Two visitors this week to Delhi — the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and Australia — have helped highlight India’s changing geopolitical vocabulary. Two transitions are easily discernible — one, from South Asia to the Bay of Bengal littoral and the other, from the Indian Ocean to the Indo-Pacific. Together, they promise to change the way India imagines the physical spaces around it.
Pakistan’s reluctance to embark on even minimal mutually beneficial economic cooperation has made the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) dysfunctional. While Delhi does not want to abandon the project on South Asian regionalism, it has decided to concentrate its diplomatic energies on the eastern Subcontinent.
In conjunction with India’s growing links with East Asia, the Bay of Bengal has begun to replace South Asia as the primary vehicle for pursuing regional cooperation. In the expansive engagement that Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina unveiled in the last few days, integrating the waters and hinterland have emerged as a key new element of the bilateral agenda.
The Bay of Bengal may not have figured as directly in the talks between Modi and the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but it is bound to demand their attention sooner than later. For promoting regionalism in the Indian Ocean and strengthening regional maritime security have been prominent themes in Delhi’s deepening partnership with Australia in recent years.
Meanwhile, as India’s economic footprint and with it, the scope of its maritime interests widen, the idea of the Indo-Pacific has begun to transcend that of the Indian Ocean. Although the term Indo-Pacific began to appear in the Indian strategic lexicon during the UPA years, it was Modi who embraced the new geopolitical construct with enthusiasm. Australia is among the other countries that made the concept their own. With Australia facing both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it is easy to see why the term gained currency in Canberra.
The term Indo-Pacific allows the recognition of two important changes in the regional structures around us. One is the fact that Chinese economic interests and naval presence in the Indian Ocean have grown over the last decade. The other is the slow but certain rise in India’s economic and security profile in the Pacific. The idea that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are two different worlds has become increasingly unsustainable.
The pace and intensity of the integration between the two oceans has been enhanced by President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to connect China with the Indian Ocean through overland and maritime corridors. China has also acquired its first overseas military base in Djibouti, is building dual use facilities in different parts of the Indian Ocean littoral and cultivating special political relationships.
India, on its part, is trying to consolidate its traditional special relationships in the Indian Ocean while building new partnerships in the Pacific. Japan and Australia, which barely figured in India’s post-Independence strategic calculus, have now become central to Delhi’s regional security quest. India has stepped up engagement with them, not only in the bilateral framework, but also in the trilateral framework.
As the two new geopolitical frames of India — the Bay of Bengal and the Indo-Pacific — begin to intersect, Delhi has begun to factor in collaboration with Tokyo in its neighbourhood strategy. Turnbull’s visit has hopefully set the stage for doing the same with Australia.
Although it does not have the scale of economic resources that Japan brings to the table, Australia has considerable commercial heft as well as the “can-do” political attitude that can significantly reinforce India’s own outreach to the Bay of Bengal and beyond.
During Modi’s visit to Australia at the end of 2014, the two sides outlined a broad plan for security cooperation with a special emphasis on maritime issues, including naval exercises, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, peacekeeping and diplomatic coordination in regional maritime forums. Subsequently they agreed to exchange white shipping information.
The joint statement issued on Monday by Modi and Turnbull reaffirms many of these commitments. But there is one area the two sides need to put greater emphasis on: It is about developing their island territories in the Bay of Bengal and the eastern Indian Ocean.
As they saw China raise the premium on developing maritime infrastructure and strategic access to various critically located islands in the Indo-Pacific, Delhi and Canberra are waking up to the importance of their own island assets. Canberra is debating plans to develop two Indian Ocean territories — the Cocos (Keeling) and Christmas Islands — for strategic purposes. Delhi, of course, has been doing the same with the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain. But progress has been rather slow.
The prospects for strategic cooperation between Delhi and Canberra have been limited for decades by physical and political distance. The latter has been overcome through purposeful engagement in recent years. Coordinated development of their island territories can tame the tyranny of Indo-Pacific geography. Sharing of facilities and information can vastly improve the naval reach of India and Australia as well as contribute to the construction of a stable maritime order in the Bay of Bengal and the eastern Indian Ocean.