Strategic Transformation of the Indo-Pacific: Powerful and Stable Maritime Space

In the era of unprecedented global interconnectedness, the Indo-Pacific region emerges as a focal point of geopolitical significance, commanding attention from scholars, policymakers, and strategic analysts alike. At the heart of this dynamic landscape lies the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), re-positioning itself as a linchpin in shaping the strategic calculus of the region aggravating ‘the security dilemma’. Such a phenomenon of ‘ASEAN’s centrality’ is clear with its recent series of joint statements and engagements with the principle of Responsibility-to-Protect (R2P) with both the nation-states and institutions that have a stake in the region and beyond. ‘ASEAN’ is invariably compelled to respond to the strategic transformation of the Indo-Pacific region, which has propagated at a fast pace, spurred by innumerable factors, the chief one being the aggressiveness of China. 

The Indo-Pacific: Arena of Transformation

The Indo-Pacific region, the largest maritime expanse, continues to hold significant power and sway by becoming one of the critical poles in the rearrangement of the global order in the 21st Century. The oceans possess inherent geopolitical significance, exerting considerable influence on the behaviour of nation-states to consider maritime security as a strategic priority. Nation-states have prioritised safeguarding their conventional territorial borders. Given the large and unregulated span of oceans, the ambiguous nature of authority exposes nation-states to uncertainties of control and annexations. As a result of this, revisiting and strengthening maritime security, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, nation-states through mini-multilateral bodies are causing a shift in the region’s strategic realignment. The escalating attention in the region has grown disproportionately, changing the dynamics of nation-states and their strategies, demanding an in-depth analysis of the implications of the strategic significance in the region. 

As a matter of fact, the geoeconomic and geopolitical shift towards this region has resulted in heightened activity through cooperation, partnerships and competition among states and non-state actors. The Indo-Pacific is fast transforming itself as a vital economic corridor as over 90 percent of the share in world trade is accounted for through its maritime routes. This maritime domain hosts vital choke points, like the Straits of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, with a responsibility to protect large volumes of trade, magnifying economic and security vulnerabilities around these choke points. This region also becomes the domain for critical shipping lanes, accounting for more than one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of world oil shipments and energy resources transit.  

The collective action among the nation-states in the region, i.e., Responsibility-to-Protect (R2P) small island nation-states from hegemonic activities, underscores the necessity for proactive engagement in the Indo-Pacific Region. However, the Chinese annexation of the islands in the South China Sea (SCS) is an act of disrespecting territorial integrity and sovereignty in the region, which is a violation of R2P. In line with this, the region is experiencing an unprecedented moment of ‘security dilemma’ among nation-states in the region and beyond. 

While China’s assertive approach in the region undoubtedly commands attention, it is not the sole impetus driving the strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific. For instance, the policies of the United States, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and many other small island nations towards the Indo-Pacific region have been more engaging and proactive as a result of China’s unwarranted intervention in the region. The resulting security environment is characterised by heightened maritime insecurities and a burgeoning power struggle between the United States, Japan, Australia, China and India

The Indo-Pacific region is undergoing a significant transformation from ‘free and open, connected, prosperous, secure and resilient’, evolving into a space characterised by heightened competitiveness and converging security interests. Along with this, the region is strategically important as the point of convergence for global commerce and resource distribution. The nation-states in the region often encounter challenges as a result of an imbalance in terms of nation-states’ prorates between balancing economic obligations and strategic decisions. As a result, the nation-states are working towards a potential balance to prioritise their national interest and the collective interests of the nation-states in the region. 

Powerful and Stable Maritime Space

The Indo-Pacific region is becoming a unified ‘maritime theatre’, with actors both from the region and beyond. As such, the scope of Indo-Pacific is no longer confined to traditional security framework but has been extended to the blue economy, climate change, commerce, the protection of sea lanes, disinformation and digital security. The burgeoning need for such discussions has led to the emergence of various mini-multilateral bodies. 

Increased emergence of Mini Multilateral bodies, ranging from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to economic frameworks like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the strategic bodies, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORA-RC), Australia-United Kingdom-United States Security Partnership (AUKUS), Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) reflects the shift in the strategic realignment in the region. Claims that such numerous mini-multilateral bodies are further acting as a fragmenting factor must not be ignored.  While their overarching objective is to promote a stable, calm, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, these bodies may exacerbate tensions in the region, causing uneasiness and distrust among nation-states. 

It is evident that the Indo-Pacific region has evolved as a significant region for certain nation-states to organise and reorganise their strategies. The principle of Responsibility-to-Protect guides the collective responsibility in the region as a result of rules-based international order; however, the extended interest of China in (re)claiming its control of SCS, in particular, in order to emerge as a regional hegemon is detrimental for nation states to be in a dilemma to choose between the principle of Responsibility-to-protect and self-interest. The strategic transformation of the Indo-Pacific region will be critical to charting a roadmap for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. This need arises from the recurrent disturbances to peace and stability by insecurities caused by actors has to be supplemented by enhanced resource collaborations and economic cooperations for the region and by the Nation States in the region.

[Photo by Dronepicr, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Krutika Reddy is a PhD Scholar at Chanakya University. Her interest areas include Public Policy, International Relations, Foreign Policy, and Indo-Pacific. 

Dr. Chetan Singai earned his PhD from the National Institute of Advanced Studies at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, India, focusing on higher education and university governance. He was appointed Chief Consultant and Convenor for the National Curriculum Framework’s National Steering Committee by the Ministry of Education, Government of India. Dr. Singai has authored two books and over 25 articles in peer-reviewed journals on topics including higher education, space policy, and human rights. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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