IN MID-DECEMBER, the political and geographical category ‘Indo-Pacific region’ was discussed twice and in different aspects by Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who drew on well-known facts in order, first, to emphasise the importance of this particular region in the current stage of the ‘great world game’ and, second, to mark the increasing role of India in regional affairs.
Both of these points seem rather obvious. But apparently not to everyone, since the foreign minister of one of the world’s leading players found it necessary to pay attention to them twice, only a day apart (on December 15 and 17).
Indeed, one can sometimes find assessments of the ‘Indo-Pacific region’ concept itself as an artificial propaganda construct designed to ‘cover up American expansionism’ in the region. Certainly, this ‘expansionism’ does indeed take place. But to a certain extent it turned out to be a reaction to the shift of the centre of global political and economic processes in the Indo-Pacific region from the Euro-Atlantic, where it has lingered for the last few centuries. The wind causes the trees to sway, not the other way around.
The winds of the geopolitical changes outlined above led, among other things, to the May 2018 name change of the largest US strategic command: US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command. It is USINDOPACOM, providing ‘forceful support’ for Washington’s policies in the Indo-Pacific region today, that represents, if you will, the symbol of said ‘expansionism’.
In confirmation of the objective nature of these changes, Jaishankar estimates that the Indo-Pacific region represents 64 per cent of the world’s population, and 62 per cent of the world’s GDP. More than 50 per cent of sea cargo shipments are made through the water area of the region.
As a matter of fact, the maritime trade route through the Indian Ocean, which begins in the area of the Persian Gulf and the eastern coast of Africa, which transports crude oil to China and Japan (now the second and third world economies respectively), as well as to South Korea and several other countries on the western Pacific, by the middle of the 2000s was the link that prompted first experts and then politicians to combine the two oceans into a single strategic unit.
Here, too, a new pair of contenders for the role of competing ‘Sparta’ and ‘Athens’ emerged in the Indo-Pacific region by the second half of that decade. While at the beginning of the 20th century these were ‘Europeans’, ie Great Britain and Germany, a century later they were replaced by the United States and China.
Since 2007, in preparation for a comprehensive confrontation with Beijing, Washington has been making efforts to form a coalition of ‘local’ allies. Japan, India and Australia are seen as prime candidates, which, together with the United States, have come to be referred to as the Quad. Until recently, however, this political-geographic configuration did not show any visible signs of life. The October 6 ministerial meeting of the participants in Tokyo once again demonstrated the continuing ‘forum’ nature of the Quad.
That is, there is nothing close to the prospect of a politico-military alliance. It seems that the members of the Quad get together in one format or another mainly for the purpose of reciting established memes about the situation in Indo-Pacific region and hinting transparently at the source of the turmoil going on here. The most recent event of this kind was the video conference held on December 18 by some ‘high officials’ of the participating countries.
Leading European countries have recently shown a desire to join this ‘local-regional’ political turmoil. In particular, the four-day visit to India in mid-December of the British foreign secretary Dominic Raab attracted considerable attention. In a meeting with his colleague Jaishankar, the guest used the expression ‘Indo-Pacific tilt,’ a new meme in London’s foreign policy rhetoric. This meme will reportedly take centre stage in the official document now being prepared (expected to appear in early 2021), which will formulate the main positions of the strategy of this very remarkable ‘tilt’ of the UK.
The article-commentary by an expert from Chatham House, that is, the Royal Institute for International Affairs, ‘China and Brexit Drive the UK’s “Tilt” to Indo-Pacific’ identifies two tilt motives, which, however, have been repeatedly discussed in the New Eastern Outlook.
In arguing that the UK decided to be the only one of the big three European countries (ie, after France and Germany) not to have announced an Indo-Pacific strategy, the author formulates three goals, one of which is to demonstrate ‘force for good’. It is difficult to assess the above formula as anything but a display of peculiar British humour, bearing in mind not only the disastrous 19th century ‘Opium Wars’ for China, but also the anti-Chinese provocation to send a strike team headed by the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth to the Far East.
At the same meeting with the British guest, the foreign minister of India gave a positive assessment of the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ of the UK. Jaishankar, in particular, said: ‘India has definitely welcomed the increased interest and attention that the UK has given to IPR. We certainly look forward to working with you in any manner possible.’
Apparently, a more detailed discussion of the problems of expanding British-Indian cooperation will take place during the upcoming visit to India by prime minister Boris Johnson, who was invited as a ‘guest of honour’ on the occasion of the national Republic Day (celebrated at the end of January) by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Who, in turn, also received an invitation from Johnson to attend the next summit of the G7.
We may be seeing the beginnings of an outline (still very fuzzy) for the ‘Empire 2’ project, speculation about which has so far been pure fantasy. It is not absolutely certain, however, that the role of metropolis in the new rendition of the empire will once again be taken by Great Britain. To be more precise, almost certainly not. Because of the extremely serious internal and external problems that make it impossible to treat this whole ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ of the UK at all other than as a gamble of politicians who have lost touch with reality.
But how well-founded the (hidden) claim to this role by London’s former main colony is (which surpassed the former metropolis in 2019 in terms of GDP) will depend on a number of factors. Of which, today, perhaps the most important has to do with the problem of India’s recovery from its current deep economic failure due to the extremely severe self-imposed restrictions in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, attempts to re-establish a military presence in the region ‘east of Suez’ can be presented by London to its NATO allies as a contribution to the recently announced process of expanding the geographical scope of the alliance’s responsibility.
All of the above is further confirmation of the Indo-Pacific region’s transformation into a strategic vortex that draws in everyone, including countries very far from the region. As always, the current vortex is shaped by the winds of geopolitical change set in motion by the end of the Cold War.
New Eastern Outlook, January 2. Vladimir Terekhov is an expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region.
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