India has defended its Indo-Pacific policy and implicitly denied it is an imported concept, pointing to diplomatic, cultural and trade links going back one and a quarter millennia. And in a sign of growing assertiveness, it has also, rather uncharacteristically, categorically said no country can have a veto over its foreign policy.
He was referring to the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of the region beyond the Strait of Malacca during the time of the Chola empire between the ninth and thirteenth centuries CE. Successive Chola emperors like Rajaraja Chola I, Rajendra Chola I, Rajadhiraja Chola 1 and others conquered countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives and also sent naval expeditions all the way to kingdoms located in modern day Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
This led to the establishment of strong military, cultural, political and trade ties between India and those countries. During that time, important Tamil trading gilds establishing a stranglehold on business in many of those regions. The Chola era also marked the zenith of Indian sea power and its projection right up to the coast of Vietnam and the southern coast of China.
Some analysts were pleasantly surprised to see Jaishankar come out all guns blazing at the recently concluded Raisina Dialogues in the Indian capital because New Delhi has been somewhat diffident about wholeheartedly embracing the concept of the India Pacific in the past, possibly because some countries have associated the nomenclature with Cold War-era thinking hiding within it the building blocks of an Asian Nato.
The Indian Foreign Minister reminded his audience that travel, connectivity, trade and the exchange of people and ideas across the Indo-Pacific region existed in ancient times, with India at its centre. Hence, far from being a new concept, the revival of the concept of the Indo-Pacific is a return to return to history for the Indian government.
“It is actually overcoming the Cold War, not reinforcing it,” he asserted, while categorically denying allegations from Beijing and Moscow that the Indo-Pacific concept reflects the old Cold War mentality.
This definition significantly expands India’s area of maritime influence, which has traditionally been defined as the arc between the Gulf of Aden in the Middle East to the choke point of Malacca Straits in the east.
By going past the Malacca Straits, Jaishankar was bringing many more countries, including Australia and France, into the calculus and “perhaps the most important quality we bring to this is really that intuitive comfort that we have with each other as societies, as polities, as economies”, he added.
The message is clearly meant for Beijing, but what has surprised some retired diplomats in New Delhi is the alacrity with which Russia has been willing to wade into this. They are surprised because Moscow has no skin in this game. It does not have a presence either in the traditional or in the redefined Indo-Pacific region. Nor does it have any significant strategic interests in this space.
As Kanwal Sibal, one of India’s finest retired diplomats, has argued in a recent article: “If Russia’s intention is to lend diplomatic support to China and oppose the US plans to curb China’s ambitions, there is little reason, from Russia’s point of view, to implicitly criticise India’s support for the concept that derives its logic from China’s adversarial policies towards India. New Delhi, in fact, has sought to bring Russia into the fold of the Indo-Pacific through initiatives such as the Vladivostok-Chennai maritime corridor.”
Significantly, only a few days before the Raisina Dialogues, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Jaishankar highlighted the chasm in their thinking on the issue during the latter’s visit to New Delhi.
While Jaishankar stuck to “Indo-Pacific”, Lavrov pointedly referred to the region as “Asia-Pacific” and emphasised that while Russia didn’t believe in military alliances, groupings such as an “Asian Nato” can be “counter-productive”.
It is not clear if Jaishankar had Lavrov’s comments in mind when he said, in a different context, though India does not have an alliance mentality, it was making a “national choice”. Particularly significant – and very strong – was his assertion that no country has a veto over who we meet and what we discuss with them.
The redefining of the Indo-Pacific in Indian historical terms and the categorical statement on no country having a veto signal is a new assurance on the foreign policy front under the Modi government that was missing under previous dispensations.
And that could be the biggest takeaway from Jaishankar’s speech on the subject.