Speaking last month at the Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue in New Delhi, India’s Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral R Hari Kumar, spoke at length about the political and economic salience of the region’s waters. In particular, he underscored the need for “confluence” of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Kumar had reiterated the exact words used originally by late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his address to the Indian parliament almost 15 years ago, in 2007, wherein he made a reference to the Persian treatise “Majma-ul-Bahrain” (Confluence of the Two Seas) authored by the famous Mughal prince Muhammad Dara Shikoh in 1655. While the original treatise used the term “seas” as a metaphorical allusion to harmony between Sufi Islam and Vedantic interpretation of Hinduism, Abe had postulated in a literal sense that the Indian and Pacific Oceans need to be viewed through a single, unified lens of a “broader Asia” which would eventually subsume major conventional Pacific powers such as the US and Australia.
Five years after Abe’s ominous speech, the Barack Obama administration began adopting the “Indo-Pacific” terminology through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (circa 2012), which was strengthened further during the successive administration of Donald Trump; by mid-2018, the latter’s Secretary of Defence General (Retired) James Mattis renamed the US Pacific Command (PACOM) to Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). It was a symbolic nod to India and a geostrategic affirmation of Abe’s ambition for a long-term strategy to counterbalance China’s perceived “belligerent” rise. Chinese defence officials promptly acknowledged the renaming of this combatant command.
America’s like-minded allies and partners in Europe, especially former colonial powers, followed suit and are still gradually rolling out or amending policies and strategies pertaining to the new “Indo-Pacific” paradigm. While the rhetoric of “ASEAN centrality” is repeated often in varying languages, the core is actually within New Delhi. The US, Japan and NATO members understand that unconditional patronage and empowerment of the Indian strategic establishments are essential for a stable presence in regional waters. With the ouster of foreign troops from Afghan soil, Pakistan has lost its regional and global prestige as a “frontline state,” and the “geostrategic location” mantra has died down. Notwithstanding the continued threats from a hostile nuclear-armed Iran, the centre of gravity in terms of integrated warfare has shifted from the western Indian Ocean to the eastern, including the Western Pacific.
Pakistan’s political parties are stuck in a vicious hell-hole of agitation-based politics, which has kept the ruling coalition of certain mainstream parties embroiled in a constant quest to emerge unscathed, thus leaving little time for a comprehensive parliamentary and governmental review of foreign policies.
While US policymakers are redefining the spatial boundaries of the “Indo-Pacific” as beginning from East Africa to the shores of America’s west coast, the armed forces continue to view “Indo-Pacific” as the area extending from India’s eastern seaboard to the shores of Japan. The overlaps and dichotomy still exist, evident from the fact that the USINDOPACOM’s Area of Responsibility does not interfere with those of US European Command (USEUCOM), US Africa Command (USAFRICOM) and US Central Command (USCENTCOM). The Indian Navy had to apply for Associate Partnership of USCENTCOM, which was only recently approved, along with the deputation of the first naval liaison officer at US Naval Forces Central Command (USNAVCENT) in Bahrain. Countries such as Pakistan are already long-time and full members of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).
So, while political and diplomatic glamour talk may suggest that India has been handed control of both the oceans on a plate, the military establishment in Washington D.C. is still holding fast to its strings and ceding space very carefully to their counterparts in New Delhi (to the sheer luck of Pakistan). There are moments when such arrangements are placed in awkward situations, particularly when forums such as Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) are given priority placement in America’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” strategy while Japan, the original lobbyist, does not even document its significance. Island states such as Sri Lanka have frequently called for restraint and calm in the wider Indian Ocean Region (IOR), fearing great power competition that could turn regional waters into a space for military conflict and even nuclear war.
Pakistan’s Perspective – Missing Since Long
Subsequent to the ouster of military dictator General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf, successive political regimes of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have failed to develop a coherent foreign policy, one that is particularly mindful of the global shift from continental to maritime policymaking. Relationships with IOR island states can be described as conventional or routine, at best, while efforts to secure membership in IORA have been hijacked by Indian dominance and apparently domestic lack of interest.
Privately, during closed-door interactions and discussions with visiting foreign dignitaries and think tank officials, Pakistani diplomats and academics casually use the “Indo-Pacific” lingo. Officially, quarters concerned are tight-lipped about sharing an official viewpoint. While some credible sources proffer that the reason for this silence is the absence of any policy by the political leadership, a few share that Pakistan unofficially acknowledges the “Indo-Pacific” construct but does not elaborate anything keeping in view the sensitivities involved vis-à-vis China.
Pakistan’s political parties are stuck in a vicious hell-hole of agitation-based politics, which has kept the ruling coalition of certain mainstream parties embroiled in a constant quest to emerge unscathed, thus leaving little time for a comprehensive parliamentary and governmental review of foreign policies. Moreover, the threat from domestic terrorism and insurgency (supported by neighbouring states) is witnessing an upward trend, doubled down hard by pressure from all-weather strategic cooperative ally China to ensure the security of Chinese people and projects across the country.
As of yet, Pakistan’s government machinery is still holding fast to the “Asia Pacific” lingo, and routine press briefings at the Foreign Office in Islamabad still refer to the zone as “Asia & Pacific”.
Policy Confusion Within Proponents of the “Indo-Pacific”
India has adopted a dichotomous approach through which it maintains a standalone IOR Division in the Ministry of External Affairs since 2016 and a separate Oceania Division, which includes a component dedicated to Australia, one for the “Indo-Pacific” and a third for ASEAN since 2020. In essence, India itself is practically keeping IOR and Oceania affairs separate from its broader political rhetoric.
Some of the major financial donors and aid givers to Pakistan include countries that are part and parcel of the emerging “Indo-Pacific” construct. While Japan and Germany overtly mention Pakistan as a member of their respective “Indo-Pacific” outlooks, the UK does so implicitly while laying greater emphasis on partnering with India. Moreover, the US and Japan have formed another clique called Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP), which focuses on the Pacific island countries exclusively without coupling them with those in the IOR. Thus, as long as these dichotomies remain and policy-level confusions persist, there will be little manoeuvrable space for practical collaboration among strategic opponents of a rising China.
Mixed Signals from Pakistan
The military establishment has been apparently trying to fill in for the political vacuum on such foreign policy matters. A growing bonhomie between Pakistani and Japanese armed forces took place during Abe’s last government.
The first notably strange incident of sending mixed signals happened in August 2020 when Pakistan’s recently-retired Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa held a telephonic conversation with the then-Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono. A statement from the Japanese Embassy said that both sides vow to “reinforce the free and open Indo-Pacific” while the Pakistani military’s own media wing was conspicuously silent. During Kono’s visit to the GHQ two years prior as Foreign Minister in January 2018, there was no mention of this lingo. However, by June 2019, Pakistan and Japan had signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation.
Furthermore, it was reported that Bajwa also sought participation in the France-led EU Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which was promptly turned down, reportedly on the grounds of non-cooperation with allies against the Afghan Taliban and threats to French interests in Pakistan from violent extremists.
The major predicament for Pakistan is that it is among the few countries in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that provide an integrated land and sea route for trans-continental trade and connectivity. Conversely, Pakistan is majorly dependent on aid from Western countries with stated or discreet intent to contain the rise of China. Pakistan cannot remain silent and let the process phase itself out unless it wants to dent relations with both camps.
Pakistan should develop and publicise state policies on the Indian and Pacific Oceans so that academics, the diplomatic corps and security policymakers are aware of Islamabad’s exact viewpoint. Closed-door discussions or open engagements which send mixed signals generate growing ambiguity which is counterproductive for state-level engagements.
The Indian Ocean has a unique and rich history distinct from the waters of the Pacific, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article. Generations of students have been taught that their ancestors were seafarers from Arab lands who entered the subcontinent from Sindh. Forced coupling of both seas will yield unproductive consequences for all stakeholders and render Pakistan’s self-developed “national history” somewhat obsolete.
Maritime historians and policymakers in Pakistan need to offer the right and timely advice to policymakers, while India’s duplicity, convenient coupling-decoupling of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, also needs to be appropriately highlighted.