Why Do We Need an Indo-Pacific Cooperation Organization (IPCO)?

The term Indo-Pacific is in vogue in geo-political discussions these days. The strategic concept of Indo-Pacific is not new and has been used widely in Weimar Germany in the beginning of the 20th century. In a series of books that he had written, German Geopolitics expert Karl Haushofer popularized the concept of Indo-Pacific in the 1920s. He envisioned an "Indo-Pacific" comprising anticolonial (read anti-British) forces in India and China, as Germany's ally against the maritime domination of the Great Britain, United States, and Western Europe. During the colonial and the Post-World War II times, a smaller part of the Indo-Pacific region was referred to as the “Indo-China” that currently corresponds to the South-East Asian region only. The concept of the Indo-Pacific was resurrected in the 21st century by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while addressing a joint session of Indian parliament in 2007 when he referred to the confluence of two great oceans, Indian and Pacific as an arc of peace and prosperity and a diamond of democracy while introducing the quadrilateral security dialogue. Shinzo Abe visualized "the dynamic coupling as the seas of freedom and of prosperity" in the "broader Asia". Since 2010 onwards the term Indo-Pacific has become an essential part of the geo-political lexicon, deeply loved and admired by the West and India and riled, shunned and demonized by the communist China.

Indo-Pacific region encompasses a vast stretch of landmass, two oceans, numerous smaller seas, islands, island chains and a thriving humanity that is more focused on rising their standards of living, human advancement, infra-structure development and economic growth. The recent incidents and militarization in the South China Sea, the Sea of Japan, the Philippines Sea and the Taiwan Straits have disturbed the traditional peace and tranquility in the Indo-Pacific region. The region as a whole and some countries in particular have rapidly industrialized while remaining peaceful. In this entire region, one country, i.e., Peoples’ Republic of China, has tried gradually and incrementally to become the rising hegemon with explicit expansionist claims on various island chains and natural resources in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of smaller countries. The façade of the peaceful and harmonious rise of China is over and has given rise to the “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy under the Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping, executed ably by his foreign policy underlings Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi. The Peoples’ Republic of China has defied the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague on violating the sovereignty of the Philippines on the issue of Scarborough Shoals. China has violated the principles of the UNCLOS which it is a signatory to. China habitually refuses to engage with multi-lateral organizations and tends to coerce smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific region in a bilateral framework. It uses unethical and coercive tactics including military threats, bribes, predatory lending and debt-trap diplomacy. China has acquired the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka along with surrounding land on a 99 years’ lease in lieu of unpaid debts for developing the economically unviable port project. China has issued special Chinese passports for these territories analogous to the British imperial practices in Hong Kong. An aggressive China is trying to control the UN and the Bretton Wood institutions while floating alternatives like AIIB (Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank). Currently, there is a multiplicity of organizations that are prominent in the Indo-Pacific region’s geo-political architecture. We will review the now-defunct, the existing and newly proposed and evolving institutions in the Indo-Pacific region so as to advance our thesis of a rising and shining Indo-Pacific community. This proposed alternative vision of a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific community is in sharp contrast with Xi Jinping’s China’s dream of “the 21st Century as an Asian Century” which is essentially a communist euphemism for the Chinese Century!


During The decolonization period after World War II, the US emerged as the new imperial power of the ideological “West” and built certain institutions and military blocks ostensibly to fight and contain the spread of communism. Now defunct, SEATO or the South-East Asia Treaty Organization was one such security and military block geared towards the defense of countries in the South-East Asian region.The Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, or the Manila Pact, was signed on 8 September 1954 in Manila, the Philippines. The majority of SEATO members were not located in the geographic region of South-East Asia; the only regional participants were the Philippines and Thailand. Pakistan was miffed as SEATO did not support it militarily in 1971 war and withdrew from SEATO in 1972, after East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh on 16 December 1971. Pakistan was supposed to pay annual 8% dues to SEATO. SEATO was finally dissolved on 30 June 1977 after many members lost interest, refused to pay the annual dues and withdrew from it. SEATO is considered a failure from geo-political perspective.


The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is a regional economic forum established in 1989 to leverage the growing interdependence of the Asia-Pacific. It is headquartered in Singapore and aims to create greater prosperity for the people of the region by promoting balanced, inclusive, sustainable, innovative and secure growth and by accelerating regional economic integration. China was allowed to join the APEC in 1991. Latest entrants to the APEC were Peru and Viet Nam in 1998. Despite India’s persistent interest to join as a participating economy in the APEC process, the organization has not allowed India’s membership because of objections from multiple member economies including the US.


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN declaration in Bangkok by the founding members of ASEAN, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. India was sounded out and offered the founding membership of the ASEAN but then PM of India, Indira Gandhi in a short-sighted gesture, declined to join the ASEAN. Admittedly, that was a serious mistake. Brunei Darussalam then joined on 7 January 1984, Viet Nam on 28 July 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar on 23 July 1997, and Cambodia on 30 April 1999, making up what is today the ten Member States of ASEAN. The organization works through consensus and does not interfere in the internal issues owing to its charter. There are at least three members of the ASEAN who are guided by communist China, namely Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and obstruct routinely any declaration that may go against Chinese interests. Malaysia, a so-called moderate Muslim democracy, has consistently shown hostility to India because of its religious affinity to Pakistan. Paralyzed by its charter’s dogmatic beliefs, ASEAN has been ineffective in tackling serious issues that threaten the region including Chinese claims on various islands and EEZ of member states. ASEAN in its current form is a dismal strategic failure and is more akin to a singing and dancing club devoid of any gravitas. ASEAN is wallowing in strategic inertia and cannot be expected to take security or strategic role in the Indo-Pacific though its zealously guards the centrality of its existence and decision-making role in the region.


ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was established by the ASEAN members in 1994 and meets annually. It is a security and geopolitical outreach effort by the ASEAN countries. It comprises of 27 members: the 10 ASEAN member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam); the 10 ASEAN dialogue partners (Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States); and seven other countries. The objectives of the ASEAN Regional Forum are outlined in the First ARF Chairman’s Statement (1994), namely: to foster constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern; and to make significant contributions to efforts towards confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region. The 27th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (1994) stated that “The ARF could become an effective consultative Asia-Pacific forum for promoting an open dialogue on political and security cooperation in the region. In this context, ASEAN should work with its ARF partners to bring about a more predictable and constructive pattern of relations in the Asia Pacific.” India became a member and dialogue partner of the ARF in 1996. India's participation in the ARF demonstrates India’s increasing engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, both in the politico-security and economic spheres and underlines our commitment to the objective of sustaining regional peace and stability. The ARF is predicated on the centrality of the ASEAN as the major decision organization in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the ARF is only a consultative mechanism or a mere talking shop and does not act as a security provider in the region.


The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is an inter-governmental organization which was established on 7 March 1997. The vision for IORA originated during a visit by late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa to India in 1995. It’s membership comprises of 23 countries that share the Indian Ocean region. The secretariat of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is hosted by the Government of the Republic of Mauritius which is based in Cyber City, Mauritius. It manages, coordinates, services and monitors the implementation of policy decisions, work programs and projects adopted by the Council of Ministers. India is an active member and partner of the IORA and its various mechanisms and projects. IORA has undertaken a number of developmental and infra-structure projects in the rim countries. IORA should serve as a peaceful example and a model to emulate by other organizations in the Indo-Pacific region

TPP and the CPTPP:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership or the TPP had been signed on 4 February 2016, but never entered into force, as the US withdrew from the agreement. After the former US president Trump refused to sign for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement; the remaining members of the TPP instead of gutting it down singed the free trade agreement but in a modified form called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).The eleven signatories have combined economies representing 13.4 percent of global GDP, at approximately US$13.5 trillion, making the CPTPP one of the world's largest free-trade areas by GDP. Interestingly, China is not part of the CPTPP, nor is India. On 1 February 2021, the UK formally applied to join the CPTPP after leaving the EU. The UK is the first non-founding country to apply to join the CPTPP. If successful, the UK would become the second largest CPTPP economy, after Japan. It will be in India’s long-term economic interests to consider joining the CPTPP with suitable modifications as both the US and the China are not part of the CPTPP. CPTPP has very stringent and intrusive labor and intellectual property standards built into trade issues. However, India’s focus on inclusion of services sector besides trade will remain as a stumbling block for membership in any multi-lateral trade grouping. Last year, Xi Jinping announced China’s intention to join the CPTPP. Joining the CPTPP requires the consent of current members, who say there won't be any concessions for new members. China’s mercantile behavior after joining WTO must be considered before China is allowed to join the CPTPP.


Originally the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was the ASEAN proposal of a free-trade block. It was an Avatar or a refined version of the ASEAN-plus-six proposal with which China was not happy as it included India in the free-trade block. RCEP agreement as signed on November 15ht 2020 has currently fifteen member countries including China. India at the last minute refused to join the RCEP because of non-inclusion of services in the agreement and the underlying belief that the free trade agreement will give China right to decimate the Indian markets and manufacturing sectors. RCEP, often labelled inaccurately as “China-led,” is a triumph of ASEAN’s middle-power diplomacy. China’s own proposal for Free Trade Agreement for Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) did not get traction as China did not want to include India and wanted to dominate the trade block.


The QUAD is the new kid on the block in the Indo-Pacific region. Dubbed as a military alliance by China, initial version of QUAD was sabotaged by China by putting excessive pressure on Kevin Rudd, the mandarin speaking, panda hugging former Prime Minister of Australia to withdraw from the QUAD. it has much wider role to play instead of being just a newer version of SEATO or the so-called oxymoron of “Asian NATO”! What we see now is the QUAD version 3.0 becoming active. The QUAD 3.0 will play a more and more significant security and geo-political role in the Indo-Pacific region. India is currently an active but historically somewhat reluctant member of the QUAD. QUAD 3.0 will have an in-person summit of the head of the governments following a very successful virtual summit in March 2021. India is fallaciously perceived as the weakest link in the QUAD by the Western strategic experts. QUAD’s future success is predicated upon the attitude of the US which will have to accommodate the strategic autonomy of all the QUAD members instead of dictating the script as an established hyper-power.


The former South Pacific Forum (SPF) was a framework of regional cooperation founded in 1971 by the newly independent Pacific Island countries, together with Australia and New Zealand. In October 2000, the South Pacific Forum (SPF) was renamed as the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). The PIF consists of 18 Pacific Island nations and territories including Australia and New Zealand. Its secretariat is located in Suva, the capital of Fiji. Japan has been very supportive of the PIF financially to avoid growing Chinese footprints. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recently consulted with the leaders of six Pacific Island nations, calling for their cooperation in Japan's efforts to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Prime Minister Suga offered the six nations -- Fiji, Kiribati, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and Vanuatu -- Japan's continued support in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, while pledging to hold a "safe and secure" Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Japan's financial aid for infrastructure projects as well as renewable energy in the Pacific Island countries has been substantial. For any strategically stable vision of the Indo-Pacific community, the Pacific Island nations cannot be excluded from the purview and the emerging security dialogue.

For more than two decades, India has the “Look East” policy that has metamorphosed into an “Act East” policy. In the spirit of the “Act East”, India is a strong votary of an open and free Indo-Pacific. India is already a part of the ARF mechanism and the leading spirit behind the IORA. India was never a part of SEATO military alliance whereas India’s regional adversary Pakistan was. India toyed with the idea of joining RCEP but finally refused to do so for a number of pragmatic reasons. Earlier this year, India told the UN Security Council that India’s vision of the Indo-pacific as the free and open Indo-Pacific assumes the centrality of the ASEAN and the common pursuit of prosperity. As we recapitulated, out of the three proposed free trade blocks in the Indo-Pacific region, namely: TPP, FTAAP and RCEP, only RCEP has survived but without India’s participation. China gave up its own proposal for the FTAAP in favor of the RCEP which was originally proposed by the ASEAN. TPP has metamorphosed into the CPTPP following US refusal join under Trump.

Keeping in view the strategic and expansionist threats from China and its rhetoric on the 21st Century as the Chinese aka Asian century, we propose an alternative vision of a prosperous, peaceful Indo-pacific community that is predicated on the twin pillars of the rules-based order (RBO) and the responsibility to Protect (R2P). We suggest that such a proposed formation of a newer, larger economic and perhaps a trade grouping in the Indo-Pacific region be formally called the Indo-Pacific Cooperation Organization (IPCO). This proposed umbrella organization will eventually unify all the regional stakeholders, e.g., the APEC, the ASEAN, the IORA and the PIF into a new vibrant, organic and peaceful community in this part of the world. Our proposal does not envisage absorbing the existing organizations or displacing the existing institutions but strengthening them from within while having a larger interactive and dynamic forum. Such a scenario would accommodate the needs of a rising but peaceful and prosperous Asia, align it organically into the wider Indo-Pacific region without coercion, fear, military threats, expansionism or economic exploitation. Primarily conceptualized as an economic community, it will leave the consultative, strategic and security issues to be dealt by the ARF and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (The QUAD) or its future variants, the QUAD plus mechanisms. We envisage a multi-dimensional (economic, scientific, civil, mercantile, industrial, educational, medical, developmental and security) cooperation among the countries in the larger Indo-Pacific community leading to an Indo-Pacific Cooperation Organization (IPCO) that will be an over-arching umbrella protecting the interests of smaller countries, human populations, fostering peace, prosperity, scientific development, human advancement and mutual cooperation while avoiding the hegemony of a rising bully that seeks to destroy the peace and tranquility while grabbing all the natural resources in the Indo-Pacific region.


More by :  Dr. A. Adityanjee

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