The Philippine Star
Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative: An open and comprehensive initiative for maritime cooperation
The concept “Indo-Pacific,” has recently gained greater salience in diplomatic parlance. What is Indo-Pacific really about? Literally, it signifies the confluence of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans that can no longer be handled as distinct spheres. We are speaking of a maritime space that connects Africa, Asia, Eurasia’s Pacific Coast, Oceania and the Pacific Coast of the Americas. Over 50 percent of global trade traverses this maritime domain. It is also home to over 64 percent of the world’s population and 62 percent of the global GDP. And obviously, the security, stability, peace and prosperity of this vast region is vital for the world.
Why then are we looking at it in a joint rather than separate manner? Whether it is the yardsticks of trade and investment, connectivity and travel, or politics and security, what begins in the Pacific no longer ends there and the same holds true for the Indian Ocean. In essence, the landscape, capabilities and activities are now different. Every nation and region would have its own version of this reality.
But I can speak for India and say this: it captures a mix of our broadening horizons, widening interests, and globalized activities.
Indo-Pacific, for some, can also be resource optimization in an enlarged arena. Or just a desire to contribute better to global challenges that now transcend old boundaries. Many have also chosen in that process to reaffirm basic principles like rule of law. What is worth recognizing however is that analysis lags behind developments: as I have said before, Indo-Pacific is not tomorrow’s forecast but yesterday’s reality.
This change actually reflects a regional manifestation of larger global trends. As societies have got more globalized and the power distribution rebalanced, the interests of many now extend beyond their near proximity. This trend has been particularly strong in Asia, which has been at the heart of a new economic resurgence. Whether viewed from the perspective of resources, endeavors or challenges, it is, therefore, no longer realistic to confine our thinking within the earlier box. Doing so would either mean we are being deliberately outdated, or that we have chosen to make only selective exceptions.
Who owns the Indo-Pacific as a concept is a debate in itself. There is as much history there, as a diversity of opinions. The fact is that pretty much everyone has a point of view. In that sense, it is a truly pluralistic exercise on the importance of a theater with the resulting ideas about its future. This active debate should be treated as a recognition of reality and statement of priority. Quite appropriately, much of it revolves around the ASEAN, whose East Asia Summit initiative has long had its own Indo-Pacific connotations.
How does it now unfold? Given that this region is primarily a maritime space, countries are naturally focused on building practical cooperation in that domain. A safe, secure and stable maritime space is a necessary condition for peace, security and prosperity. Conversely, threats there imperil human security in all its dimensions, whether by disrupting commerce, disturbing the ecology, or creating disputes over ownership and rights.
In our inter-dependent world, the complexity of such challenges has become too large for any one nation to address by itself. Indeed, the very vastness of this arena brings out why the need for collaborative action has now become so pressing. Naturally, the individual interests of countries are at stake; but so too is their collective benefit in ensuring that the global commons are better secured.
To give that a practical shape, India proposed an Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) at the East Asia Summit in November 2019. The IPOI is aimed at furthering practical cooperation as an open, non-treaty-based global initiative. It has seven pillars that address different aspects of the challenges that the international community faces: Maritime Security, Maritime Ecology, Maritime Resources, Capacity Building and Resource Sharing to Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation, and, finally, Trade, Connectivity and Maritime Transport.
The IPOI is an inclusive and open initiative, seeking to better manage, conserve, sustain and secure the maritime domain. It does not envisage creating a new institutional framework and will rely on ASEAN-led EAS framework (though not necessarily limited to it).
While India will be the driving force behind all areas identified under the IPOI, we are also exploring partnerships. Australia, Japan and ASEAN Member states have all expressed willingness to work with India on these areas. In fact, Australia and Japan have agreed to lead on IPOI pillars on Maritime Ecology and Connectivity respectively. Given