The Indo-Pacific in Indian Foreign Policy

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This Policy Brief examines India’s initial caution in embracing the role of the Indo-Pacific in India’s strategic outlook, the changing geopolitical circumstances that led New Delhi to adopt a more proactive approach, and how India’s Indo-Pacific strategy is impacting relationships with countries in the region, and the UK.

The evolution of the phrase ‘Indo-Pacific’ from a term of art in marine biology to a region of contemporary strategic interest has been a key geopolitical development in the past 15 years. Although the desire to draw India into the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific was a key motivation for countries such as the US and Japan to embrace the formulation, New Delhi was initially more cautious.

China’s growing influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, however, prompted the adoption of the Indo-Pacific concept, which has become a cornerstone of India’s foreign policy. Demonstrating strategic adaptability in a changing geopolitical landscape marked by varying priorities among key stakeholders, India’s approach involves pragmatically working with varying sets of long-standing friends and emerging partners on specific issues. This could position India as a key bridge linking a variety of different actors. However, New Delhi’s geographic priorities differ markedly from its Quad partners, meaning its will and capacity for leadership in the Indian Ocean are far greater than in the Pacific.

Now that India has put its support behind the notion of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, other countries with similar objectives – for example, the UK – may view this as an avenue to develop a more meaningful strategic partnership with Delhi. Doing so, however, requires an understanding of the role of the Indo-Pacific in India’s strategic outlook. This policy brief examines the reasons for India’s initial caution in embracing the concept, the changing geopolitical circumstances that led New Delhi to adopt a more proactive approach, and how India’s Indo-Pacific strategy is impacting relationships with countries in the region, including Quad member states, ASEAN and countries in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO). The brief concludes with an analysis of the implications for the UK.

Initial Indo-Pacific Hesitation

Although the Indo-Pacific framework originated externally, the idea that India had a role to play beyond the Indian Ocean region is not new. The British Raj had managed colonies in Southeast Asia from Calcutta and before independence Indian strategic thinkers argued the region would remain vital to the security of independent India. In the 1950s and 1960s, India organised major anti-colonial conferences and oversaw the implementation of the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the First Indochinese War. Following the 1962 war with China, India pulled back from the broader region for a time, but with its economy liberalising, India launched the ‘Look East’ policy in 1992, aiming to deepen economic and cultural engagement with Southeast Asia. In 2014 the policy evolved into ‘Act East’, incorporating a maritime security dimension and broadening its scope to include East Asia. The following year India launched its Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) initiative, which seeks to enhance maritime security, promote sustainable development, and foster cooperation among Indian Ocean littoral states. With a focus on connectivity and trade, these efforts are precursors to India’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Although India is central to other states’ Indo-Pacific strategies, a combination of geopolitical, strategic and regional considerations meant New Delhi lagged behind Tokyo, Canberra and Washington, DC, among others, in adopting the concept.

First, discomfort with the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept stemmed from the perception that it was a strategy to contain China. In the mid-2010s, India sought to balance its strategic relationships with China and major democratic states in Asia. Some of the smaller states in South and Southeast Asia also viewed the Indo-Pacific framework as explicitly anti-China. A hurried adoption risked alienating neighbours who wished to steer clear of taking sides in a potential US–China rivalry or a localised India–China competition.

Adoption of the concept by US partners and allies raised concerns that aligning with Western powers might compromise India’s strategic autonomy. Despite a robust strategic partnership with the US, New Delhi sought to maintain its strategic autonomy and avoid the perception of aligning lockstep with Washington’s Asian policy.

Finally, India’s priorities for the Indo-Pacific were distinct from early adopters such as Australia, Japan and the US, who emphasised the Pacific over the Indian Ocean, and in some cases only conceived of the Indo-Pacific as reaching as far west as Gujarat. In doing so, they implicitly encouraged India’s involvement in the maritime Asia-Pacific while excluding themselves from engaging with the regions of greatest priority for India. Bolstering India’s position in the Indian Ocean and ensuring its interests are not challenged is New Delhi’s main focus in the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean’s sea lanes are pivotal for India’s energy security and economic prosperity. Threats in this region could jeopardise India’s security and undermine efforts to project influence abroad. The sub-region of secondary importance for India is the Persian Gulf, which is a key source of energy imports as well as overseas trade. The Pacific, in contrast, is not as central to India’s immediate strategic and geoeconomic interests. New Delhi’s prioritisation of the Indian Ocean, along with concerns about differing priorities among Indo-Pacific partners, led India to carefully navigate its role in the region.

Embracing the Indo-Pacific

Ironically, despite India’s effort to reassure China that it was not joining in a balancing or containment coalition, it was China’s perceived intrusion into the Indian Ocean in a manner that challenged New Delhi’s strategic interests that would catalyse India’s embrace of the concept.

The relationship between India and China is characterised by both cooperation and tension. Both nations aspire to have a greater voice in international affairs, often aligning in forums such as the G20 and climate change negotiations. They are also both part of new institutions – such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – which exclude the US and its allies. Bilateral economic links are robust, with two-way trade reaching $113.8 billion in 2023.

Nevertheless, the long-standing dispute over their Himalayan border – compounded by China’s military buildup and support for Pakistan – contributes to friction, as does India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government. India’s $83-billion trade deficit with China adds further strain. Whether skipping New Delhi’s G20 summit, blocking its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group or failing to support its bid for a UN Security Council seat, since 2016 China has repeatedly been a barrier to India's aspirations for global influence. Even within the BRICS, India seeks to leverage south–south cooperation to further reform the international financial system in opposition to China’s efforts to use the grouping as a counterweight to the West.

Closer to home, Chinese economic and political engagement with Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Maldives through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the early 2010s raised concerns that India’s influence in South Asia was being undermined as some of these governments began to tilt towards Beijing. In the same time period, Chinese transgressions of the disputed border increased sharply, culminating in violent border clashes in May 2020 which caused fatalities on both sides for the first time in 45 years. While both sides express a desire for stability, in the face of subsequent clashes in January 2021, January 2022 and November 2022, India has shifted its strategy, emphasising capability-building and development of external partnerships over accommodating Chinese concerns in the hope of reciprocity. Although some blame India’s pursuit of Indo-Pacific partnerships for China’s aggressive behavior, the growing geopolitical challenge clarified the need for India to strengthen relations with like-minded countries, and adopt a more favourable view of the Indo-Pacific concept.

India’s changing perceptions of the Indo-Pacific framework were not solely reactions to China’s actions. During his 2007 visit to India, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a parliamentary speech introducing the concept of the ‘confluence of the two seas’, emphasising the connectedness of the Pacific and Indian oceans. His later endeavours to champion a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ aligned with India's desire for inclusive regional architecture, complementing India's Act East Policy.

Within the Indian strategic community, defence analysts adopted the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept long before it received official imprimatur. The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a think tank which has semi-official status under the Ministry of Defence, published its first article on the Indo-Pacific in 2007, with the author retrospectively claiming to have been the first to have proposed the concept in print. In October 2015, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ gained official recognition as a coherent region in the Indian Navy’s Maritime Security Strategy and two months later Japan and India issued a joint vision statement affirming an ‘unwavering commitment to realize a peaceful, open, equitable, stable and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond’.

By 2018, the Indo-Pacific had progressed from a recognised region to an official policy framework as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulated India's vision for the region in a keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue. The following year, the Ministry of External Affairs established an Indo-Pacific division with responsibility for key regional associations such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), ASEAN and the Quad. Organisationally, this new department was placed alongside divisions with responsibility for East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania – all reporting to the same secretary – enhancing the coherency of India’s approach to the region.

India’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

India has not published a formal Indo-Pacific strategy – and as a matter of course does not publish a national security strategy or defence white paper – however, actions and policy statements indicate that the concept has become a key reference point for its strategic outlook. Indian policymakers envision the Indo-Pacific as a vast expanse extending from East Africa to the Americas. Contrary to the ‘Asia-Pacific’ frame – which placed India on the periphery – under the Indo-Pacific construct, India's central position at the Indian Ocean’s midpoint puts it at the heart of a key geostrategic and geoeconomic domain of the 21st century.

India’s main Indo-Pacific priority is maintaining the region’s inclusiveness and openness. New Delhi endorses the vision of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, where all countries adhere to international law and benefit from freedom of navigation. The region’s role as a conduit for global trade and energy resources has led India to focus on augmenting maritime domain awareness and safeguarding crucial sea lanes, accompanied by connectivity initiatives to bolster trade and investment links.

India’s Indo-Pacific approach rests on four pillars:

  1. Collaborating with countries to address shared concerns with via issue-based partnerships. This involves active participation in regional forums, ‘mini-laterals’, and security dialogues. To date, the US, Japan, Australia and France have arisen as key partners for India in the region.
  2. Avoiding what Modi referred to as ‘alliances of containment’. In working with partners, India will advance shared values and not compel others to choose sides in a dispute (for example, US v. China or China v. India).
  3. Embracing evolution rather than revolution in regional order. Aware that norms and rules in the Indo-Pacific are likely to change over time, India supports the adoption of new principles that are freely arrived at in accordance with international law and respect for sovereignty rather than unilaterally imposed.
  4. Recognising regional institutions and groupings as an important underpinning of future order. India supports ASEAN centrality in the evolving Indo-Pacific regional architecture, but also works with groupings such as the Quad, IORA and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), among others.

India in the Indo-Pacific

The implementation of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy occurs through its interactions with key states in the region. This section explores these dynamics, beginning with Quad member states and ASEAN and then turning attention to the WIO.

The Quad

The Quad partnership with the US, Japan and Australia is a key vehicle for India’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific. As a political deterrent, it allows India to address concerns vis-à-vis China in partnership with other states. Economic collaboration centres on shared apprehensions about China’s role in the global manufacturing supply chain, which exposes Quad countries to potential trade coercion. Quad cooperation on technological security and cybersecurity threats addresses India's worries about China’s increasing technological capacity, particularly in telecommunications. Joint military exercises among the Quad members enhance their collective military capabilities.

The Quad also facilitates a positive agenda for the Indo-Pacific by providing a platform for multilateral initiatives like vaccine diplomacy, alternative debt financing, emerging technologies, infrastructure development, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and combating illegal fishing, which promote peace and prosperity in the region.

India's enthusiasm for the Quad is tempered by diplomatic challenges. New Delhi does not favour the group evolving into a formal treaty alliance and it wants to ensure a robust Quad does not hinder bilateral negotiations with China on various disputes, should the need arise. Opposition from Russia – a key arms and technology provider – to the Indo-Pacific concept also requires delicate diplomatic manoeuvering to avoid seeing Moscow move closer to Beijing. Further, as discussed below, the depth and quality of India’s bilateral relations with the individual Quad countries is uneven.

Of its Quad partners, New Delhi has the greatest degree of strategic trust in Tokyo. Geopolitically, both nations are committed to upholding the rules-based international order. Japan’s role as a major investor in India, particularly in key infrastructure projects, demonstrates a shared commitment to fostering economic growth and development. The two countries have announced a wide range of joint initiatives over time, yet they have been slow to achieve implementation as the bureaucracies of the two countries struggle to collaborate.

As India’s largest export market, second-largest defence supplier and preferred partner for joint military exercises, the strategic partnership with the US is arguably its most important bilateral relationship. Shared concerns about China, terrorism and Indo-Pacific security have allowed the two to transcend Cold War differences. At times significant differences on climate change, free trade, as well as relations with Russia and Iran, not to mention persistent suspicions among some Indian elites about US dependability have affected the pace at which the two countries deepen their partnership, but the overall trajectory of the bilateral relationship is unmistakable. In some respects, the Indo-US relationship is the inverse of that of India and Japan in that the achievements are significant but the trust has been slow to develop.

Although ‘mutual indifference‘ no longer characterises Indo-Australian ties, they lack the breadth and depth of India’s partnerships with the other Quad members. Both nations share concerns about regional stability, maritime security and revisionist powers in the Indo-Pacific, which likely led India to vote against Chinese and Russian efforts to disrupt the AUKUS agreement at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mutual concerns about China, however, have not been enough to bridge significant differences. India seeks a multi-polar world while Australia relies on US preeminence for its national security. Australian strategists question India’s strategic role in the region, given its anaemic funding for its navy, while India see Australia as less relevant than Japan or the US.


ASEAN is a cornerstone of India's ‘Act East’ policy and its broader Indo-Pacific foreign policy. Delhi’s focus is on enhancing physical and digital connectivity – exemplified by projects like the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway – to foster economic integration and people-to-people ties. ASEAN–India trade topped $131 billion in 2023 and investment flows are equally strong.

Given the importance of Southeast Asia to India’s outreach east of Malacca, interaction with ASEAN highlights the limits of Delhi’s engagement. Continued aversion to further opening the Indian economy – as exemplified by withdrawal from negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) multilateral trade agreement – is seen as a key obstacle to further regional economic integration and closer strategic partnership. Doubts also persist in Southeast Asia about India’s capacity to contribute to global peace, security and governance. This reflects the uneven quality of New Delhi’s engagement across Southeast Asia wherein countries like Vietnam and Singapore are close partners, but bilateral relations with other states are underdeveloped.

Western Indian Ocean

The WIO and the Gulf are of greater priority for India than Southeast Asia. It is not surprising that the 2015 Maritime Security Strategy identified the WIO as a priority theatre given that the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East account for 61% of its crude oil imports and trade with the Arab world exceeded $240 billion in 2023. Furthermore, an estimated 10 million Indians work in the Gulf, providing annual remittances of some $36 billion. Collectively, the countries of the region are more important than China, Southeast Asia or the US for Indian trade flows.

Under the ‘mission-based deployment’ strategy, combat vessels of the Indian navy have been stationed in the WIO to carry out policing, disaster relief and other missions as needed. India has worked to enhance the maritime security capacity of small island nations like Seychelles and Mauritius, providing helicopters and patrol vessels as well as undertaking patrols of their exclusive economic zones. Seconded Indian officers serve as senior naval advisors for both countries that also host Indian costal radar systems as part of a broader maritime domain awareness network. Further afield, the Indian navy has undertaken trilateral exercises with Madagascar and Tanzania as well as a significant anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.

India’s single most important partner in the WIO is France. This collaboration encompasses various domains, including defence, maritime security and economic ties. Both nations share a commitment to a rules-based order and the Indian Ocean serves as a focal point for their joint efforts. In the realm of defence cooperation, France and India have engaged in joint naval exercises, enhancing interoperability and strengthening maritime capabilities. A reciprocal logistics support agreement allows the militaries of each country to be replenished by the other and the two sides have conducted joint maritime patrols in the IOR – the first time India has done so with a major Western power. The French presence in the Indian Ocean through territories like Reunion Island and Djibouti complements India's strategic interests in safeguarding vital sea lanes and countering security threats. This cooperation extends to intelligence sharing, counterterrorism efforts and capacity building to address common challenges in the region. Economically, France is a key partner for India in sectors like aerospace, infrastructure development and renewable energy. The Indo-French collaboration in the Indian Ocean region includes initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Triangular Development Fund, focusing on sustainable development projects and innovation.

Implications for the UK

The UK has long wished to deepen its strategic engagement with India, but lags behind the US, Russia, France and Japan as partners of choice for Delhi. In part this is a consequence of the protracted Brexit process, which created uncertainty about the UK’s priorities. Thus, the declaration of a tilt to the Indo-Pacific in general and outreach to India in particular encapsulated in the 2021 Integrated Review has been welcomed in Delhi. Clear signs that the UK is concerned by Chinese activity in the region and their willingness to declare China to be a ‘systemic challenge’ has helped assuage Indian concerns that developed as a consequence of the Cameron government’s attempts to foster closer ties with China in 2016.

The dynamics of India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific offer opportunities for engagement. Counterterrorism, anti-piracy operations, supply chain resilience, climate change and renewable energy are shared priorities for the UK and India. For India’s Quad partners, the Pacific takes priority over the western stretches of the Indian Ocean that Delhi considers a priority. The UK, in contrast, has a diplomatic presence in every country in the WIO except for the Comoros and is the only European nation with an embassy in the Maldives. With its long-standing ties to the Gulf and network of Commonwealth countries in East Africa, Britain has long been playing a role as a ‘security provider’ in the region; working with partners to help make these zones more secure.

Many states in the WIO are not well equipped to counter criminal activity and non-traditional security threats in their territorial waters. Consequently, there is not only an opportunity for the UK and India to cooperate in this part of the region, but also a real need. Working to enhance the ability of small states to combat economic challenges in their exclusive economic zones, such as piracy and overfishing, are primarily law enforcement efforts, however, they can constrain the ability of external powers to encroach, while helping to uphold international law.


Despite initial hesitation, the Indo-Pacific framework has emerged as a defining element of India's foreign policy. While its adoption was catalysed by China's growing economic and military involvement in the Indian Ocean and South Asia, the Indo-Pacific concept has provided India with a strategic blueprint for its broader foreign policy agenda. New Delhi’s advocacy of a rules-based regional order, its promotion of economic integration, and efforts to enhance maritime security are not merely a reactive response to a changing world, but a proactive shift in foreign policy. Embracing strategic flexibility in an evolving geopolitical landscape where the priorities of key actors vary, New Delhi’s approach is to undertake issue-based collaboration with old friends or new partners as circumstances warrant. Unlike its Quad partners, New Delhi's geographical focus is on the Indian Ocean. Consequently, there are untapped prospects for nations like the UK possessing strategic interests in the IOR to deepen their involvement with India.


Walter Ladwig

Associate Fellow; Senior Lecturer in International Relations, War Studies at KCL

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