South Asia and the new geopolitics

By Richard Halloran  / 

Sat, May 25, 2013 - Page 8

To the Confucian scholar Hsun Tzu (荀子), writing in China 2,500 years ago, calling things by the right name was imperative.

If things were properly named, “there is no longer the danger of people’s ideas not being understood,” Hsun Tzu said.

“All that are alike are given the same name,” said Hsun Tzu (not to be confused with Sun Tzu (孫武), the military strategist), and “all that are unalike are given different names.”

This concept, called by some the “rectification of names,” is as applicable today as it was in ancient times.

Take the vast region that is the area of operations for the US’ Pacific Command (PACOM) with its headquarters in Honolulu. PACOM’s territory stretches from the west coast of the US to the east coast of Africa and from the North Pole to the South Pole. Until recently, that expanse was widely referred to as the “Asia-Pacific” region.

Now comes a subtle shift in the name of that region, a slight change that suggests more intense competition between the US and China as each seeks to draw India and the rest of South Asia into its camp.

In the late 1980s, the US defined the “Asia-Pacific” region as China; Northeast Asia, meaning Japan, Korea and the Russian far east; Southeast Asia, meaning the nations on the shores of the South China Sea; Australia and the Pacific islands.

India and South Asia were largely ignored.

However, today, without any fanfare, that area has been renamed the “Indo-Asia-Pacific” region. The focus of attention has been enlarged to take in India and the other nations of South Asia plus the Indian Ocean through which passes two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments and one-third of its bulk cargo each year.

This revision began during the watch of US Navy admiral Timothy Keating as the PACOM commander; he visited New Delhi twice to widen US contacts. His successor, US Navy admiral Robert Willard, set up a small cell of specialists within his headquarters to fashion a long-term strategy for expanding US military relations with India.

The current commander, US Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, introduced the term “Indo-Asia-Pacific” in testimony before a US Congressional committee last month.

He said the “Indo-Asia-Pacific” region drives the world economy and was home to the world’s largest democracy, India, and the smallest republic, Nauru.

Locklear also pointed out that this is “the world’s most militarized region with seven of the 10 largest standing militaries, the world’s largest and most sophisticated navies, and five of the world’s declared nuclear armed nations,” Russia, China, India, North Korea and the US

The US is not alone in revising their terms. In Australia, whose west coast faces the Indian Ocean, a “White Paper on Defense” released earlier this month launched the term “Indo-Pacific” as an emerging concept. It sets Australia’s strategic focus on “the arc extending from India through Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia.”

The white paper says the new term reflects India’s new stature “as an important strategic, diplomatic, and economic actor” more engaged in regional frameworks. The paper notes that India has adopted a “look east” tactic to forge new relations with the nations of Southeast Asia.

China, with its expressed objection to being “contained,” is keenly aware of the shift in strategic outlook at PACOM and in Canberra and is seeking to counter it.

Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs Salman Khurshid was welcomed in Beijing last week by Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅). Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) visited India this week.

Wang contended, diplomatically, that China and India were “strategic partners by nature.”

That came against a backdrop of years of border disputes, China’s alliance with India’s adversary, Pakistan and increasing political competition for influence throughout Asia.

At the same time, US and Australian officials privately questioned whether India was prepared to play a major role in the region or on the globe.

They said Indian politicians and bureaucrats seemed stuck in the Cold War days when India proclaimed that it was “non-aligned,” pacifist and aloof from the critical issues of the day.

Several critics pointed to a recent issue of the Economist magazine, edited in Britain, the former colonial ruler of India.

The editors wrote that “India’s politicians and bureaucrats show little interest in grand strategy.”

The magazine contended that the Indian diplomatic service was weak and officials of the Indian Ministry of Defense were unprofessional.

“Whereas China’s rise is a given, India is still widely seen as a nearly-power that cannot quite get its act together,” the magazine said.

Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.