Changing Geo-politics and Geo-strategies

Respositioning South Asia in the Indo-Pascific Region :


By Prof. Gamini Keerawella, Ph.D. Executive Director
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Colombo Continued from yesterday

The rapid economic growth witnessed by China and India and the acquisition of near blue-water naval capabilities along with other power projection competence by these powers has ushered a new politico-strategic environment in the Indian Ocean.

Consequent to the economic and politico-strategic resurgence of Asia along with other changes in international politics, the center of gravity in global politics in the new millennium is gradually moving towards Asia. It is now estimated that Asia will surpass North America and Europe combined in global power based on GDP, population size, military spending and technological investment by 2030. According to the World Bank, South Asia solidified its lead as the fastest growing region in the world in 2016. WTO rated China the second largest merchandise trader in the world in 2016. Accordingly, China has risen to the second largest economy in the world, surpassing Japan in the new century. Today, China lays claim to the second largest navy in the world.

The shifting of the center of gravity in global politics from the West to Asia has made the Indian Ocean a pivotal global geo-strategic space in global politics. The uninterrupted flow of hydrocarbon energy resource from the Persian Gulf is vital for the continued breathing of the global economy. The Indian Ocean has become the principal conveyor belt for the international coal trade where China and India are now the top two importers and South Africa, Indonesia, and Australia together account for more than half the world’s exports of thermal coal. The Indian Ocean ports handle about 30 percent of global trade. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s offshore petroleum is produced in the Indian Ocean and two-thirds of global seaborne oil trade transits the Indian Ocean, rounding South Asia. As a result, South Asia’s position in the global order has also changed. South Asian advances in the knowledge industry linked with the IT revolution are also very impressive today. The impact of the lead in ‘colonizing the cyberspace’ by South Asia is reverberated in the Silicon Valley too. South Asian brainpower is a critical factor in the Western corporate world.

The geo-strategic importance of South Asia is further enhanced by the ascendancy of India. With a population of over a billion and an impressive growth rate above the world average, India has become an aspiring global power. India is the third largest oil importer, after USA and China. In the last two decades, India has taken impressive strides in the area of knowledge industry and R&D. India is ranked fourth in the Global Fire Power (GFP) ranking, based on each nation’s potential for conventional war-making capabilities across land, sea and air1. Today, India’s military is the third largest and its air force the fourth largest with 1,080 combat aircrafts. The Indian Ocean is critically important to the economic and politico-strategic interests and calculations of the two emerging Asian giants: India and China.

The changing strategic contours in the post-Cold War Indian Ocean were mirrored in the new foreign policy approaches and perspectives of India. In this regard two developments are to be noted. The first is the ‘Look East’ policy. The Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao first announced it in 1991 and the subsequent governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004-2014) made it a key foreign policy direction. The focus of the Look East policy was to strengthen economic and strategic relations with the South East Asian Countries. In 1992, India became a ‘Sectoral Dialogue Partner’ of ASEAN. After protracted negotiations, the ASEAN–India Free Trade Area (AIFTA) came into effect in 2010. At the same time, India endeavored to develop its cooperation with Asian regional groupings, such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). In order to promote Look East policy further, Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed it to ‘Act East’ policy. The ‘Look East Act East’ policy is a clear manifestation of India’s changed foreign policy priorities.

The second is the new strategic partnership with the United States. The close strategic relationship with the Soviet Union was a key pillar of the Indian foreign policy since 1971. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, India changed its strategic gear that paved the way for growing strategic convergence between India and the United States. Heralding a new era in U.S.-India relations, the ‘Agreed Minutes on Defence Relations Between the United States and India’ was signed in 1995. Since then, the U.S.-India strategic partnership has strengthened significantly. In 2015, ‘Agreed Minutes on Defence Relations’ was renewed and upgraded as ‘Framework for the U.S.-India Defence Relationship’ to achieve greater interaction and cooperation between the armed forces. A further step in that direction was taken in 2018 by signing the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) to facilitate interoperability between the two militaries and sale of high-end technology. It paved the way for the establishment of the U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial dialogue in September 2018. Accordingly, the security relationship with the United States gained real substance under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In the changing geo-politics and geo-strategic conditions in Asia and in the Indian Ocean, the United States also placed unprecedented weight on Asia in its foreign policy in the new millennium. It is reflected in ‘Pivot Asia’ strategy, which President Barack Obama first outlined in his address to the Australian Parliament on 17 November 2011. In the light of growing prosperity in Asia, the ‘Pivot Asia’ strategy aimed to (i), strengthen US bilateral security alliances in Asia, (ii), intensify working relationships with regional states and the US, and (iii) boost regional trade and investment.

 To be continued...

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