Each country has a different vision of the so-called 'Indo-Pacific' and its role in it. The views of India, China and the US are of particular interest to Australia given its interlocking relationships with each.
Some of these views were on display recently in Kunming (the closest China comes to the Indian Ocean) at a conference hosted by the Research Institute for the Indian Ocean at the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics. How does each country see the Indo-Pacific and conceptualise its role? Speakers from various countries at the conference gave distinctive views.
For India, the Indo-Pacific (viewed as an extended Indian Ocean) is home: its backyard, its swimming pool. The Indian Ocean is India’s historic sphere of influence; India engages with the region out of geographic, historical and political necessity. For example, 97% of India’s trade and 70% of its energy comes via the Indian Ocean. If India isn’t respected in the Indian Ocean, where can it command respect?
Today, when India looks out at the Indian Ocean, it sees China’s expanding engagement with the region, especially infrastructure-building and a military presence, and views this as 'encroachment'. This creates anxiety and a sense of being eclipsed. According to Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor Swaran Singh, the growth of China’s engagement with the Indian Ocean means that 'India is sensitive to China-India ties becoming increasingly asymmetric.'
At the same time, India doesn’t want to be drawn into any US strategy of China containment, which would run counter to New Delhi's tradition of non-alignment, its preference for strategic autonomy, and its own interests, for example in freedom of navigation.
For China, the Indo-Pacific (viewed as two linked oceans) is a vulnerable super-highway for transporting much-needed resources. Its role is to use its growing strength prudently to mitigate risk. This includes immediate action such as anti-piracy measures and long-term infrastructure development to reduce dependence on shipping through the Straits of Malacca.
From a Chinese perspective, it is unfortunate that Indian commentators find this disturbing and characterise China as a threat rather than a contributor. As described by Professor Ye Hailin, Editor of South Asian Studies, China would like to show that it is a 'good guy' in the Indian Ocean.
However, the real issue for China is whether the US is capable of showing the respect due to China. According to Professor Shi Yinhong, Director of the American Studies Centre at Renmin University, what China wants is for the US to 'take China seriously as a power...and treat China as a power that can share with the US...and has a role in the strategic world.' The concern is that the US will work with allies like Japan and Australia and partners like India in ways that harm China. This leaves China alert to any slights or signs of attempted containment.
For the US, the Indo-Pacific (viewed as two linked commands) is about a global power trying to switch focus and stitch together its map. In the words of Rukmani Gupta of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses: 'It’s about a more integrated approach to the region…a vision of the region’s geography to include the Indian Ocean.' It is an attempt to pivot or rebalance to a larger concept of the Asian region.
America's job in the Indo-Pacific is what it has always been: providing global public goods (particularly freedom of navigation), reassurance to allies and partners, and promoting US interests. The change is in the context: the US is feeling a threat to its primacy.
For Australia, the Indo-Pacific is a snakepit of rivalries in which it is doing its best to be a friend to all.
Playing the role of the 'nursery school teacher of international relations', Australia just wants everyone to play nicely and get along. But this is painfully difficult to achieve. Australia supports US engagement to ensure the stability of the region, but then needs to reassure China that this is not a strategy of containment. Australia presents an inclusive idea of the Indo-Pacific that embraces China, but then has to deal with Indian anxiety over encroachment. And Australia is in constant danger of being painted as a US pawn.
As Dr Reena Marwah of the Association of Asia Scholars put it at the Kunmin conference, we are at a time when 'oceans have become bridges; not the buffers or barriers of old times.' Being aware of the 'mental maps' through which countries view the Indo-Pacific can help in dealing with the inevitable tensions in the region.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.