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Sampath Kumar asked: How does India benefit by engaging with littoral states in the Indo-Pacific?

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  • Abhay Kumar Singh replies: Even though the idea of Indo-Pacific as an integrated geopolitical space, combining the Indian Ocean and Pacific, has become popular recently, the littoral states in the region have always been geopolitically relevant to India.

    Two millennia ago, there existed an integrated maritime trading system supported by predictable monsoon winds that linked the Indian Ocean by a sea route to East Asia through the Malacca Strait, on one hand, and to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea and further to the Roman ports in the Mediterranean, on the other. Due to its favourable geographical location and peninsular geography, India had extensive trade and cultural linkages with the littorals in the Indo-Pacific. Colonial occupation of Asia in the 18th century brought newly defined territories into ‘extra-regional’ alliances and dependencies, contributing to the fragmentation of the traditional social and economic networks. Notwithstanding this disruption, the linguistic, cultural and societal threads of India’s extensive interactions with the Indo-Pacific littoral states continue to exist even today.

    Even before India’s independence, India’s political leaders and strategic thinkers were cognisant of geopolitical salience of India’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific littorals. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book The Discovery of India (1945), had observed that “The Pacific is likely to take the place of the Atlantic in the future as a nerve centre of the world. Though not directly a Pacific state, India will inevitably exercise an important influence there. India will also develop as the centre of economic and political activity in the Indian Ocean area, in south-east Asia and right up to the Middle East. Her position gives an economic and strategic importance in a part of the world which is going to develop rapidly in the future.”

    Similarly, K.M. Panikkar, in his book The Strategic Problem of Indian Ocean Defence (1944), had highlighted the need for entrenched strategic engagement with wider Indo-Pacific littorals in order to ensure the security of India’s maritime frontiers and her seaborne trade. However, India’s endeavour in building a Pan-Asiatic community – a proto Indo-Pacific architecture – through Afro-Asian conference was not successful due to overarching cold war dynamics coupled with India’s own pre-occupation with more pressing adversarial dynamics with Pakistan and China. In addition, India’s inward-looking economy constrained the development of economic trade links with the Indo-Pacific littorals to its full potential.

    This enduring geopolitical relevance of the Indo-Pacific littoral states for India has become even more pronounced in this era of globalisation and trade interdependence. India’s rapid economic growth since nineties has been possible with India’s structural reforms, economic liberalisation and a focussed approach towards enhancing her economic engagement with global economy in general and Indo-Pacific littoral states in particular. India’s future economic growth remains critically dependent on trade and energy imports. As per MIT Observatory of Economic Complexity, more than 90 per cent of India’s external trade is by sea, over 55 per cent of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea and Malacca Strait. Peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region is thus of great economic and strategic significance to India, and which mandates even more focused economic and defence cooperation with the Indo-Pacific littoral states.

    Posted on November 02, 2018