Reinventing the Indo-Pacific | The Economist
Uuntil a little years ago, the term “Indo-Pacific” was hardly used in international affairs. Now many countries have adopted Indo-Pacific strategies, including America, Australia, Japan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, the EU, Britain and even Mongolia. South Korea joined the pack in December. China is the only major Asian place, which insults the expression. That is key to understanding what the Indo-Pacific is all about.
Outside of geopolitics, the term, which implies a combined view of the Indian Ocean and the even wider Pacific Ocean, is not new. The first practice was recorded by a British colonial lawyer and ethnologist in the mid-19th century. Patterns of trade and human exchange had crossed the two oceans for millennia, with Islam spreading eastward from the Middle East and Hinduism and Buddhism emerging from India. In recent decades scientists have come to understand how closely related the circulation and biology of the two oceans are. The great story of Asia can be usefully framed by the two-ocean view of the Indo-Pacific.
But for strategists, other frameworks such as the “East Asian Hemisphere”, “Pacific Basin” or “Asia-Pacific” were until recently stronger. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, no apec, an initiative from the end of the 20th century of 21 states, intended for the economic integration of the Pacific Rim, including East Asia in particular. What is the need for a new geographical description? For this publication, it has been sufficient to simply define everywhere from Afghanistan to the top of Japan, and from the Maldives to New Zealand, simply as “Asia”.
The answer is that in statecraft, as Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University argues in his excellent book on the rise of the Indo-Pacific concept, mind maps matter. These do not only define the “natural” area of a country, Mr. Medcalf writes. They identify national priorities, which in turn shape “leaders’ decisions, the destinies of countries, their own strategy.”
It is essential to understand the new Indo-Pacific map, it connects the economic powerhouse of East Asia with the latest dynamism in South Asia, including the sea routes by which its Most of the world’s trade and energy is tied to passing ships. Equally important, the Indo-Pacific concept is strengthened by the main challenge to this engine of Asian prosperity: China’s erratic behavior as its military, economic and diplomatic power increases, not only in her backyard in East and South Asia, but across India. Ocean to East Africa and down to the South Pacific.
The rise of China has long been a given. But the countries adopting the new Indo-Pacific currency, most of them largely democratic, have been increasingly concerned about China’s coercive moves. Australia is the victim of China’s economic boycott and violent campaigns with political influence. Sri Lanka has seen its sovereignty eroded by debt to China under the infrastructure-led Belt and Road Initiative. Large Chinese fishing fleets cross the territorial waters of states in Asia and beyond. China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea is affecting Southeast Asia. Both Japan and India have faced Chinese aggression at their borders. Chinese military threats towards Taiwan worry not only that self-governing island but the entire region.
China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy reflects the nationalistic grievances its president, Xi Jinping, is stoking at home. Therefore, the Indo-Pacific defines not only a place. This is perhaps the biggest geopolitical challenge: how to deal with Chinese aggression without, as Mr. Medcalf puts it, going to “capitulation or conflict”.
That challenge is sharpened by occasional concerns about the ability or staying power of the United States, the region’s preeminent power since World War II. Japan, America’s main ally in Asia, first emphasized the importance of traditional engagement in India, a move that helped crystallize the concept of the Indo-Pacific. During Abe Shinzo’s first term, from 2006 to 2007, the then Japanese prime minister “clearly saw that the old Asia-Pacific idea did not accept India,” says Taniguchi Tomohiko, the late Mr. Abe’s speechwriter. Abe delighted with India BPs with a speech to the Indian parliament entitled “Confluence of the Two Seas”, a phrase borrowed from a book by an early Mughal prince. Kanehara Nobukatsu, a former diplomat and architect of Japan’s Indo-Pacific policy, says they were “like children: applauding, hitting the table, stamping the floor.”
When Abe returned to power in 2012, the dangers attending China’s rise were clearer. Thus the importance of India was growing. “To balance [to China]India is the only option,” Mr. Kanehara said. Abe thus reiterated an earlier comment about security dialogue between Japan, America, Australia and India, which led to the revival of the That “Quad.” And at the African summit in 2016 he proposed the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (fop).
Since then, China’s border incursions in the Himalayas have been pushing India, which once insisted that it would not be part of an anti-China bloc, towards the Western camp. He is now a more active member of the Quad, not only militarily but also, for example, offering to work with the other members to get covid-19 vaccines to the region. India has warmly embraced the fop principle. However, drawing a proud, wary India deep into the network of Western security alliances will require a long courtship – assuming it is possible.
None of the advocates fop cutting the group’s economic ties with China. Nevertheless, China, which is not completely ignorant, sees fop as a pad to hold. The Indo-Pacific idea has many critics in the West as well. Some believe it is just a front for geopolitical agendas, starting with America’s Manichean battle against China; President Joe Biden’s administration has a large following fop. Others argue that the concept is so possible and vague that it is uncertain. Nick Bisley of La Trobe University in Melbourne calls the Quad, whose vaccine campaign quickly ran into problems, “strategic policy with a press release”.
Above all, there are large gaps in the east and west of the Indo-Pacific. For all the hard power America and India bring to the region, they are largely absent from regional economic initiatives.
Missed access, missing links
Under President Donald Trump, America supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that Japan and Australia then helped save as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Mr. Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework may mark the region’s new name, but it does not offer the market access its members want. “For Asians, the American market is the biggest piece to eat,” Mr. Kanehara says. Despite years of negotiations and lobbying from Abe, India chose not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, another jumbo trade deal now controlled by China. For Japan, that decision brought a “deep sense of disappointment”, says Mr Taniguchi.
Even Michael Green, a former American official now at the University of Sydney and an Indo-Pacific enthusiast, likens the framework to “a huge piece of IKEA furniture, held together with small dowels,” Mr. Kanehara explains fop especially as a “network concept”. Most non-defense sectorial enterprises are small capital, with the exception of Japanese infrastructure investment. Indian technical assistance and South Korean projects promoting women’s empowerment are particularly small. Nevertheless, as Mr. Green argues, through all the Indo-Pacific activity a common theme emerges: smaller states “cannot be bribed or brought into the sphere of Chinese hegemony and influence” .
The most obvious and progressive Indo-Pacific aspect is related to security. It is based on the American network of bilateral alliances, covered by ad hoc arrangements such as the Quad and the chest the 2021 defense deal, an agreement between America, Britain and Australia to provide Australia with nuclear powered submarines, sharing intelligence capabilities and more. There are also triangular efforts such as those between America, Japan and South Korea. But there is no Indo-Pacific nato in the making, with mutual protection or joint planning, and little clarity as to who would do what in an emergency. As for Taiwan, the Indo-Pacific focal point, it is almost non-existent from a regional strategy.
Just as “minilaterals” still count for something, so too does cooperation among smaller states. For example, while the former president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has succumbed to bullying and threats and is leaning towards China, his successor, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, has accepted a less advantageous position. It involves more than military cooperation with the United States. The Philippines is also receiving cruise missiles from India, patrol boats from South Korea and air defenses from Israel. Taiwan’s policy of resisting Chinese coercion includes not only military upgrades from America but also tightening ties with its Asian neighbors.
Key challenges, Mr Kanehara insists, lie ahead in convincing more countries that committing to the Indo-Pacific idea is better than being controlled by China. Many do not like to be guided by former colonial powers. One large Asian country, Indonesia, with a low-power approach to foreign affairs, has yet to clearly show how it intends to use its influence in the Indo-Pacific context. He doesn’t want to rock any boats with China.
Such ignorance may be one of the reasons why China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, once predicted that talk of an open and open Indo-Pacific would “disperse like foam a ‘sea.” Maybe. But what is most likely to prove him wrong is China’s relentlessly provocative behavior.■