Australian Outlook

In this section

Modi’s Play for the Indo-Pacific Century: From Look East to Act East, India Should Now Engage East

18 Jul 2019
By Erin Watson-Lynn and Imogen Keall
PM Modi addressing the Australian Indian community in Sydney. Source, Flickr: Narendra Modi.

While aspects of India’s foreign policy are evolving, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has referenced Indian history in his renewed focus on oceans. As well as integrating India into the regional architecture, more can be done by India and Australia to deepen the Indo-Pacific concept.

India’s foreign policy has changed in recent years. Previously characterised by what was understood as a passive and reactionary approach, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has injected a sense of dynamism into its foreign policy as India transforms from a Look East policy to one of Act East. This has resulted in considerable developments in bilateral relationships within the Indo Pacific region. However, more can be done and India should now Engage East.

Modern India is evolving at a rapid pace. India is on track to become the world’s most populous country and second biggest economy. One of the world’s oldest civilisations and home to diverse and multilayered cultures, India’s identity lies at the heart of both its domestic and foreign policy.

With a shift in perspective by countries such as Australia towards the Indo-Pacific, India’s neighbours look closely to see whether the lion nation will emerge as a prominent player in the region, and what this will mean for global geopolitics.

In 2014 Narendra Modi swept into leadership from a landslide victory. A powerful orator and a charismatic figure, his political style and priorities differed from his predecessors including Manmohan Singh.

Prior to Modi, India led the Non-Aligned Movement and practiced a foreign policy balancing act: an unwillingness to enter into formal alliances yet rebuilding trust and bilateral relations with nations such as China. Prime ministerial elections were rarely fought on a platform of foreign engagement and discussions of foreign policy rarely extended further than tensions with Pakistan and trade with China.

From the outset of Modi’s election, his relationships beyond India’s borders were apparent. At his 2014 swearing in ceremony, all heads of government from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) attended. In 2019, member states from BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). Pakistan, however, was not invited.

In June 2018 Modi delivered the Keynote Address at the Shangri-La Dialogue. It was the first time an Indian PM has spoken at the Dialogue since its launch in 2002. Modi’s invitation was an unprecedented move and indicated a “resetting” of relations between India and its regional neighbours. It also affirmed Modi’s desire for India to not only engage but to take on a leadership role within the region.

The historic speech was the first time Modi publicly acknowledged the term “Indo-Pacific” when he said, “India’s own engagement in the Indo-Pacific Region – from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas….” Through these words, Modi delineated the boundaries for India’s definition of the Indo-Pacific and affirmed ASEAN centrality. Importantly, Modi described his vision for the Indo-Pacific as one that is inclusive, and not an exclusive club that “seeks to dominate.”

While the speech was largely defined by Modi’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, it also focused heavily on India’s reliance on the Indian Ocean and maritime freedom. According to Modi:

The Indian Ocean has shaped much of India’s history. It now holds the key to our future. The ocean carries 90 percent of India’s trade and energy sources. It is also the life line of global commerce. The Indian Ocean connects regions of diverse cultures and different levels of peace and prosperity. It also now bears ships of major powers. Both raise concerns of stability and contest.

While aspects of India’s foreign policy are evolving, this focus on oceans is reminiscent of India’s history. Modi described oceans as having an “important place in Indian thinking since pre-Vedic times.” Indeed, while some things change, others remain the same.

Since Modi’s reelection in 2019, incoming Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has reaffirmed Modi’s inclusive Indo-Pacific. At a June press conference with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Jaishankar specifically highlighted India’s Indo-Pacific as “for something, not against somebody.” Jaishankar talked about the something as “peace, security, stability prosperity and rules.”

India’s conceptualisation of the Indo-Pacific is not dissimilar to Australia’s. At her 2019 Raisina Dialogue speech, Foreign Minister Marise Payne emphasised India and Australia’s shared values and interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The overwhelming adoption of the Indo-Pacific term, most recently including ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook, means that regional architecture will inevitably shift and change. Opportunities for Indo-Pacific include the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement which is currently in negotiation, and for India to join APEC.

Beyond the regional architecture, more can be done by India and Australia to deepen the Indo-Pacific landscape. Both countries should develop their own Indo-Pacific strategy, encompassing both economic and public diplomacy. This would be a distinct opportunity for India to Engage East and for Australia to deepen its increasingly important relationship with India.

The progress in India’s foreign policy is positive given the shared underlying principles with Australia. While India appears increasingly comfortable in its role on the global stage, it is not overconfident. This is demonstrated through cautious and inclusive language. India can be bolder in its engagement to the east, which will be of mutual benefit among the Indo-Pacific. Evolved regional architecture and strategic diplomacy efforts within the region will solidify the Modi-era as a pivotal time in not only India, but the Indo-Pacific’s history.

Erin Watson-Lynn is Head of Programs at the Perth USAsia Centre, based at the University of Western Australia.

Imogen Keall is studying law and international relations at Curtin University, and is currently a research intern at the Perth USAsia Centre.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.