The US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) has become a buzzword among interlocutors at present days. The reason behind this is that, according to the USA, the Indo-Pacific region has become an epicenter of great power competition. Leaving behind all other great oceans, it would be a general inquisitiveness to all of us that why the USA is putting so much emphasis on IPS.

It would be hard to define IPS in a simple term, but at the same time, it also does not operate in a vacuum. Undoubtedly the USA has a comprehensible plan behind creating this idea, although Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in 2007, mentioned for the first time in the Indian Parliament, “confluence of the Two Seas is coming into being”.

The main elements of IPS are security, economy, and ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Facts remain that FOIP is the main element of IPS. The USA, unlike China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), did not invite other countries to join IPS or has not been placed for signing/ratifying by interested countries.

Some strategists termed it as the USA’s strategy to counter the rise of China which is generally accepted by all interlocutors. Even China came down heavily against IPS and labelled the IPS to counter the rise of China.

We may be able to guess some ideas from the speech of former secretary of US Defence Secretary, James Mattis, “all nations large and small are essential to the region, in order to sustain stability in ocean areas critical to global peace.”

The USA also changed the name of US Pacific Command (PACOM) to be called “Indo-Pacific Command”. The good thing about IPS is that the rights and privileges of small countries, whatever the size and population,  have been taken into confidence through IPS.

The Indo-Pacific region has been identified by many in different ways. The Department of Defence, USA, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, June 2019 defines the region as “a vast globe from the west coast of the United States to the western shores of India”.

However, it doesn’t say anything about the upper and lower limit. But surely, the eastern part of China including the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) in the north, and Australia in the south fall within the Indo-Pacific.

The present day’s maritime concern indicates the contemporary hotspots of Indo-pacific are Korean Peninsula, ECS, SCS, and Taiwan Strait; and most significantly,  the strategic maritime trade route Malacca Strait is situated at the heart of Indo-Pacific.

The Indian Ocean is a major maritime trade route and also the largest source of marine resources.  The Indo-Pacific is a concentration of  60% of the world population and one-third of international trade.

The stability of this region is obviously a great concern to not only the littoral countries of this region but also to other developed nations, eg, the document, “France and Security in the Indo-Pacific”, says that any “crisis or conflict in this area is likely to affect adversely the interests of France as well as Europe’s”.

The vulnerability of the Malacca Strait is supposed to be a concern to all Indo-Pacific countries including China. China very well knows her vulnerability, as such, China is desperate to maintain connectivity with the Indian Ocean through Pakistan, Myanmar, or Thailand.

Why does China attach too much importance to this issue that needs watchful study.   Chinese relations with its neighboring countries especially in the Indo-Pacific region give a very concerning picture of China’s intention.

 

South China Sea – Zone of dispute

 

China has made the SCS a zone of tension by drawing nine-dash lines and claims most of its Islands making enmity with almost all the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries – notably Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, etc. Killing almost 130 people, China occupied Paracel and Spratly Islands from Vietnam.

In 2015, despite a public pledge by President Xi Jinping that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the Spratly Islands, China placed anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands in 2018.  Natuna/Riau Island has started becoming a maritime debacle over its claim by both China and Indonesia.

China’s relationship with Taiwan is extremely bitter than ever.  China’s territorial claim over the Senkaku Islands of Japan made the Sino-Japan relationship tense.  Over the installation of the US’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defence system, the China-South Korea relationship remained very sour.

And we all know that the relationship between China and India remains tense over the territorial claims.

All these activities by China in the Indo-Pacific region don’t reflect China’s respect for rules base order at seas and FOIP. So, all developed countries like Europe, America, and Australia along with other littoral countries of the Indo-Pacific have become increasingly worried about the evolving security threat of this region.

To exercise ‘freedom of navigation of operation’ (FONOP), the USA along with allies deployed their naval ships in SCS waters. Royal Naval Australian ships also participated with the British carrier strike group last year to exercise FONOP in the disputed water.  India also joins with the USA, but their ships are mainly deployed in the Indian Ocean.

To counter the allied naval forces, China is also deploying its naval armada in and around the Indo-Pacific region.  In the mid of May, one Chinese navy ship was seen operating off the coast of Canberra, Australia.

From the above scenario, it is evident that the Indian-Pacific region has become a convergence of the world’s maritime powers and thus became a contested region.   SCS dispute and the military buildup in the Indian-Pacific region are a matter of great concern.

After the WW-II, the USA emerged as a superpower and exercised its maritime supremacy all over the oceans of the world. Rising China has challenged the USA’s “freedom of navigation” in the Indo-Pacific region. So, the USA along with its allies wants to restore rules-based order at seas and thus ensure the USA’s supremacy around the world.