By the turn of the 21st Century, the geopolitical connect between the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific had become increasingly palpable, in both the geoeconomic and security dimensions. The first is exemplified by the critical dependence of East Asia on the natural resources of West Asia and Africa via the Indian Ocean.
The security dimension is best represented by the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) launched in 2004 to counter sea-borne proliferation of WMDs, which focused on the maritime swath stretching from West Asia (Iran and Syria) to Northeast Asia (North Korea).
Such interconnectedness led analysts like me to the search for a suitable regional nomenclature. “Asia” was too broad and continental. “Asia-Pacific” – which traditionally stood for “the Asian littoral of the Pacific” – was inadequate.
The “Indo-Pacific’” (Indian Ocean–Pacific Ocean combine) – seemed more appropriate.
The trigger for the “Indo-Pacific” coinage was China’s increasing politico-military assertiveness and the ensuing enunciation of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy in 2005 by a U.S. think-tank. These developments led to anxieties in many regional countries, including India and Japan. In 2006, India and Japan began sharing strategic assessments.
During my discussions with Japanese analysts at IDSA [Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses] in New Delhi in October 2006, we took note of China’s key strategic vulnerability, viz, its energy lifelines transiting the Indian Ocean. The “Indo-Pacific” idea was an opportunity to showcase the Indian Navy’s capability to moderate China’s behavior, thereby dissuading its future aggressiveness.
This led to the publication of my paper titled “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation” in IDSA’s Strategic Analyses journal (January 2007) explaining the Indo-Pacific concept, albeit in a subtle manner. A few months later in August 2007, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian Parliament, speaking of the “Confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.”
One often comes across the eastward shift of the world’s economic “center of gravity” toward the Asian continent. Given the inextricable link between geoeconomics and the ocean realm, the continent’s rim-land is likely to lead Asia’s “rise.”
This made it exigent for the “maritime underbelly” of Asia – the Indo-Pacific – to be regarded as a singular and integrated geopolitical construct, wherein lie tremendous geoeconomic opportunities as well as daunting security challenges, not only for Asia, but also for the rest of the wider world.
Another essential underpinning of the Indo-Pacific idea is the growing eminence of India. Even though the “Indo” in “Indo-Pacific” represents the Indian Ocean and not India, the global community expects India to play a major role, including in terms of ensuring a maritime environment that is conducive for economic growth and development.
The long-prevalent “Asia-Pacific” construct was inadequate and ambiguous in terms of incorporating India in the affairs of the region.