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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 51 New Delhi December 8, 2018

Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific: Indian Dream versus the Indian Fairy-tale

Sunday 9 December 2018

by Shrabana Barua

With the rebalancing of the Asia strategy of the Trump Administration, Indo-Pacific as a term began to overlap with that of Asia-Pacific. Though broadly both these terms roughly point to the region east of the Indian subcontinent and beyond, there are fundamental differences between the two that India should not overlook. While Asia-Pacific has an economic overtone to it, Indo-Pacific has evolved within a strategic context and can be said to be a concoction mostly of the West that is rather politically motivated. With these distinctions in mind there are opportunities and challenges for India at both the economic and security levels. Interestingly the China factor has influenced the shaping of interactions in both senses. But while India’s dream in the Asia-Pacific is one with wings, its involvement in the Indo-Pacific is a fairy-tale aiming to be a reality in the 21st century.

Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific—Tug of Word

The Asia-Pacific region refers to that part of Asia which lies in the Pacific rim along with what is known as Oceania, that is, the western Pacific countries. There is no specific number to enumerate the states that comprise the Asia-Pacific. The countries in this region have engaged with each other at various levels bilaterally or multilaterally. So has India. But the most prominent interactions within and without the region have been that at the economic level. This is a feature of the Asia-Pacific that distinguishes it from the Indo-Pacific, a word increasingly used today.

The Indo-Pacific refers to the littorals of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The term is widely used to emphasise the growing importance of the blue economy and has a strategic ring to it. India does not fall within either the Asia-Pacific grouping nor is it the torch-bearer of the Indo-Pacific vis-a-vis China, as most confuse it to be. To borrow the words of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Indo-Pacific as a term only “linguistically, recognises India’s centrality”1 in the contem-porary order. Indo-Pacific is indeed an evolving geo-political constellation.

In a piece titled, “‘Indo-Pacific’ vs ‘Asia-Pacific’: Contending Views?”, Alan Chong and Wu Shang-Su trace the idea of the Asia-Pacific back to the World War II era when the decolonisation process found manifestations of solidarity in ideas like Pan-Asia, Asian Relations Conference and the like.2 The West, on the other hand, attempted to connect itself to the Asian continent through groupings like the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and South-East Asian Treaty Organisation (SENTO) that reflected some sort of an Indo-Pacific alignment in the 1950s. However, the authors are of the opinion that it is Asia-Pacific that has the prospect of assimi-lating the Indo-Pacific within its fold in future. The reason is the developmental roadmap projected by China in the 21st century.3

India’s policy towards its east has been hinged on its two decade-old Look East Policy announced in 1992. From the early 1990s with the opening up of the Indian economy New Delhi fostered positive relations with many countries. It was also the time when Asia-Pacific got its economic identity with the formation of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1989. The Asian Highway Project, commissioned in 1992, further increased the trans-Asian network in the region. These initial developments shaped the kind of link India had with what is referred to as the Asia-Pacific, a term that has crystallised over time.

Interestingly, it was not China that shaped the nature of these developments but Japan. Fearing an economic overtake by this overly industrialised country, the countries in the Asia-Pacific region felt the need to collaborate for harnessing their trade and economic energies in the 1980s. This can be contrasted with the fact that today it is China that has become the catalyst in shaping many of the economic and security groupings in the region, including that of being the reason for a shift in emphasis from the term Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific. In any case it is important to discern between the two words for it implies more than a bare tug of word for the region.

China as a Catalyst

China has risen to the helm of power politics in the world through its economic dominance. Though the pace of its economy has slowed in the last few years as compared to India’s, it has proved to be a force to be reckoned with. Xi Jingping’s One Belt One Road (OBOR), which too has undergone a change in nomenclature to be referred to as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has thrown the gauntlet right at the West’s doorsteps and spread its nets across land borders upto the marine territory. The belligerence of China in the South China Sea has pushed not just the Phillipines or Japan to pull up the ante but the ripples in the water have created discomfort in places far beyond the ocean’s reach. China’s promotion of the maritime silk road (MSR), its investments in building the Gwadar and Humbantota ports, operation of its naval bases in Djibouti and many such activities seem to curb the Mearshimerian idea of ‘stopping power of the water’.4 This has caused nation-states to think of securitising the trade and economic lanes not just through land but talk about the need for establishing the blue economy and protecting it.

When Barak Obama made ‘pivot to Asia’ a major part of his foreign policy and set up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) excluding China, it was evident what international politics would look like in the coming times. The new world order, as analysts point out, is to take shape in the East with China and India as major players. India took timely note of this and jumped into the great game to make the best of the situation. With Trump’s post-pivot vision of an “open and free Indo-Pacific”, India’s role has been made even more vital with alignments that go beyond the economic to the security realm. The formation of the Quadrilateral in 2017 with the USA, Japan, India and Australia is one such example that has already begun to define the essential features the term Indo-Pacific will come to associate itself with.

Weaving the Asia-Pacific Dream with an Economic Thread

However, India’s consciousness of this shift to the region and the maritime waters lying to its east is not a sudden realisation. The Indian Maritime Doctrine acknowledged the fact that there was a “shift in global maritime focus from the Atlantic-Pacific combine to the Pacific-Indian”5 in 2004. India has involved itself with the Asia-Pacific in more ways than one. Yet, India’s aim to not just Look East but ‘Act East’ remains at best a rudimentary roadmap, albeit a promising one.

For one, its relationship with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) group has progressively grown over the decade. The dialogue partnership of 1992 between India-ASEAN was upgraded to summit level partnership in 2002 and to strategic level partnership in 2012. The year 2017 marked the 25th, 15th and fifth anniversary of these partnerships respectively. Not just this, the invitation to the ASEAN member-nations by Prime Minister Modi to attend India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations in January 2018 was a show of the deepening friendship between India and the ASEAN at a holistic level. Particularly at the economic level, in the last ten years trade with the ASEAN grew from $ 47.5 billion in 2008 to $ 70 billion in 2016-17.6 Similarly, India has signed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with many of the ASEAN nations and is currently negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that has the potential to upgrade the economic scenario not just for India but the Asia-Pacific at large.

One opportunity that India can pursue in this context is to press for a trade in services agreement that seems to be an untapped arena of economic engagements. India’s trade deficit with China today stands at a whopping $ 51 billion that cannot be decreased by dilly-dallying with rules in the goods sector alone. India’s service sector has a big market and is rapidly growing, more than that of China’s worldwide that India should aim to target. India’s proposal at the WTO regarding its stand in trade in services agreement is only a step to begin with in this field.

Another challenge is that India’s observer status at the APEC has not gone anywhere towards a full-time membership of the economic grouping. In 2015 India showed renewed interest for a comprehensive involvement but without much success. A March 2016 report by the Asia Society Policy Institute, titled ‘India’s future in Asia; the APEC opportunity’,7 made an argument about the benefits of India becoming a part of the APEC. At the same time it cited India’s lack of support in the APEC, a big trade deficit and also non-progressive domestic economic reforms as problems India faced in this context.8 These challenges have to be heeded to more seriously than ever before to achieve better economic integration in the Asia-Pacific.

The China factor undoubtedly has been a challenge for India in the region. Yet India’s induction into the Shanghai Cooperation Organi-sation (SCO) in June 2017 (along with Pakistan) is a sign that opportunities and challenges are going to be two sides of the same coin. It is due to the hegemonic tendencies of China that India has been courted to be part of a larger power play at work in the region, notwithstanding India’s own calibre as an emerging power in the world of globalisation and democracy.

Indo-Pacific and the Strategic Ball Game

So what does the trend of using the term Indo-Pacific over Asia-Pacific imply for India? Does it mean India’s importance in the region has increased with Trump’s endorsement of the Indo-Pacific? The answer is a yes and a no at the same time. The fact that India made its niche in the world as a growing economic power precedes Trump’s rather overemphasis on the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis Asia-Pacific. Yet it does not need a specialist to bring to light that with India being drawn into the political ball game in the Indo-Pacific, its policies, both economic and security, will be under scrutiny of the West and East alike.

The evolving idea of the Indo-Pacific is rather politically construed, unlike that of Asia-Pacific. Security and strategic connotations overpower those of economic engagement and integration. It may not be true that formation of the Quadri-lateral is comparable to a NATO-like group in the East to counter China. But it cannot be denied that Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” dream was drawn to counter Xi’s “China dream”.9 This implies that any move in the Indo-Pacific region is likely to be compartmentalised into a “either with us or against us” framework of the Bush era.a This is also tantamount to the fact that India has to stay self-motivated to focus on its individual progress through the various economic forums it has been associated with in the region while remaining a prominent force behind the development of South Asia in its immediate neighbourhood.

Power politics is driven by national interest and that is a truth surfacing through the thumping protectionism that seems to mould the economic order today. With the announcement of Trump’s “America First”, policy this trend has indeed bounced back in theory and practice. But economics alone is an inadequate tool of diplomacy.

It is said that diplomacy should be backed by credible military might. Indo-Pacific is home to six nuclear countries and has the two largest armies in the world within its ambit. It is important to keep up with this reality as well. India has developed its maritime muscles in the last few years keeping in tune with the manoe-uvres in the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It has conducted various exercises with countries like Singapore, Australia, the USA and many other states (Malabar and Milan are two such examples). Evidently none of these are conducted with China. So far it seems that the Indo-Pacific narrative has been built to oust China, brewed by Western propaganda and supported by players in the region. It is a narrative that paints China as the villain while India as one that needs to come to rescue the place of its devil in its shining armour. India seems to love this fairytale and rightly so. But speculations bring out contrasting tales as well, about the Indo-Pacific being a trap laid by Washington to stifle the rise of both China and India in Asia.10 It is important that India should be aware of its role at this stage of international politics and act with prudence to turn the tide of Indo-Pacific into a gainful reality in the 21st century.


a. After the 9/11 attack George W. Bush sent out a strong message in November 2001 saying that in the war on terror, there was no place for neutrality with the phrase: “You are either with us or against us.” A similar attitude was held by the USA during the Cold War that divided the world into two power blocs.


1. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “The Shangri-La moment”, The Indian Express, New Delhi, June 6, 2018, p. 12.

2. A. Chong and W. Shang-Su, “‘Indo-Pacific’ vs ‘Asia-Pacific’: Contending Views?”, RSIS, February 28, 2018 at (Accessed on June 3, 2018.)

3. Ibid.

4. John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York, 2001.

5. Rukmani G., Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi at (Accessed on May 31, 2018.)

6. “ASEAN-India Relations” at (Accessed on June 3, 2018.)

7. Rani Singh, “What’s Stopping India From Joining The Asia-Pacific Economic Forum? “at (Accessed on June 4, 2018.)

8. Ibid.

9. Patrick M. Conin, “Trump’s Post-Pivot Strategy”, The Diplomat, November 11, 2017 at (Accessed on June 3, 2018.)

10. Global Times, China, as quoted in The Indian Express, New Delhi, June 4, 2018, p. 11.

The author is a Ph.D scholar, Diplomacy and Disarmament Programme, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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