Making a strong strategic statement, India has just set up an Indo-Pacific division in the foreign office. The brainchild of foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, the new division is intended to give a coherent architecture to the policy, which was articulated by PM Narendra Modi at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018.
The division, which started work this week, will be headed for the moment by joint secretary Vikram Doraiswami, for whom it will be an additional charge apart from Bangladesh and Myanmar. MEA’s territorial divisions are crucial for policy making, so the creation of an Indo-Pacific division is a big step by the government.
The division will integrate the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Asian region and the Quad to the Indo-Pacific table. It’s not clear whether the different trilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific theatre, like the India-Japan-US, India-Australia-Indonesia, and India-Australia-Japan would be part of this division’s responsibility.
The US recently renamed its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command as it seeks to give teeth to its Indo-Pacific policy. In India, the policy will be run by the MEA, though it is expected that as it moves along, it will work with the defense ministry which runs its own Indo-Pacific policy — for instance, Indian ships are currently touring Vietnam on a goodwill visit en route to China, while others are in Mozambique to provide relief.
India is planning to put greater energy to the IORA because the heart of its Indo-Pacific policy is rooted in the Indian Ocean. This integrates the blue economy part of the Indian policy with the security part — a trilateral security mechanism between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives used to be the core of the latter until Abdulla Yameen’s China outreach drowned that out. With a new government in Male, that might be resurrected.
In its Indo-Pacific diplomacy, India has repeatedly placed Asean at the center of its policy. Asean by itself does not actually speak as a united entity, particularly when confronted by China’s overwhelming presence, for, while Asean is wary of China, it is equally wary of the US and its allies, preferring to keep the Asean region outside great power politics. It is this that India wants to address and engage with. Singapore, Vietnam and now Indonesia are key partners in the region for India. This will also involve the Quad and taking this new grouping to the region.