The concept of the Indo-Pacific and more specifically the “Quad” is the latest talking point in diplomatic circles and international relations think tanks across the world. While most of the writing has focused on the novelty of the concept on the one hand or the newfound strategic importance on the other, few have focused on the fact that the Indo-Pacific is not a new concept but an unbroken reality for more than 1700 years of India’s civilizational history.
More specifically, the Quad is an organic outcome of India’s evolving foreign policy centred on maritime relations with South East Asia, which in itself harks back to our long civilizational legacy of being the net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region in particular and the IndoPacific in general. India needs to go back to the beginning and rediscover its historical role in the centre of the Indo-Pacific, in order to shed its inhibitions in taking up a pivotal role in shaping the regional security and economic architecture of the IndoPacific and in turn the world.
Colonial-era history would have us believe that protected by vast mountains and seas, the Indian subcontinent was a nearly complete and self-contained world with its religions, philosophies and social systems till the advent of the British. And yet, a closer reading of history belies this narrative and tells the tale of how an ancient land and its varied societies experienced prolonged and intense interaction with the peoples and cultures of East and Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, and especially Central Asia and the Iranian plateau. In his 2006 book, “The Language of the Gods in the World of Men”, Indologist Sheldon Pollock posits the concept of “Sanskrit Cosmopolitan”, referring to the enormous geographic sweep of Indic culture that stretched from Afghanistan through Vietnam to the East Indies and beyond into the contemporary South China Sea, and which spanned a millennium from the fourth to the fourteenth century. Richard Eaton in his latest book, “In the Persianate World” describes the Sanskrit World as a culturally connected zone between Afghanistan’s Kandahar and the city of Singhapura (Singapore), with Indian cultural influence visibly present till date in modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
The decline in the cultural significance of the Sanskrit cosmopolis from the turn of the millennium to the 14th century was juxtaposed by the simultaneous rise of the Persianate world in the Indian subcontinent.
The Persian cosmopolis roughly corresponded to the periods 900 to 1900 A.D. wherein the Indian subcontinent’s ties were further integrated with those of the Persian world with its epicenter in the Iranian plateau. During this period the cultural diffusion was so extensive that the epicenter of the Persianate world shifted from Khurasan in Iran to the courts of the Sultans of the Delhi Sultanate by the 13th century. It is during this time under Mughal rule that India’s cultural, military, and economic exchanges extended from the Iranian plateau to the west, to Central Asia in the north and to South and South East Asia in the east.
In his study titled, “Mughal hegemony and the emergence of South Asia as a “region” for regional order-building”, Manjeet Pardesi puts forth the view that the region known as South Asia today emerged as the locus for order-building in the early modern period (1500–1750) as a “region” of Islamicate Asia. While the practices associated with the primary institutions of warfare, great power management, diplomacy, and political economy did not meaningfully differentiate South Asia from Eurasia in the pre-Mughal millennium, the deep rules associated with them marked South Asia off from Islamicate Asia after the rise of the Mughals. The practices of these four primary institutions were co-constituted with Mughal hegemony and established India as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean Region, extending well into states bordering the Pacific.
The decline of the Mughal empire brought another oceanic power to the fore on India’s shores in the form of the British East India company. By the turn of the 19th century, the East India Company was firmly entrenched in India by uprooting and subjugating earlier imperial orders like the Mughal empire. In the 20th century, British India extended again from Afghanistan in the West to Singapore in the east with the Royal Navy being the pre-eminent naval force in what is today termed as the Indo-Pacific.
India was the centerpiece in the great game between the Russian empire and the British empire with the theatre of operations extending from the shores of Africa to the shores of China. India as the nucleus of the operations in the Indian Ocean region continued till the end of World War II. Only post-independence in 1947 and the subsequent partition that India, pre-occupied with aggression on its western borders with Pakistan and northern borders with China, ignored its role as the nucleus of the Indo-Pacific with the Indian Ocean at its centre.
The year 1991 marked a strategic shift in India’s perspective of the world with the unveiling of the Look East policy.
The Look East policy was an effort to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia to bolster its standing as a regional power and a counterweight to the strategic influence of the People’s Republic of China. It was developed and enacted during the government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao (1991–1996) and rigorously pursued by the successive administrations of Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998–2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004–2014). The success of the Look East policy enthused the Mandarins of South-Block to develop the policy into a more action-oriented project and outcome-based policy. India’s Act-East Policy, which was announced in 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, became a successor to the Look-East Policy.
The concept of the Indo-Pacific and now the “Quad” is an organic evolution of India rediscovering a role that it has played historically for at least 1,700 years and probably much more if we take into account the voyages made by our ancestors before the age of Christ. The Indo-Pacific with the Indian Ocean at its centre matters today, arguably more than ever, for India and the world.
The Indian Ocean is a major conduit for international trade, connecting the major engines of the international economy in the Northern Atlantic and Asia-Pacific. With its vast littoral, densely populated shores comprising some of the world’s fastest-growing regions and untapped sources of fishing and mineral resources; in the emerging great power competition between the United States and China, the theatre of operations will again be the IndoPacific with India being a frontline state.
The dominance of the Indian Ocean Region will be the key not only to India’s security and prosperity but also to the fortunes of a rules-based world order, in place since the end of World War II. India and its allies including those in “Quad” and “Quad+” groupings, will have to evolve a comprehensive, mutually compatible and interoperable Indo-Pacific strategy that conforms closely to global priorities for preserving the Indo-Pacific, particularly the Indian Ocean Region and South China Sea as a shared resource in the form of an important channel for trade, a sustainable resource base, and a region secure from the heightened military competition, non-state actors, and catastrophic natural disasters.
While the buzz around the “Quad” is a start, the clock for decisive action is already ticking for India to step up and shoulder its historic responsibility of 1,700 years and more!
The writer, who served in the Indian Air Force and as a banker and consultant, is a social entrepreneur, columnist, vlogger, and grassroots socio-political activist.