Challenges In The Indo-Pacific Region – OpEd


The “Cold War” ended with a new world map. Emergence of new nations indicated new world order. Alliances of WARSAW became ineffective against NATO. Russia signed a number of treaties with NATO alliance for multiple cooperations. After the World War II the economic growth slowly moved from Europe to Asian continent. The economic growth and human development indicators are reflecting the national capabilities. With the economic development the Asian countries are also been integrated with its military power. These emerging military developments are creating a balance of war capabilities among the world power. The holdings of nuclear armaments are to indicate its destructive potentials.

Since the beginning of civilization the world has witnessed a number of destructive wars. These wars were designed sometimes for community leadership, sometimes for extending of mighty empires, sometimes for the religious expansionism and sometimes it can be said to retain individual power. Considering the capabilities and strategic locations alliances were chosen between the countries during different periods.

The industrial revolution started during the 18th and 19th century. The British, Dutch, Spanish and the Portuguese mostly came to Asia from Europe and established footholds through trade. Slowly the colonization allowed the empires to collect wealth from the Asian subcontinent. This wealth was invested in diversity to develop Europe. The German, Italy, Britain, Ottoman and Greek empires also expanded towards Africa, Europe and part of Asia. Japan expanded within Asian countries. Thousands of war were fought for all these imperial expansions. Unaccounted people died, were wounded or displaced during this period throughout the world. How much all these wars were demanded by the society or the people has never been assessed or considered. Social scientists, researchers, writers and humanitarian activists have written thousands of articles, books and produced documents, movies and also published thesis taking even a lifetime, but yet ignored the influence on the inhuman suffering and disastrous after effects on society, culture and humanity. The peoples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are continuing with the terrific effects of World War II even until now.

With the collapse of the Soviet Empire during the 1990s the effect of the Cold War was reduced. The world witnessed a new order. A bi-polar world moved towards a multi-polar scenario. Tension was reduced within the society, races and ideological differences. Other than Afghan war, few isolated conflicts were observed within the region mainly on the territorial disputes. In the recent year “The Indo-Pacific,” a large and diverse region, has been getting involved with multiple dimensional conflicts. The growing geopolitical rivalries within Palestine-Israel, India-China are leading towards severe impacts on the society, economy, security and climate changes. The rapid military advancement among the key players with nuclear modernization is becoming more challenging to the regional security and socio-political structure.

After the World War I and II, the European nations realized their economic suffering and social disorder. They attempted to integrate the European economy and prevent future conflicts. The European Union was created by the “Maastricht Treaty” during 1993 with 28 member countries. The European Union is founded on basis of representative democracy. The aim of this union is to “promote peace, values and the well-being of the citizen”. It offers freedom, security and justice without internal borders. It is designed to established internal markets; achieve sustainable development based on balanced economy and social progress. The African Union was founded during 2002. It is a continental organization with 55 member states. The aims of the African Union are to promote greater unity, territorial integrity, defend democratic principles, cooperation among member states, tackling common challenges and good governance issues. The Union is having a wide ranging impact on continental peace, security and economic development.

There are 36 nations in the Indo-Pacific region. It extends from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India. More than 50% of the world’s populations live in the region. In the last few decades the region has also witnessed the growing economic development. Countries have successfully created their own brand for national identity. Presently, Asian markets are experiencing superiority almost all over the world. But unfortunately, most of the Asian countries are also facing threats from their neighbors, regional powers and international players. Defence developments are becoming a competition between the nations. Land and sea border conflicts are increasing with social differences. Distrust among the regional and sub-regional countries is at the highest level. Many conflicts, including wars, are being fought. Sometimes these conflicts are ideological, sometimes religious, and sometimes political. Most of the time, however, the conflict or war is sponsored by the external powers for their regional or global supremacy.

Recently, the Indo-Pacific region is becoming a new area of conflict due to its strategic importance. It is a rising economy, has marine resources and also enjoys major sea route access. These sea route accesses are used for commercial and military transportation. Presently the conflicts of interests are seen primarily between the allies of United States and China for domination. Both the powers are grouping their allies for strengthening their own positions, depending on the countries locations and values. Chinese military developments are somehow worrying the global interests in the Indo-Pacific region. In the recent year India is also emerging as a factor in the region. Its strategic location, diplomatic success, economic advancement, defence articulation has focused India in the world race for domination. India’s ‘Looking East’ policy has integrated the regional framework. The growing trade, investment and energy in the region is becoming interdependent and drawing international attention to the Indian Ocean region.

The US involvement in the Asia-Pacific region is due to its increasing geo-political influence. The expansion of Chinese military influence in the Pacific region has threatened the balance of power. The US “Indo-Pacific Strategy” has been designed to include India, Japan and Australia to respond to the security threats through partnerships. The South China Sea is bridging the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese military presence in the South China Sea is threatening the security of the Indo-Pacific region, which connects Asia, Africa, Australia and America. As a global economic center two-thirds of the global economic output is from this region. The economically dynamic countries, like India, China, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia are included in this region. A significant portion of the world maritime trade passes through the ‘Strait of Malacca’. Many important ports are located in the Indo-Pacific region for facilitating trade between Asia, Europe, and Africa.

New world power strategies are developing in this region. The increasing strategic competition between the United States, China, India, and Russia are on the surface. The Chinese military influence and domination on the South China Sea is of concern for some. The US views the Indo-Pacific as a free, open and inclusive region. The USA is also including others nations within the geography as stake holders. The idea is to contain Chinese influence or presence in the South China SeaEast China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The unresolved South China Sea territorial dispute with China and the surrounding countries has added strategic complexity. Alfred Thayer, a US Naval officer, said, “Indian Ocean will dominate Asia. The destiny of the world will be decided on its water”.

Considering the strategically importance of the region the big power alliances are also focusing on their defence infrastructural development for ensuring security of the maritime trade routes. A number of connectivity initiatives are underway for economic and defense integrations in the Indo-Pacific region. Organizations and forums like ASEAN, QUADAKUSIORA, BIMSTEC and IOC are actively engaged in IOR and addressing the regional and sub regional issues for economic cooperation and maritime security. The Chinese BRI program is also shaping the economic and political landscape in the region and beyond. The BRI has become a significant factor in the Indo-Pacific power game. The “String of Pearls” is the strategic initiative of China to create networking in the India Ocean to increase geo-political influence and military presence.

China is the second largest oil consumer of the world for its economical development. The major supply for China is transported through the Indian Ocean. The Chinese priorities are to secure a reliable supply route through the Sea Lines of Communications. China is maintaining its strategically close relation with the adjacent countries of Bay of Bengal. The idea is to have an access to create an alternative route to avoid the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ to maintain an undisrupted supply chain. The BRI is designed to reduce China’s reliance on “Strait of Malacca” through which about 80% of energy is transported. Myanmar connects to the Bay of Bengal and can provide sea port facilities connecting to the mainland of China. The BRI is offering military and commercial support to its allied countries for networking in the Bay of Bengal and nearby coasts through the ports of Gwadar, Hambantota and Sittwe. The CPEC and CMEC projects are providing the sea port facilities to the mainland of China for transporting oil and gas through pipelines. Some of these ports are also designed to provide naval base facilities to the Chinese Navy. These new “Big Power Rivalries” in the Asia-Pacific are indicating a new polarization on the Cold War scenario.

India is the seventh largest country with an area of 1,269,219 sq mile and also having the world highest population of 1,437,768,424 crore. India shares borders of 15,106 km with seven bordering states. The Indian coast is 7,516 km including of island territory and shares coastlines with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. India has followed a nonalignment policy since independence and maintained friendly relations with others. As such, Indian culture has an impact over the vast region to its east and west. India enjoys the membership of the major regional, subregional and multilateral world organizations. Some alignments are contradictory, but India is looking comfortable with its diplomatic capability. Indian policy aims to develop its economy and human resources which was almost destroyed by the British and others during the colonial period when one of the richest regions became slowly poorer.

In the 21st century India now has an influence on the world affairs and is becoming a global partner on economical development and defense affairs and is a successful link between tje East and West. Presently, India’s vibrant Diaspora contributes to the country’s economic development and sustainable foreign policy. India is becoming a trillion dollar economy, which will have a direct impact on world affairs.

India is located at the center of many maritime links in the Indian Ocean Region. Indian importance on the globe is for its rising economy, dependable military power and geographical location, being connected with West, South, Southeast and East Asian countries through these maritime routes, as well as with West Central Asia and South East Asia through land routes. The Indian “Look East Policy” has contributed to greater engagement with the East and South East Asian countries. The redesigning of Indian defence and rising economic capability in respect to China will shape the Indian geo-political and geo-economic role of influence over the next decade.

After the 1962 India–China War, the 1965 India-Pakistan War and the 1967 India-China War, Indian authorities realized the shortcomings of the country’s defence establishment. As such, considering its location and the growing geo-political importance India articulated its defense goal. Presently India has the second largest standing army and is one of the fastest growing naval powers. India is ranked fourth with regard to fire power in the world index. Indian also has the capability of producing sustainable defence hardware, including fighter planes and submarines. India’s target is to become one of the top five defence exporting countries in the world. The defence export target is five billion dollars by 2025. In the new world order India has a role in balancing military powers in the region and beyond. The Indian cooperation with Mongolia, Singapore, Vietnam, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has opened a new strategic dimension. In the recent year, India participated in many defense exercises with the USA, France, the UK, Russia, China, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Mongolia and Australia. All these exercises have provided opportunities to know each other’s capability, training procedure and battlefield cooperation.

Within the Indo-Pacific region, the “Bay of Bengal” is also becoming a hot bed with its new strategic importance. The Bay of Bengal is located closer to the geographic center of the Indo-Pacific region. The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world with India on the west and Thailand to its east. The coastal countries are India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The Bay of Bengal provides key transit links between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Oceans. It is also a major trade and energy route to East Asian countries with 25% of the world’s traded goods crossing through the Bay. Oil and liquefied natural gas from the Persian Gulf are transported through this corridor. BIMSTEC is providing opportunities to the “Look East” policy of India and “Look West” policy of Thailand for further integration. All this underlies the Bay of Bengal’s strategic importance for both China and India.

The USA has has a military presence in the Asia Pacific region since World War II. The US has around 400 hundred military bases with 3,00,000 troops, with 60% of the US Naval fleet remaining in the Pacific region. The major deployments are in Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Guam and Hawaii. These bases have a major influence on “Inter capitalist competition”. The US great power game is designed in light of the rise of China. During the period of Barack Obama, the US “East Asia Strategy” significantly shifted its foreign policy towards Asia. The US heavily invested in the East Asian and South East Asian countries that had a close proximity to China. The Indo-Pacific strategy made PACOM responsible on focusing “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. US military ties developed with South Korea, Australia, Philippines, Singapore and Japan. The US “Trans-Pacific Partnership” is also known as “Pivot to Asia”. The US aggressive policy in the Pacific has concerned China and has decreased the possibilities of cooperation between the3 US and China.

During the COVID pandemic the world witnessed a declining economy. It was hard to survive for some. Before nations could fully recover from their economic sufferings, conflicts started within nations in different regions. The Russia-Ukraine war in Europe, the Palestine-Israel war in the Middle East, the Iranian conflict in the Gulf and the India-China border conflict have all created tension in the region and beyond. The Ukraine War has affected the world economy; the Palestine War created inhuman suffering with ethnic cleansing. Thousands of civilians and children have been killed in Palestine within a very short period. Iranian nuclear armaments issues are indicating a new US-Middle Eastern crisis. The South China Sea maritime boundary conflict with China with the other costal countries is raising world issues. The India-China-Pakistan-Bhutan border disputes are also moving beyond the region. The Myanmar civil war has displaced Muslim Rohingya people and they have taken shelter in the bordering countries. An overpopulated country like Bangladesh has sheltered more than a million Rohingya Muslims on humanitarian grounds without considering its own financial capability and security threats. All these issues are becoming indicating factors towards a new world order or a new world polarization.

The Asia pacific region was known as a zone of peace. With a homogeneous atmosphere nations were advancing towards modernizations. The backbone of these development was sustainable homegrown economies coupled with the citizens’ dedication. After World War II the defence expenditure was at a minimum in Asian countries. Within a span of 50 years, the Asian economy become an open challenge to the western ‘war economy’. Now, considering the future military supremacy and economic consequences, a new war scenario is appearing, and the Indo-Pacific region is also affected.

The recent geo-political and geo-strategical tension between the US and China is dividing Asian countries within separate blocks. The global scenario is again becoming gloomy and looking like more like the previous ‘Cold War” period. China’s aggressive foreign policy is supported by its financial indicator. The Chinese military is one of the fastest growing military forces in the world and that country’s navy seeks domination from the Japan Sea to the Indo-Pacific and even extending towards the African region. China’s historical territorial disputes with Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Philippines, Borneo and India are continuing as security threats to all these regional countries. The land and maritime disputes are mainly for resources and strategically influence. The creation of artificial island chain around the sea coast of China including placement of nuclear armaments is a security threat to others. The island chain extends Chinese sea space and squeezes others. Chinese military deployment in the region threatens the balance of power in the Asia Pacific. Chinese Belt and Road Initiatives are also indicating the country’s extending presence in different parts of the world.

Presently, Asia Pacific region is projected as a zone of conflict in world affairs. Super powers are articulating their own power games in this reason. Economic imperialism is now turning towards a defence conflict for regional supremacy. The US countering its strategcic policy against China with regard to the Indian Ocean is creating a hot bed of confrontation. A number of alliances of different forms are being formed within the regional countries and also involving external super powers. The mutual defence treaty between the United States and Republic of China (Taiwan) during 1954 was intended to defend the island of Taiwan from invasion by the People Republic of China. US defence policy towards Taiwan has outlined a new military alliance QUAD where the US, Japan, India Australia are members. Another forum named AUKUS is with the membership of US, UK, Japan and Australia. The recent development of QUAD Plus and AUKUS Plus are also significant developments in the region. Presently India has a sustainable defence alignment with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia within the region. All these alliances and forums are designed mainly to contain Chinese influence in the region and beyond. The US Burma Act is also a concerning factor in the Bay of Bengal region. The counter-China policy in the region and beyond is getting more aggressive day-by-day.

China is expected to become the number one economy of the world outpacing the USA. India is following closely with its rapid growth. Japan and South Korea have sustainable economies. Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam and Sri Lanka are also moving towards developing nations. Presently, Asian countries are significantly contributing towards the world economy. Recent world growth attention is towards the Asian Continent. With dedication Asian countries have become manufacturing hubs for the world. Human development indicators are also satisfactory. APEC, ACD, ASA, PECE, SASEC, BIMSTEC, BBIN, SAARC, IORA, MRC, MGC, APC, SPECA, SCO, ASPAC, CAREC countries display significant cooperation with a common agenda. Economic and security cooperation has enhanced connectivity and created interdependency. Asian manufacturing countries are almost a common market in the USA, Europe, Middle East and African countries. Imports and exports also indicate the common route and destinations. For maintaining a secure supply chain Asian countries are almost dependent upon each other.

BRICS is an intergovernmental organization opening new investment opportunities within the geo-political bloc. The founding countries are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. They are the member of the G-20 groups. Lately, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran and United Arab Emirates added to these initiatives and a numbers of other countries are in the process of joining. This is leading to a coordinated effort to develop bilateral relations, equality, and non-interference for mutual benefits. The new development bank aims to become the basket of BRICS reserve currencies, projecting an alternative to the dollar. Presently the number of countries within the BRICS membership is also the part of the US dollar participating groups. World financial organizations like the World Bank, IMF, IBRD, IFC, IDA, ICSID and MIGA are influenced by the dollar, including western markets. The multilateral transactions system is yet to be balanced by any other currency at this moment. On the other side, US financial sanctions are also restricting countries for using bi-lateral currencies. Considering the countries development goal, financial support program, defence cooperation and commercial alignment, whether the BRICS alliances can be the part of de-dollarization process and same time can sustain national growth, is yet to be assessed.

Most of the Asian countries are still living below the poverty level. National economies are controlled by a few groups or individuals. Rich people are getting richer and the poor are becoming poorer day-by-day. Cities are growing and villagers are leaving their homes for security, education, medical and the collection of food. Growing together remains a political slogan all over. Sadly, defence development budgets are more or a priority than developing national economies. How much ammunition a weapon can hold is of more concern than how many calories a day an individual can have. The globe will enter a new world order by 2040. A new generation with new technology is going to rule the world. Artificial Intelligence will be probably reach beyond how far present scientists are yet to predict. The world is likely to witness a new socio-political, socio-economic and socio-cultural order. Considering the new world order, the question is if Asian countries can look for an “Asian Union” that may deliver the nations from conflicts of interests and armed races for a sustainable development goal.

Looking at the present world scenario, the super powers could not stop the inhuman suffering and killings in Ukraine, Palestine and Myanmar. The UN is helpless. In the same way, Taiwan-China, North Korea-Japan and India-China issues are likely to drag the Asian nation into a major conflict. The USA is a common factor to all. How much does the Asian region benefit from the US-China power conflict? Considering the regional issue, Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister, said that, “Washington and Beijing must create long term cooperative strategies that accommodates each other’s interest. Doing this would significantly reduce miscalculation and the likelihood of conflict”. He also mentioned that, “US rebalancing is not purely a military one but, rather part of a broader regional diplomatic and economic strategy that also includes the decision to become a member of the East Asia Summit and plans to develop the Trans-Pacific Partnership, deepen the United States strategic partnership with India, and open the door to Myanmar”.

ASM Shamsul Arefin

ASM Shamsul Arefin has served the armies of Pakistan and then Bangladesh, which he joined as a freedom fighter during the 1971 Liberation. He is now chairman of Bangladesh Foundation for Regional Studies working on the Asia-Pacific Region. Arefin is author of the multi-volume magnum opus on Bangladesh Election and has written a number of books on the Bangladesh Liberation War.

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