Le’ Notes #42: What’s the buzz behind the Indo-Pacific?

This post covers the debate about the “Indo-Pacific” geopolitical construct. How do states understand it? What is its significance?

In the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (S.2736; or often abbreviated as ARIA) passed by Congress in 2018, the term “Indo-Pacific” appears 80 times. The bill affirms U.S. commitment to secure its national interests, promote American prosperity, advance U.S. influence, support regional architecture, and support international law and norms in the Indo-Pacific. It also makes mention of numerous U.S. security arrangements in the region, most notably the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad, for short), a controversial four-country—U.S., Japan, India, and Australia—security “club” intended to counter Chinese influence in the region. All in all, it looks like the U.S. has a new geopolitical focus: the Indo-Pacific.

But wait a minute, what is the Indo-Pacific? Who’s in it? Why are we just talking about it now? And how is it different from the “Asia-Pacific”? Answering those questions is the point of this post. Now, since I cannot cover everything in around 1,000-2,000 words, I’ll only go through the essentials. For further reading, just click the hyperlinks.

What is the Indo-Pacific?

Like many geopolitical labels (such as “Middle East” and “Southeast Asia”), the “Indo-Pacific” is a constructed term which may be defined depending on where you sit in the table of International Relations. And, like other geopolitical labels, you should also be aware of the hidden values existing within the term.

Despite being commonly used in marine biology, the term “Indo-Pacific” only first appeared in IR discourse around 2007. Ghupreet Khurana (2007) [paywall] wrote an article titled “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India–Japan Cooperation”, elaborating trends and challenges in the “Indo-Pacific” and how Japan and India could come together to face them. In the paper, in an endnote, Khurana defines the Indo-Pacific as “the maritime space comprising the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Littoral to it are the states of Asia (including West Asia/ Middle East) and eastern Africa.”

Also in 2007, Shinzo Abe delivered a speech in front of the Indian parliament titled “Confluence of Two Seas”. In the speech, Abe emphasizes India-Japan ties in the context of a “new ‘broader Asia’” which “takes shape at the confluence of the two seas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.” This remark is strikingly similar to Khurana, but it remains a mystery as to who inspired whom.

After Khurana’s article, in 2010, the Indian government and even non-government circles began debating about the Indo-Pacific. A complete review of that exchange can be found in Scott (2012) [paywall]. To summarize, according to India, the Indo-Pacific is a geographical expanse where India can play a large role, especially in the wake of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. It just so happens to justify its foreign policy orientations as well (“Look East”).

In Japan, nine years after Shinzo Abe delivered the Two Seas speech, he again repeated the notion at the fifth Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development, though this time, phrasing it as “the union of two free and open oceans and two continents.” This time, however, his audience was Africa, particularly the Eastern African countries, littoral states in the Indian Ocean, which Japan has strong economic ties. However,  a more definitive conception of the Indo-Pacific appeared in Japan’s Diplomatic Bluebook in 2017 in a Special Feature titled the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”. Here, Japan clearly states their idea of the “Indo-Pacific” includes “‘two continents’ ― Asia, which is recording remarkable growth, and Africa, which is full of potentials ― and two free and open seas ― the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.” Or you could just look at the graphic below:

So, according to Japan, everything within the yellow ellipse is considered the “Indo-Pacific”. The region is important because of Japan’s abundant investments spread across the region, especially in trade and infrastructure. Unlike the discussions in India, however, there is little to suggest Japan’s Indo-Pacific is a narrative to counter China… until we put it into the U.S.’s definition of the Indo-Pacific.

Before moving on to the U.S., let’s see how Australia defines the Indo-Pacific. In 2013, Defense Minister Stephen Smith, in his comments on the 2013 Defense White Paper, described the Indo-Pacific as a “strategic center of gravity”. This was again repeated and affirmed in the 2016 Defense White Paper and the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, which affirmed Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and India as important Indo-Pacific democracies, which Australia intends to engage heavily.

Now, on to the U.S. The Indo-Pacific, according to recent U.S. foreign policy documents, adopt the same geographic scope as Khurana. The term itself, however, is not really new. Hillary Clinton, in a speech in 2011 at Honolulu, mentioned the term “Indo-Pacific” once. However, she used the term in a geographic sense to denote the scope of American policy (note how she says “Indo-Pacific basin”, referring to the Indian Ocean littoral and maritime Asia in the Pacific). The Indo-Pacific became much more pronounced in U.S. foreign policy after Trump used it extensively in the APEC CEO Summit in Da Nang in 2017. It would later be echoed by State Secretary Michael Pompeo in 2018, and later, used in the 2018 National Security Strategy, which describes a “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” happening in the Indo-Pacific. The Asia-Pacific Command was also renamed as the Indo-Pacific Command, further signalling U.S. adoption of the term. In June 2019, coinciding with the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Department of Defense released the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which outlined U.S. objectives in the region.

What’s with the sudden embrace of this new geopolitical construct? Four powers now have a distinct yet similar “Indo-Pacific Concept”; and I haven’t even started on Indonesia and South Korea! These countries also form the Quad, a regional grouping dubbed as a sort of Asian NATO aimed at balancing China. In 2008, the Quad sunk due in part to negative Chinese reception and the members being unsure of its future prospects. however, it is now under consideration to be re-activated, but this time, with an “Indo-Pacific” twist as the members started to intertwine Quad priorities with their respective Indo-Pacific visions.

Now, the Indo-Pacific visions of the Quad members tend to share a similar refrain: a free and open Indo-Pacific. What does this mean? Drawing from the U.S., a free Indo-Pacific means “all nations, regardless of size, are able to exercise their sovereignty free from coercion by other countries”; whereas an open Indo-Pacific means promoting “sustainable growth and connectivity in the region”. If we link this to the belief that a clash between a free and repressive world order is imminent in the Indo-Pacific, then it becomes clear that the Indo-Pacific vision is a challenge to China’s sphere of influence. However, since Quad members have intricate economic linkages with China, it would not be wise to openly antagonize China. Hence, in some formulations of the Indo-Pacific, a dash of inclusivity is often implied to alleviate perceptions of hostility.

Where is China in all of this?

In 2013, Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s (or more like, Xi’s) dream of connecting China with the world. As China gained more traction in the Indo-Pacific, so did the Indo-Pacific concept, to the point that I believe the Indo-Pacific concept is a construct specifically designed to legitimize Quad actions in the region. And I’m not alone. Chengxin Pan (2014) [paywall] describes the “Indo-Pacific” as a fabricated “super-region … designed to hedge against a perceived Sino-centric regional order”. Pan vehemently argues there is no “naturalness” to the construct whatsoever.

A more comprehensive and nuanced analysis to China’s view of the Indo-Pacific has been conducted by Baogang He (2018) [open access]. For China, the maritime turn towards the Indo-Pacific is a recent feature of foreign policy under Xi Jinping, who envisions integrating both sea and land within China’s sphere of influence. However, He notes two distinct stances on the Indo-Pacific: competition and cooperation. More hawkish think-tanks in China (note that Chinese think-tanks are largely government-sponsored) follow Pan’s argument: that the Indo-Pacific region is constructed for the sole purpose of containing China; whereas the more moderate think-tanks still see prospects for nooks and crannies of cooperation within the Indo-Pacific due to BRI overlaps.

What about the middle powers? Locating Indonesia and South Korea in the Indo-Pacific

Since the Indo-Pacific is such a buzzword, middle powers are also jumping onto the hype train. Indonesia and South Korea have started developing their own Indo-Pacific concepts, but at different paces.

As a U.S. ally, one would expect South Korea to already have an Indo-Pacific plan in mind. However, this is not the case, as South Korea also needs to take into consideration its relations with China (geography, folks). Jaechun Kim calls this as South Korea’s “Indo-Pacific dilemma” and advocates South Korean participation to ensure it can insert its own interests and preferences into the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. However, Sukjoon Yoon thinks South Korea’s low-profile preference will further increase its reluctance to join the Indo-Pacific train. Besides, the Indo-Pacific concept is basically a “recasting of the maritime security agenda, and it is not obvious how South Korea could make a contribution to any grand strategy”. So, it’s not clear whether South Korea will be on the train, but there seems to be some discussion nonetheless. Even then, it is unlikely that South Korea will declare its own version; rather, it would be much more inclined to follow a U.S.-led concept.

Indonesia, on the other hand, is much more active in developing its own Indo-Pacific concept. Driven by Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s Global Maritime Fulcrum vision, which envisions Indonesia as a hub between the Indian and Pacific Ocean, and cognizant of the buzz, Jokowi’s foreign ministry has been busy developing its interpretation of the Indo-Pacific. A developing concept, simply known as “Indo-Pacific Cooperation Concept” has been disseminated to select circles by the Foreign Ministry through a series of debriefing forums and Jokowi has also iterated it on multiple occasions (see here, here, and here). At a glance, Indonesia’s concept borrows some elements from the Quad—emphasis on free and open Indo-Pacific with all the economic linkages stuff—but eschews the more confrontational aspects by explicitly stressing inclusivity by presenting the concept as an ASEAN-led concept rather than an exclusively Indonesian concept. This concept has been received positively by China, as it does not explicitly seek to contain China. However, it doesn’t seem that other ASEAN countries are on board, despite Indonesia’s efforts to market the concept. We shouldn’t think of ASEAN as a monolithic and homogenous regional grouping; national interests and priorities often prevail over regional interests, and the cumbersome consensus-seeking process doesn’t help.

Is there a difference from the Asia-Pacific?

The main difference is the inclusion of India as an influential player in the region, along with the East African littoral and the Indian Ocean Rim countries. These were not included in the previous Asia-Pacific concept, which mostly focused on the West Pacific, while the Indian Ocean would be awkwardly ignored. There’s also a slight acknowledgement of the Pacific Islands, though this is more evident in Australia’s version. That being said, the Pacific Islands have always been part of Australia’s foreign policy scope.

Other than that, there seems to be no significant changes. It’s more like the Indo-Pacific is new wine in an old bottle. In the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy (based largely on ARIA), they say they want to maintain a forward presence and uphold freedom of navigation in the region. This is exactly what the U.S. has been doing since the Obama pivot in 2011, albeit now with a more assertive tone and a clear designation of China as a strategic rival. The same thing can be said for Japan, who has long had ties with the Eastern African littoral and India. Their “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” is just new packaging on existing diplomatic efforts.

Conclusions and some thoughts on future prospects

To summarize, the Indo-Pacific is basically a “new” geopolitical region constructed by the Quad countries as a counter-narrative to China. It draws upon old imaginations of the Asia-Pacific and extends its limitations to include new countries into the foreign policy scope. At the same time, it is used to enable and normalize specific foreign policy decisions, particularly those against China.

So, where does this leave us? Surely, the Indo-Pacific will continue to be a feature of foreign policy discourse. Everyone’s talking about it, but then again, they’re also struggling to bring clarity to the Indo-Pacific. But, we can be sure that future relations in the Indo-Pacific will have a distinct maritime characteristic, due in part to the maritime shift present in the foreign policy strategies of the Indo-Pacific powers (especially as they move to respond to an increasingly assertive China).

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