April 23, 2024

The Indo-Pacific and the three C’s: China, Challenges and Cooperation

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By: Aishwarya Dutta

Indo-Pacific Region: source Internet

The Indo-Pacific region with its ever-expansive dynamism spans 36 countries spread across major continents, 16 time zones, more than half of the world’s biggest and most popular cities, 7 fastest-growing markets, 7 of the 10 largest armies of the world, more than 20,000 islands, and approximately 60 percent of the total world population and is still growing. The region has gained extreme importance in recent times because the trajectory of maritime geopolitics will herald the global politics of the 21st Century. According to a study conducted by experts, it has been predicted that by 2030, the Indo-Pacific will be home to the five largest national economies: the United States, China, India, Indonesia, and Japan. The region has emerged as a highway for important energy transfers to the ‘energy hungry’ nations of the world. However, with a rising trajectory of sea-borne trade, there seems to be an increase in asymmetric threats. In this article I would focus on the three C’s: the China threat, other major challenges in the region including the South China Sea dispute and cooperation in the region which together will give us a lucid and wholesome understanding of the region.


The contest for the Indo-Pacific traces deep geopolitical currents while witnessing emerging threats from various quarters especially from China. China’s expansionist policy is at the expense of weakening the neighboring states. China’s “nine-dash line” policy encroaches the sovereignty of other states because China seems to claim its ownership over other countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), a move which has been declared invalid by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), in the Hague in 2016. Beijing is seeking to convert international waterways and other countries’ EEZs into its own territorial waters. Moreover if China somehow unilaterally captures the South China Sea it would close major parts of the sea to foreign fishing and forbid foreign governments from any kind of resource extraction in the region. Managing strategic competition with China has been a major challenge, most prominently in recent times.

But China’s rise is not without any resistance in the region. Indonesia and Malaysia portray a stronger defense of their maritime interests against China. American and Japanese warships unequivocally sail the South China Sea. China asserts its presence in the Indian Ocean along with Russia, Iran and South Africa for naval exercises. In Australia, the China debate has been sharpened. The scenario in Sri Lanka is very contradictory where China is asked, on the one hand, to hand back the Hambantota port and urges other nations to dilute China’s influence, and on the other hand they are celebrating a Chinese built artificial island off Colombo. Taiwanese Democracy is seeking non-interference from the Chinese Communist Party in its internal matters.

The trouble is that China feels risk and discomfort in the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. It feels it is a strategy of the Quad members (the United States, Japan, India and Australia) to contain its power and exclude as well as sideline it from the major events taking place in the region. In this context, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi publicly rejected the Indo-Pacific as an ‘attention-grabbing idea’ that ‘will dissipate like ocean foam’. China describes much of the world as simply ‘the Belt and Road’ (China’s own project of connecting the major continents of the world including Asia, Africa and Europe through land and maritime networks) which is very much an opaque term entwined with an inward-looking purpose. The ‘Road is the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics’, a strategy to extend Chinese influence into the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Today Asia is divided into two big contests of ideas: China’s Belt and Road versus the Indo-Pacific championed by Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia, France and the United States. The term Indo-Pacific is a message to an ascending China that it cannot expect others to accept its self-image as the center of the region and the world.

Despite the setbacks, China keeps on expanding its economic, military and diplomatic activities in the Indian Ocean where it is trying to establish an Indo-Pacific strategic system, where the actions and interests of China as the most powerful state of the region affect the interests and actions of others. The region’s foremost strategic challenges are thus China-centric. The Chinese navy is expanding rapidly in the sea space and they have two major reasons for deploying force in distant waters: ‘offshore waters defense’ and ‘open-seas protection’. China is combining the ‘soft power’ (persuasion and attraction) with ‘sharp power’ (internal political interference), to neutralize opposition and reconfigure the Indo-Pacific game board, from Australia to Sri Lanka, Pakistan to the Pacific Island states. China has growing interests at stake in the Indian Ocean, some of which are legitimate, some questionable, and it has no intention of recognising this zone as India’s backyard or sphere of influence. The China factor also worsens the India-Pakistan hostility.

Many observers assume that China’s rise will continue, largely unabated, into the future: “Through the Belt and Road and its growing military footprint, China’s problems are becoming the world’s problems, and the world’s problems are becoming China’s. China relies on coercion, whether in the form of armed force, geoeconomics or political interference. The vital question for others, then becomes how to manage such coercion without it ending in conflict or capitulation.”


There has been an abrupt rise of tensions between China and its neighbors over sovereignty, resources and security. In this context, the South China Sea is of immense importance as it is a zone which is rich in hydrocarbon and protein resources. Chinese strategists believe that the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea collectively represent an area in which they need to develop military control in order to counter external threats and to increase the level of security of China’s coastal region. In order to counter China’s dominant attitude, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967 by the Southeast Asian nations. Countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, China and Taiwan, all claim their sovereignty in the South China Sea. But China claims sovereignty over the features of all of the island groups that fall within the nine dash-line in the South China Sea. The Chinese government maintains a suspicious ambiguity about the line’s meaning.

Friction is also caused with the United States which relies on freedom of navigation in maritime East Asia. The US tries to ensure its position in East Asia and that is why it tries to maintain the region as an open, maritime system. States like Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Singapore all maintain friendly relations and cooperate with the US because they benefit politically and economically from remaining outside China’s control.

Apart from the tensions in the South China Sea, there are several other threats in the region which need to be addressed immediately. The foremost among the rising maritime threats affecting the security and free flow of trade in the region is Piracy. ‘Piracy is the bane of modern seafarers. It is a transnational crime which has made a considerable impact on commercial shipping. There are some major piracy hotspots like the Horn of Africa, the Malacca Straits, the Indonesian waters, and the South China Sea. Modern piracy has emerged in Somalia which has resulted in a complex problem. It has emerged as a lucrative criminal industry with transnational characteristics.

Apart from the threat of piracy, there is a major threat of maritime terrorism. Oceans are being misused as a part of the supply chain dynamics for incidents ashore. There is also a rise in Narco-terrorism. Drug trafficking shares a close linkage to maritime terrorism since it is often used to finance terrorism, insurgencies, and piracy activities directly or indirectly. India lies in the pivot of the Golden triangle and the Golden crescent – the two infamous drug producing areas – and is used as a transit point seaward for both.

Pollution and oil-related environmental disasters at sea are a serious concern for environmentalists. Alongside several cons, they affect the free flow of trade and shipping. Most littoral governments are also concerned about major oil spills or wrecks of oil tankers at narrow approaches to harbors, and choke points affecting the flow of shipping traffic.

The South China Sea (SCS) region has emerged as a global flashpoint and as a major maritime challenge for all the users and stakeholders. The SCS has a geostrategic significance because it functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean enabling rapid shipment of goods and deployments of armed forces.


Cooperation and collaboration against maritime threats and challenges affecting the region is a common affair. However, this requires sensitivity and a wholesome understanding of the security concerns of other countries – an aspect which becomes difficult to achieve given the vastness of the region. India and the US are considered to be the fundamental maritime states that have a responsibility to help all the other littoral states towards capacity building and the maintenance of “maritime order” in the region. An evolving matrix of cooperation would enhance “maritime bonding” at various levels between the maritime agencies and the navies. A continued cultivation of allies and partners by bigger players such as the United States and sustained investment in international engagement is essential. Countries like India, Australia, Japan and some ASEAN countries are expanding security cooperation with each other in the face of rising assertiveness of China. There is also a prominence of middle power coalitions these days which include cooperation in various fields like security dialogues, intelligence sharing, military capacity building, technology sharing, agenda setting for regional forums and coordinated diplomatic initiatives to influence both US and Chinese strategic calculations or form ‘minilateral’ arrangements that do not include China or the US. All these would reinforce the multipolar quality of the Indo-Pacific order.

Along with strengthening defense ties, the United States is also trying to integrate economically with the Asian economies. It has been launching multinational partnerships with South East Asian and South Asian states in areas of agriculture, food security, connectivity, education, energy security, environment etc. In this respect there are initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor and Lower Mekong Initiative. It is also working on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that seeks to bring together economies from across the Pacific into a single trading community. The US has also reached out to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to build an Indo-Pacific region.

India, on the other hand, preserves strategic autonomy in the region which allows it to create a web of cooperative relations with all the stakeholders based on mutual interest and benefit. India also plays a vital role in securing and safeguarding the trade routes crossing the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. Regional initiatives like the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) intends to secure sea lanes and maritime governance.

The Indian Navy is cooperating with navies of the region to tackle disasters, narcotic smuggling, gun running, etc. The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) is an initiative in this direction. India also contributes to the African Union Mission in Somalia and has begun bilateral and trilateral naval coordination and patrolling with China, Japan, Kenya, Madagascar and the Seychelles in Africa. Efforts have also been made for strengthening organizations like Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). India is also working with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Nepal for closer trade through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The Mekong-Ganga initiative, launched in 2000 involving India, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam has recently expanded its ambit to include trade, investment, energy, food, health and highway connectivity. India has also associated itself with triangular strategic partnership between India-Russia-China and in the areas of trade, technology transfer and resource sharing. In the Pacific, New Delhi is conducting naval partnership with Hanoi and pursuing oil exploration with Vietnam. Even India and China participate in multilateral cooperation processes such as the free trade schemes in South-east Asia.


The strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific is testimony to the fact that it will remain a disputed zone even in the future. China as the major power of the region keeps it embroiled in conflicts even though it promised to make its rise ‘peaceful’. Other players try to maintain the region as a zone of cooperation and mutual benefit for trade and various other purposes while also trying to resist Chinese dominance.


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