event were Stephen Smith, Former Minister for Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Australia, Peter Varghese AO, Distinguished Fellow, Perth USAsia Centre and Chancellor, University of Queensland, Erin Watson Lynn, Head of Programmes, Perth USAsia Centre, Ritika Passi, Associate Fellow and Project Editor (ORF) and the event was moderated by Ashok Malik, Distinguished Fellow (ORF).

Opening the session Mr. Ashok Malik, pointed out the challenges faced by APEC as a 20th century economic institution in the larger geo-strategic construct of the 21st century Indo-Pacific. He contrasted India’s membership of the Indo-Pacific against non-membership of APEC paving way to two parallel ‘universes’ that would shape the larger Asian region in the years ahead.

Speaking on the occasion, Ms. Erin Watson Lynn observed that the most practical mechanism for realising the Indo-Pacific construct was by bringing India into APEC and by simultaneously accounting for the diverse views of the nations in the region about India’s inclusion, given the country’s strengths and weaknesses. She revealed that most of these views are favourable.

Mr. Stephen Smith, described the Indo-Pacific as ‘Asia-Pacific plus India’. Acknowledging a growing acceptance of the notion of the Indo-Pacific, with ASEAN led by Indonesia coming out with a paper on the Indo-Pacific, PM Modi speaking about a free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific region at the Shangri-La dialogue and the Australian initiative to create an Indo-Pacific division in its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is increasingly being replicated by other countries. Mr. Smith, enunciated Australia’s support for India’s membership in APEC by suggesting that in order to embrace the concept of Indo-Pacific in its totality it is imperative for India to join APEC, which consequently would convert APEC into ‘IPEC or Indo-Pacific Economic Community’ with India’s membership.

Mr. Peter Varghese AO began by emphasising APEC’s geo-strategic role in Australia, from when it was put together in the 1980s. While at its inception, India was hardly considered as a partner in APEC. However, with India’s economic and geo-strategic importance as the second largest economy of Asia adding to the country’s pursued centrality to the region through its ‘Act East Policy’, it has become insubstantial to consider the Asia-Pacific without India. Stating APEC’s diversion from its core geo-strategic moorings to areas of trade facilitation, he highlighted APEC’s focus on trade-facilitation supportive of trade-liberalisation policies in the region.

Ms. Ritika Passi commented on the narrative of the Indo-Pacific being one of strategic competition vis-a-vis the rise of China and has seen a strategic convergence through the rise of maritime security cooperation, joint exercises, naval drills, military build-up and modernisation, and development  of naval bases. She stressed that a narrow conception of the Indo-Pacific as a theatre of ‘balance of power’ at the expense of growth and prosperity will short-change two-third of the world population that calls the Indo-pacific their home, implying the need for the security logic to be complemented by a development based vision, putting people and their prosperity at centre. She accentuated the necessity for connectivity in building the Indo-Pacific in terms of physical, financial, trade and investment. Explaining the role played by institutions such as IORA (in the domain of Blue Economy) and the APEC, Ms. Passi suggested the need to link the two or have them interact with each other. She further questioned the need for an altogether new institution that could act as a catalyst to the Indo-Pacific strategic construct.

India in APEC, she believed, would lead to better prospects than what the reality seemed to suggest. Ms. Passi however, highlighted the contradictions faced by India that needed to be bridged, specifically in terms of the role that India sees for itself as well as in integrating itself in regional value-chains. Reconciling with these contradictions is essential for India to become a member of the APEC.

Before the floor was opened for questions Mr. Malik, enquired about China and Russia’s role as prominent powers in the Indo-Pacific region. His query was satiated by the panelists. Mr. Varghese highlighted China’s greater prominence as a power in the Asia-Pacific rather than in the Indo-Pacific and pointed out the importance of constraining China’s ambitions in the latter. He went on to comment on the Russian ambition to be recognised as a major power on the world stage. He cited the existence of the subtle animosity between Russia and China that hinders any prospects for future alliance. Mr. Smith underlined the importance of the different regional blocs—for instance APEC, East Asia Summit, IORA, and Pacific Island Forum—within the broader Indo-Pacific construct. Ms. Lynn stressed upon the dynamic nature of the Asia-Pacific membership.

The questions from the audience saw broad themes revolving around balancing the power struggle between China and the US, the need for India to carry its weight, the unwillingness on the part of US and China for India joining the APEC and understanding Australia’s perception of  this situation.

The panelists illustrated how the nature of changing policies of the US and China makes it difficult for Australia to depend on either one. More recently, with Chinese assertiveness in the region increasing, the panelists acknowledged the fact that constraining China isn’t a very real possibility. Thereby, Mr. Smith emphasised the possibility of balancing out China’s power in the region with India’s inclusion in the APEC. Australia believes India to be essential in  balancing  the power struggle between the US and  China that could otherwise lead to extreme positions on both sides. The panelists unanimously agreed on Australia’s willingness to partner with India and Smith pointed out the strategic support Australia extended to India with regards to inclusion in a permanent seat in the UNSC and NSG. Varghese however, implied that India needs to be forthright about its importance in APEC as well as UNSC. As a balancer of power in the region, the more weight India gathers, the more influence it could exert both strategically and economically.

While, Ms. Lynn, Mr. Smith and Mr. Varghese parted with Australia’s perception and the persistent unwillingness on the part of US, Passi illustrated the uncertainty of whether India would have been more welcome even before the Trump presidency. This uncertainty existed even with Obama, as the trade representatives in the US congressional hearings proposed India’s need to demonstrate its ability to fit into the APEC construct, thus signifying the unwillingness on the part of the US as well. Passi parted with the thought that India could consider alternative mechanisms that allow for an alliance with APEC members without engaging in a full membership.

The session as a whole concluded with the panelists highlighting the growing stature of India and Australia as Indo-Pacific powers. Brimming with meritorious insights, it left the audience with a lot of food for thought.

Prepared by Shreya Mishra, Ria Kasliwal and Jahnvi Aggarwal, research interns.

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