Home English Articles Pivot To The East: To Be Relevant In 21st Century, India Must...

Pivot To The East: To Be Relevant In 21st Century, India Must Establish Its Presence In The Indian Ocean


“Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they have only permanent interests,” said English statesman Lord Palmerston. What that implies is diplomacy is dynamic. Nations need to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate their preferences in the international arena and strategise. There is no place for romanticism in diplomacy. It has to be cold-blooded and utterly pragmatic.

Pragmatism demands that we talk about the Indian Ocean region more. India’s foreign policy has long been tilted westward. Time we turned eastward.

21st century politics is going to be markedly different from the previous century. The global power axis has today shifted away from the Pacific-Atlantic region to the Indo-Pacific region. That brings tectonic shifts in world politics.

Many institutions will become irrelevant. 20th century power alliances like the NAM, Commonwealth, etc have become redundant. The European Union is imploding. Nato is more or less dead, waiting for the last rites to be performed jointly by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

In their place new power alliances are emerging. The epicentre of these new alliances is going to be the Indo-Pacific region. Asia is today home to some of the world’s leading and fast growing economies. 45% of the world’s population lives here. Half of world’s container traffic and one-third of bulk cargo traverses the Indian Ocean. Around 40% of the world’s offshore oil production comes from the Indian Ocean. Nearly half of the world’s energy supplies pass through this region.

Half of the world’s submarines will be roaming around in the Indo-Pacific region in the next two decades. This region will witness power play between three major powers. India and China are the two fast growing economies in the region. Both nurture big power ambitions. Both compete for the same resources. Hence competition is imminent between the two.

China, with its bigger financial and military muscle, is seemingly ahead today. It is in the driver’s seat of many new transnational trade alliances like AIIB, Brics and RCEP. It is aggressively pursuing ambitious infrastructure projects like Belt and Road. Its efforts to emerge as the leading naval power in the region seem to be coming to fruition. In no time it has built a formidable navy with over 300 vessels of various sizes.

The future of America’s role in the region is uncertain. President-elect Trump doesn’t share the vision of his predecessors in this matter. President Obama launched an ambitious alliance of nations of the Indo-Pacific region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But Trump is not enthusiastic about it at all. At the Halifax security conference PASCOM chief Admiral Harris described TPP as “more or less dead”. This signals diminishing US influence in the region.

India has great power ambitions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has openly talked about India’s “ambition to rise as an influential and responsible global power”. In order to realise them India has to change gears and proactively engage in the region.

One of its first measures should be to bring the required nomenclature into vogue. Asia-Pacific is a phrase coined during the 1960s and 70s, when Asian powers like Japan and Singapore raised it and it suited America to bond with them. But today it is India and other Indian Ocean neighbourhoods that are emerging as powerhouses. Some Western scholars have started using the phrase ‘Indo-Asia Pacific’. We need to call it ‘Indo-Pacific’, implying the centrality of the Indian Ocean to the region.

Modi has started many initiatives in the direction of asserting India’s proactive role in the region. Greater bilateral engagement with countries in the region, enhanced interface with regional groupings like Asean, South Pacific Island Nations group, etc and keenness to play a role in regional disputes by shedding trademark reticence are some of the visible actions that Modi has taken.

De-hyphenation of bilateral relations is another major step taken by Modi in this direction. Our engagements with countries like America, Russia and China are based on standalone bilateral interest, without conflicting with our relations with any other country.

India has to strengthen its naval power if it really wants to play a bigger role in the region. Towards that end steps have been taken by the new government. A target of securing 200 vessels for our navy has been set for 2030. We have expanded Malabar Exercise to include Japan as the third member besides India and US.

But we have to go a long way. We live in an unstable neighbourhood, the challenge of which needs to be handled diligently. Technology – digital and cyber – is going to play a big role. India, with its vast tech manpower and demographic dividend, can take advantage of this.

India is going to face a new challenge in the form of changed US priorities. Certain actions undertaken by Trump could affect the regional balance in Asia. His future relationship or rivalry especially with countries like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is going to change the power dynamic in the region drastically. We need to be alert to these challenges.

Hillary Clinton, during her visit to India in 2011, has called for India to assume a greater role in its region. “We encourage India not just to look east, but to engage east and act east as well,” she said. “India’s greater role on the world stage will enhance peace and security,” she added in an essay in Foreign Policy magazine.

The stage is set for playing that role in the Indian Ocean region.

By Ram Madhav

The writer is BJP national general secretary,

Excerpted from an address delivered at Symbiosis International University, Pune

Courtesy: Times of India