The Indo-Pacific Strategy is an omnipresent aspect of US foreign policy in the 21st century. It is a policy design, having rooted in the past, and inextricably intertwined with the future of the country and its allies. The US involvement in the Indo-Pacific, in the name of enhancing trade, and making and strengthening new alliances, dates back to multiple decades. Besides that, the involvement of key developing and developed powers of India, Japan, and Australia[i] make the project an ambitious 21st century initiative for the development of maritime trade, security and governance with critical importance shed to the Indo-Pacific region. It plays a key role in shaping the contemporary politics of influence, as emerging power China looks to establish its own footprint with the Belt and Road Initiative, and the ‘Quad’ airs to counter it.
What is the Indo-Pacific?
In recent years, the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad concept have been introduced and advocated by various countries at various points in time. The Indo-Pacific, sometimes known as the Free & Open Indo-Pacific, is a biogeographic region of Earth’s seas, comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia. The Quad, namely comprising of the US, India, Japan and Australia, the Indo-Pacific Strategy as a way of greater accommodation of free trade, with respect to sovereignty, good democratic governance, and regional security dimensions[ii]. It is also likely to play a primary role in the geo-strategic and the geo-maritime strategic competition of the rising powers. With its core focus on developing opportunities in the digital economy, infrastructure, and energy across the region, and seeks to counterbalance China’s growing economic and political influence in the region, the Strategy finds its roots in a unique three-pronged vision to strengthen the US partnership with its allies. The vision is mainly based on security, economics, and governance, each with its own distinctive character and focus, and yet, intertwined in as intersecting aspects of partnership[iii]. The Indo-Pacific Strategy’s very essence lies in the establishment of a rule-based international order and enhancement of law and order in terms of trade and supplies management across the Indo-Pacific region, and more.
Cooperation with key partners is an essential aspect of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, in order to enhance a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. That includes the aspects of respect for principles of important facets of the security and conflict resolution process, such as the peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation, an open and transparent investment environment, and strong and responsible governing institutions, besides ensuring of human security as well as state security. The example of this can be found in the case of Bangladesh, where, in 2018, USD 40 million had already been provided for security enhancement in the country, in additional security assistance to help improve its coastal radar system, modernize and enhance its patrol boat fleet, and provide training and support of expanded maritime interdiction as part of the Bay of Bengal initiative[iv].
A key priority is to accelerate private sector-led economic growth, including through US companies that have a strong track record of sparking innovation and raising labor standards. Development of free and open maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region as “international public goods”, bringing stability and prosperity for every country as well as securing peace and prosperity in the region as a whole is a central concept motoring the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The Indo-Pacific Strategy also recognizes the linkages between economics, governance, and security that are part of an interwoven, competitive landscape throughout the region, hence regarding economic security is national security. The initiative looks to help South Asian, Southeast Asian and African countries develop greater economic prosperity through increased promotion of infrastructural development, trade, and investment, and enhance the business environment and human development, strengthening connectivity, boosted by economic assistance provided by developed donor countries, namely the Quad, and its other Western partners.
The increase of awareness of confidence, responsibility, and leadership, as well as democracy and the rule of law in South Asian, Southeast Asian and African developing countries, is a perennial feature of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Japan has pledged to provide nation-building support in the area of development as well as politics and governance, in a way that respects the ownership of African countries, and not by forcing on or intervening in them. In November, the US announced a new Indo-Pacific transparency initiative that focuses on sound, just and responsive governance to empower the region’s citizens, combat corruption and strengthen the nation’s autonomy.
The three-pronged vision of the Indo-Pacific Strategy flows from four core principles that underpin the current international order:
- Respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations;
- Peaceful resolution of disputes;
- Free, fair, and reciprocal trade based on open investment, transparent agreements, and connectivity; and,
- Adherence to international rules and norms, including those of freedom of navigation and overflight.
History of the Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific Strategy is intricately interwoven in the past, present, and future of the US. The adoption of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy can be inferred as having rooted at least two centuries ago, when the US sent trading ships to Imperial China, months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1784. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sent the explorers – Lewis and Clark – on an expedition to our Pacific Coast, which Jefferson recognized as the gateway for increased trade and commerce. By 1817, Congress approved the first full-time Pacific deployment of a U.S. warship. The US constructed a relationship with the Kingdom of Thailand in the early 19th century and thereafter negotiated to open Japan to global trade in the 1850s. At the close of the 19th century, the US established an “Open Door” policy towards China, promoting equal opportunity for trade and commerce in China, and respect for Chinese sovereignty. In the 20th century, the US was in the front lines of defending global capitalism against communist threats that loomed over the world[v].In pursuit of partnership, not domination, the United States worked with Japan and South Korea after the Second World War to forge alliances and stimulate an economic boom in both countries. In Taiwan, US aid helped create an open, democratic society that allowed the island to blossom into a high-tech powerhouse. In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States invested in Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Southeast Asian economies and supported foundational institutions like the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the APEC Forum, and the Asian Development Bank, all contributing to growth in the region. Simultaneously, the United States established formal diplomatic relations with China in 1979, which facilitated economic exchange and extended America’s consistent policy approach of a free, open market and equal trading opportunity for merchants of all nationalities operating in the region. At the turn of the 21st century, the United States advocated for China’s admission into the World Trade Organization, with the belief that economic liberalization would bring China into a greater partnership with the US and the free world. Hence, it is inferred that the US has always supported the cause of free and open trade among states, with a vision of a harmonious, liberalized world, and with the participation of old foes, friends and new allies.
The origins of the term “Indo-Pacific” can be traced to a speech delivered by the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to the Indian parliament[vi]. In it Abe did not refer to the term Indo-Pacific; rather he referred to a book by Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh who, in describing the dynamic coupling of the seas, meant that there’s a natural confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans[vii]. So, in some ways, it goes back to the time when the Mughals identified that the two seas have a coupling effect. Then in 2010, Secretary Clinton described the importance of the Indo-Pacific basin as a global trade and commerce hub. In 2012, Professor Raja Mohan, in his book Samudra Manthan, argued that the seas of the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean must be seen as a single, integrated geo-strategic theatre. Therefore, the currency that it gained, later on, led to the Japanese PM in 2017 coining the term “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” or FOIP. In 2017, in the US government’s national security strategy paper, or NSS, the Indo-Pacific was described as a single, geo-strategic region. In 2018, Dr. Gurpreet Khurana, Executive Director of Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation, used the term in its diplomatic parlance, whereby he divided the strategy into two noteworthy dimensions. The first looked at the geopolitical construct of the concept, connecting important dots of geo-economics and increased maritime influence in the region suggestively referable by the name of the strategy, the Indo-Pacific, as the heart of the Indo-Pacific Strategy as we see it today. On the other hand, he pointed to the prime role of India, again suggestive by the name of the plan, as well as the region of concentration of the Indo-Pacific Strategy[viii].
The implication of Indo-Pacific Strategy for Bangladesh
Bangladesh holds geographical importance for the Indopacific Region. Bangladesh is considered to be a maritime nation that owns a crucial gateway in both the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Under the current global economic power shift toward the Indo-Pacific Ocean region, this geographical advantage will provide a unique opportunity for the country to play a node and hub role in regional as well as inter-regional matters. Due to the strategic location of the country, Bangladesh can play a key role as a connection between South and Southeast Asia. Other than that, it also provided the crucial access to the trade enriched Bay of Bengal, and further access to the Indian Ocean, which is the paramount to maritime access for the Indo-Pacific Strategy to succeed as the 21st-century maritime tackle to the BRI.
The Indo-Pacific will be the largest and most important 21st-century jurisdictional framework for maritime trade. As a maritime trading country, with Chattogram Post as its most prominent hub, Bangladesh is likely to be one of the many beneficiaries of the Indo-Pacific. The better-instilled rule of law, hard or customary, in the maritime trade across the Indo-Pacific region, will become smoother and free of the threat of state and non-state interruption.
Bangladesh also has the opportunity of increased investment in infrastructural projects of the developing country. With the Shonadia deep-sea port project allotted to India, the state can easily magnetically attract it to become an infrastructural project of the Indo-Pacific. This is possible as India’s membership in the Quad, and Bangladesh can reap its benefits. Should the Shonadia deep-sea port project be able to capture the status of being an initiative of the Indo-Pacific, there is a high probability of an increase in investment, as the rest of the three Quad states will be onboard into the project. Additionally, the country can also attract other Indo-Pacific infrastructural and economic investments
Bangladesh has a key role to play in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. USA and Bangladesh already signed a Counterterrorism Cooperation Initiative in 2013 and Bangladesh has also been praised for initiatives in order to combat terrorism. The training program related to counterterrorism measures in Bangladesh is overseen by FBI and U.S. Special Operations Command. The vast population of Bangladesh also wants to improve bilateral ties between the two countries. There is a greater scope of U.S. investment in the energy and power sectors. Trade between the two nations can also be enhanced at a different level trough the reduction of trade protectionist measures. The United States of America is one of the top importers of goods manufactured in Bangladesh. There is also a Bilateral Investment Treaty and the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement between Bangladesh and the USA. Bangladesh has to pay a high amount of tariffs at a rate of 32% to the USA. Bangladesh has an amazing prospect in terms of trade with the USA if there is duty-free access into the market provided that the Generalized System of Preferences was canceled during the Obama regime for judicial and labor reforms[ix]. Partnership Dialogue and Dialogue on Security Issues involve high-level discussions between Bangladesh and the USA. Bangladesh Navy has also collaborated with U.S. Pacific Command for exercises concerned with Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training. Bangladesh can be one of the biggest security contributors to the Indian Ocean. New opportunities will also emerge for Bangladesh in terms of diversification through a partnership with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. Many analysts have deemed FOIP as a more transparent and financially responsible alternative to the BRI, which is still opaque in terms of its accountability and financial aspects as well as standards.
Indo-Pacific Strategy and Regional Institutional Order
The Indo-Pacific Strategy can have institutional implications for the South Asia region, impacting both state and non-state actors operating in the region. With its broad spectrum of activities and objectives, the strategy overlaps with targets set by regional institutions in South Asia. The Strategy, intricately linked with India as one of the founding states, is conjoined to South Asia, regarding it as one of its key areas of concern.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy, as the 21st-century maritime trade and order framework, has the potential to revive the regional intergovernmental organization, South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). SAARC has been increasingly dormant after the Uri Attack of 2016, following which India refused to attend the 19th SAARC Summit alongside Pakistan on allegation of involvement in the terrorist attack. Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives also followed suit, culminating in the indefinite postponement of the summit. While the 20th SAARC Summit is to be organized in 2020 in Islamabad, which could the prospect of resurrection for the intergovernmental organization, India is most still showing reluctance to participate in the conference. This could be fatal for the organization, as India is the most prominent member of the organization. Other than that, SAARC programs like SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation, South Asian Economic Union (SAEU), South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement, etc. have failed in utility, further increasing the gap of a question in regard to the efficacy of the organization.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy can act at a model for SAARC. It can also help the organization by branching out a regional framework for South Asia that can help restructure SAARC. The Strategy can also help the organization achieve some of its initiatives successfully which align with the agendas of the two, such as SAFTA, SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement and so on, which promote free trade in an orderly fashion throughout South Asia. However, whether SAARC can really be rejuvenated will highly depend on the depth of the coma the regional institution is in due to Indo-Pakistan bi-lateral contentions.
Recently, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has gained more favor as the preferred platform for regional cooperation in South Asia. Support for BIMSTEC gained further momentum following the 2016 mini BRICS summit in Goa. BIMSTEC’s popularity lies in the geopolitical reach of the initiative, which brings together littoral countries of the Bay of Bengal and the Himalayan ecologies to Southeast Asian states. The Indo Pacific Strategy aligns with the majority of the BIMSTEC countries, and, hence, has certain strategic implications for the organization:
- Firstly, both the initiatives have the ability to achieve the common economic goals that align with their economic agendas.
- Secondly, both the initiatives have governance objectives in regard to global governance, as well as economic governance in the region. As a 21st-century, maritime trade regulatory ingenuity, the Strategy and BIMSTEC can take on South and Southeast Asian regional governance together, hand-in-hand, to achieve their objective for a sustainable regional order.
Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN-MVA), which aims to facilitate the smoother movement of vehicles carrying cargo and passengers in each other’s territories without the need for trans-shipment of goods. Crafted with the background of the failed SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement, BBIN-MVA can benefit from the opportunities of free trade provided by the Indo-Pacific. Despite being a largely maritime-based order, and the BBIN a land-based one, the two initiatives have the overlapping objective of encouraging free and smoother cross-country trade. High-level infrastructural projects of the Indo-Pacific, like Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, or the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt(BIG-B) can assist BBIN in greater mobility and access, thus allowing a smoother transition. The issue of failure of the ratification of BBIN-MVA in Bhutan can also be rectified perhaps if Bhutan is allowed to be a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, under the condition of ratification. However, whether this can be actualized to reality will also highly depend on how best the other BBIN states can leverage their position in the Strategy to achieve their objectives for the BBIN-MVA initiative.
Nahian Salsabeel student, Bangladesh University of Professionals Research intern, Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS).
[ii] ISPI. “The Indo-Pacific Strategy: A Background Analysis.” ISPI, June 4, 2018. https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/indo-pacific-strategy-background-analysis-20714.
[iii]Sundararaman, Shankari. “Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor: A Vision in Progress.” ORF, February 10, 2017. http://www.orfonline.org/research/indo-pacific-economic-corridor-a-vision-in-progress/.
[iv]“Indo-Pacific Strategy: Implications for the Region.” The Daily Star, March 19, 2019. https://www.thedailystar.net/round-tables/news/indo-pacific-strategy-implications-the-region-1717426
[v]“Indo-Pacific Strategy Report Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region.” Indo-Pacific Strategy Report Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region. The Department of Defense. Accessed August 9, 2019. https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.
[vi] The Daily Star
[vii]‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ Speech by H.E.Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan at the Parliament of the Republic of India.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 22, 2007. https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html.
[ix]Panda, Ankit. “The 2019 US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Who’s It For?” – The Diplomat. for The Diplomat, June 11, 2019. https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/the-2019-us-indo-pacific-strategy-report-whos-it-for/.