The Indo-Pacific region has recently received increasing attention due to its strategic location and changing security dynamics that remain to influence regional geopolitics. China’s assertive and aggressive regional behavior has drawn the US and the West’s attention to the Indian Ocean Region in recent years. Moreover, the Indo Pacific region is now a theater of US-China competition and contests.
China’s border disputes and maritime tensions with neighboring countries have challenged regional security and stability. By increasing its economic footprint in the region, Beijing has emerged as a dominant player in the geopolitics of Southeast Asia. China’s overwhelming claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea by violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Pacific Rim’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and China’s recent threats and challenges, including the sinking of Filipino and Vietnamese fishing vessels by Chinese Coast Guard in the disputed South China Sea have further heightened tensions in the region.
Significance of the Indo-Pacific Region
The Indo-Pacific is a vast region comprising over half of the World’s population. The region claims over 60% of the global GDP and two-thirds of global economic growth. Geographically, the Indo-Pacific region is understood to be an interconnected space between the Indian and Pacific oceans ranging from the East coast of Africa to the West coast of the United States comprising 65% of the Oceans and 25% of the land area. With massive infrastructure and manufacturing opportunities, the Indo-Pacific region looks most favorable for economic growth.
Post-pandemic, US and European powers are ambitious to diversify their supply chains to reduce their dependence on Chinese enterprises. President Biden and ASEAN leaders decided to extend the US-ASEAN relationship to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). President Joe Biden has reiterated that the US strongly supports ASEAN centrality and ASEAN’s outlook for the Indo-Pacific. Also, India and the ASEAN countries are becoming favorable destinations for the markets, and these nations share vast maritime borders, which are harbors of natural reserves.
The Indo-Pacific region also encompasses critical Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) like the Strait of Malacca, with $3.5 trillion worth of global trade and approximately 15 million barrels of oil per day. The Strait of Hormuz, with approximately 21 million barrels of oil per day. Bab El-Mandeb, with $1.2 billion worth of trade flow and around 6.2 million barrels of crude oil, crossing the Straits to Europe and the United States.
US Indo-Pacific Strategy
During the regional tour to Southeast Asia, US President Joe Biden reaffirmed the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. He further said that in the vision of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, the future rests on a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The US Indo-Pacific Strategy underlines that countries with open and free sea lanes in communication channels, better connectivity, and cooperation in regional trade, energy, and security can achieve economic prosperity. However, China’s naval expansion and the establishment of outposts on illegally constructed artificial islands are fueling tensions in the region. China is installing military bases on the disputed Spratly Islands with radars and aircraft hangars, challenging the balance of power in the South China Sea with the intent to assert claims on the SCS nine-dash line and intimidate other claimants.
Meanwhile, the US, the UK, France, and Germany, are increasing their military presence in the region. The United States has conducted a series of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) in the South China Sea to challenge China’s illegal claims. In addition, the Philippines made a defense deal with India as a counter strategy to protect its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). At the same time, the United States is keen to re-evaluate its position as the region’s leading security provider. US engagement within the QUAD and AUKUS initiatives aims to counter China’s growing regional influence.
China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific and South China Sea are rich in natural gas, oil, and untapped hydrocarbon resources, and China aspires to increase its influence in the region. China claims that much of the South China Sea belongs to its territory. China is gaining a massive presence in the region through its Island chain policy, a tactical maritime containment plan to exhibit power, and limit access to the maritime in the South China Sea. This, in recent years, has become a significant concern to neighboring countries like Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and Indonesia. China is also often accused of violating the freedom of navigation and UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). China is building dual-purpose projects in the central locations of the Indo-Pacific region to satisfy its strategic ambitions to stock military facilities and refuel naval assets.
India’s Role and Challenge
India is emerging as one of Asia’s most powerful nations capable of countering assertive Chinese actions in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. New Delhi, in recent years, has been closely watching China, monitoring US investments in the region, and assessing how it could balance China and the US in its foreign policy. India and the United States share the values of a free and open Indo-Pacific and focus on active diplomatic engagement in the region to safeguard mutual interests. However, China is India’s second-largest trading partner after the United States. India remains engaged with China in various bilateral and multilateral summits, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). Therefore, despite the military and border disputes, New Delhi and Beijing have diverse and significant economic cooperation.
U.S. alignment with Indo-Pacific littoral states
With China’s growing military influence, it is posing a security threat to ASEAN and challenges the US balance of power in the region. To ensure its presence and dominance, the United States is deepening its cooperation with regional partners in South and Southeast Asia. The United States and the Philippines have agreed to resume joint naval patrols in the South China Sea to address challenges and reaffirm the unwavering U.S.-Philippines alliance.
Currently, the United States and India are engaging with each other devising strategies to resist China’s assertive actions and to play a broader stabilizing role in the region. The presence of natural gas and oil reserves in the Pacific and Indian Oceans has encouraged Western countries to develop deeper ties with Asian countries and reduce their dependence on China and Russia. India’s growing influence on the international stage and its strong economy are major factors prompting the United States to forge strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. The United States sees India as a potential counterbalance to China’s enormous regional influence. With the motto of cooperation, connectivity, and strategic partnerships, Washington intends to secure its future interests in the Indo-Pacific by forging closer ties with New Delhi.