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Book extract: India’s Spatial Imaginations of South Asia

Written by Shibashis Chatterjee, a professor at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, this volume probes reasons behind the relevance of differentiated cartography of territorial nationalism in our shared understanding of space, politics, society, and the community.

SNS | New Delhi |

India’s Spatial Imaginations of South Asia is a book that examines alternative conceptions of South Asian space in terms of geo-economics and community, and justifies why they have been unable to replace its dominant understanding, irrespective of the political regime.

Written by Shibashis Chatterjee, a professor at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, this volume probes reasons behind the relevance of differentiated cartography of territorial nationalism in our shared understanding of space, politics, society, and the community.

Following is an extract from India’s Spatial Imaginations of South Asia


Extending the Power Imagery: From ‘Look East’ to the Indo-Pacific

The idea of the Indo-Pacific is the latest space-making exercise by the Indian foreign policy community. Priya Chacko has shown the multiple positions on the concept, ranging from a muscular counter-hegemonic and strategic vision that seeks to checkmate the growing Chinese power in a region vital to India’s rise; one that rejects this orientation to security and prefers genuine multilateralism, to one based on ‘plural, open and inclusive’ security architecture (Chacko 2012: 2–3).

India has been participating in joint naval exercises (Malabar) with the USA, Japan, Singapore, and Australia. The maritime doctrines released by the Indian Navy also articulate an ambitious Asia-Pacific reach to India’s naval capabilities. While the USA has welcomed India’s role as a ‘net security provider’ to preserve maritime transportation routes and global commons in the Indian Ocean (Scott 2012 : 89 ), both New Delhi and Washington, DC have refrained from institutionalizing security roles in a manner that might send overtly provocative signals to China.

Manmohan Singh saw India’s relation with the ASEAN as a gateway to the Indo-Pacific. The official imprimatur to a security centric turn to India’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific qua ‘Look East’ policy thus started before Modi assumed office. However, during his several visits to Japan and the USA, Modi had intensified the security dynamic that underlies the loose Indo-Pacific construct. Increasingly harassed by the Chinese, and with relations souring with Pakistan, Modi sensed that states like Japan and South Korea were too happy to welcome Indian navy to sail in Pacific waters. With a dithering USA, Modi took a gamble. According to Patrick M. Cronin and Darshana M. Baruah (2014), India’s ‘Act East’ policy was a natural corollary of the Modi Doctrine that entailed heightened security collaboration with Japan, Australia, and the USA. It also involved investing in fl edging security ties with the ASEAN, seeking a more vigorous role in the ARF, and bringing in the far away islands in Indian Ocean and the Pacific into India’s security parameter.

Modi, in fact, worked hard to elevate Indo-Japanese relations to a new strategic partnership as the fulcrum of this doctrine. In his latest state visit to Tokyo, the Indian prime minister pointed out:

Our strategic partnership is not only for the good and security of our own societies. It also brings peace, stability and balance to the region. It is alive and responsive to emerging opportunities and challenges in Asia-Pacific … The successful Malabar naval exercise has underscored the convergence in our strategic interests in the broad expanse of the waters of the Indo-Pacific. As democracies, we support openness, transparency and the rule of law. We are also united in our resolve to combat the menace of terrorism, especially cross-border terrorism. (Press Trust of India 2015)

At the banquet speech on 11 November 2016, the Indian prime minister put emphasis on the virtues of open societies, and their role in changing the prevailing atmosphere in this region (See Press Trust of India 2015). To read between these lines, the emphasis put on democracy, rule of law, dialogue, and good neighbourliness indicates an alliance based on values that include some categories of states but not others. According to analysts like Raja Mohan (2013), this proactive stance on the part of India meant that East Asia was now central to India’s political and geostrategic imagination. India’s role was to counter expansionist designs that threatened peace and stability of this zone. His language was couched in metaphors that cautioned against the fallibilities of territorial conflicts that may destroy the developmental potential inherent in the region.

However, not all security partnership is about balancing out China. Security cooperation between India and the ASEAN states includes antipiracy activities, anti-terrorism, narcotics prevention, climate, and food and energy security-related issues. India and the ten ASEAN countries signed a partnership pact for peace, progress, and shared prosperity in November 2005. The agreement outlines a multi-pronged action plan for boosting trade, investment, tourism, culture, sports, and people-to-people contacts. The leaders agreed to intensify efforts to combat international terrorism and other transnational crimes, such as drug trafficking, arms smuggling, human trafficking, particularly of women and children, sea piracy, and money laundering. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who inked the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity pact with leaders of ASEAN countries at their third annual summit on 30 November 2004, said that if the twenty-first century is to be the Asian century, India and the regional grouping must work together for a future of shared prosperity. Significantly, Singh quoted Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech at the Asian Relations Conference in 1947, where he said that Asian leaders must work jointly to draft a new future. Further, the leaders agreed to foster closer cooperation in reforming and democratising the United Nations and institutions under it by making them ‘more reflective of the contemporary realities’ (Outlook India 2004). The four-page partnership accord and the nine-page action plan envisages their cooperation in multilateral fora, particularly the World Trade Organisation, and in addressing common challenges of economic, food, human, and energy security.