Strategic Significance of Indo-Pacific

The first ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX) was initiated this month. It is a joint naval exercise that involves the US and 10 South-East Asian nations in the disputed South China Sea.

The countries that participate in this exercise include Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Singapore along with the US and Japan.

This naval exercise lasts for five days. It starts from Thailand’s Sattahip Naval Base and ends in Singapore.

Both the US and Japan do not have territorial claims in the South China Sea. Despite this fact, both these counties are taking all possible measures to counter China’s growing influence in this region. This exercise comes amid the trade tensions between China and the US.

On October last year, China and the ASEAN countries undertook a similar naval exercise in the South China Sea. These exercises show the strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific region.

What is Indo-Pacific?

  • The term, in the contemporary context of security, was first used by Gurpreet Khurana in 2007 in the article “Security of Sea Lines: prospects for India-Japan cooperation” of Strategic Analysis journal.
  • According to this article, Indo-Pacific is the maritime space stretching from East Africa and West Asia’s littoral countries, across the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean to East Asia’s littoral countries.
  • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later used it in his speech in the Indian Parliament to signify the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
  • In 2013, the US began using Indo-Asia Pacific to enable the security inclusiveness of the Indo-Pacific region.

Why is the Indo-Pacific region important?

  • It is a region that is rich with natural resources and mineral resources.
  • It consists of Strait of Malacca, Sunda Strait and Lombok strait – routes which are vital for global trade.
  • It consists of the South China Sea which is located in the Central Indo-Pacific region.

What is the strategic significance of the South China Sea?

  • Some of the rich economies like Japan, US, China, ASEAN countries are dependent on South China Sea route for trade and market access.
  • About $3.5 Trillion worth international trade is dependent on the South China Sea.
  • It is crucial as it is the second most used sea lane in the world.
  • A report released by the US Energy Information Administration in 2013 estimated that the South China Sea may have a total of 11 billion barrels of oil reserve.
  • According to a study by Philippine’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the South China Sea has one-third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity.
  • It is crucial for the food security of many Southeast Asian countries.
  • With its huge reserve of resources, the South China Sea, the part of the Indo-Pacific region has crucial strategic significance.

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What is the issue in the South China Sea?

  • Several countries have territorial disputes over the South China Sea.
  • However, the People’s Republic of China has dominated the whole issue.
  • China claims that entire South China is its sovereign territory as it has historical links to this region.
  • China also claims that it has all the rights to decide security measures and create artificial islands within the South China Sea.
  • The International Court of Arbitration had officially rejected this claim in 2016.
  • Also, China refused to abide by the UN Convention for the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) as it claims the whole of the South China Sea to be part of its territory.
  • To officially claim its sovereignty over the South China Sea, China had established an oil rig near the Paracel Islands in 2014.
  • On May 2017, China announced that it was able to mine methane clathrate – the future hydrocarbon source, from the South China Sea.
  • It is also conducting various naval exercises to intimidate the smaller and weaker South East Asian countries.

What are the South East Asian countries doing about it?

  • ASEAN countries, especially Malaysia are not willing to escalate the conflict in the South China Sea.
  • Both China and Vietnam have signed an agreement to deescalate the dispute over the South China Sea.
  • Shortly after this, India’s state-run ONGC had signed MoU with PetroVietnam for long term cooperation in the oil sector.
  • Fishes have depleted in this region. The countries used this to claim their territory by banning fishing in the disputed areas.
  • Indonesian authorities took down Viennese fishing fleets for breaching Indonesia’s disputed maritime territories.
  • The Philippines sued China in the International Court of Arbitration in 2016.
  • However, in recent times, the Philippines are willing to give away its territories for Chinese investments.
  • From this, it is evident that the South East Asian countries are neither strong enough nor are they willing to confront China’s coercive expansionist policies.
  • Many are members of the BRI – China’s multi-billion project to connect Africa, Asia, and Europe through the ancient routes of the Silk Road.

 Why is this region important to India?

  • About 50% of India’s trade is dependent on the South China Sea route.
  • ONGC Videsh Ltd, a public sector enterprise of the Central Government of India is currently searching for oil and gas the Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam.
  • About 82% of India is dependent on oil imports.
  • Hence, the South China Sea is vital for the Indian Economy.

What is India’s role in this issue?

  • India is advocating for free and open Indo-Pacific.
  • India is a part of the prestigious Malabar Exercise since 1992.
  • It was initially a bilateral naval exercise between India and the US.
  • In 2015, Japan joined this naval activity to counter China’s dominance in this region.
  • Currently, Japan is calling for reinitiating of the QUAD – the informal strategic dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia that aims to construct measures to safeguard Indo-Pacific region from Chinese dominance.
  • However, due to Australia’s close ties with China, India has declined Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar Excise.
  • Australia had initially pulled out of QUAD. However, it has re-entered in 2017 by meeting the other three counties in the 2017 ASEAN summit to retrieve the QUAD.

Way Forward

  • For India to progress, it is vital to increase its presence across the globe.
  • This means that India must take measure to forge an alliance with its neighbours as well as the other friendly countries.
  • However, it is also essential for India to safeguard its own strategic priorities before indulging in large scale military exercises.
  • Also, it is vital for the South East Asian countries to resolve their issues amicably to counter China’s coercive military measures in the South China Sea.

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