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The Indo-Pacific Concept, Convergence Amid Diverse Orientations

In recent years the new geographical term of “Indo-Pacific” has emerged as a widely referred-to regional concep. With it a new theater of global interaction is taking shape through translation of the Indo- Pacific concept into Indo-Pacific strategies adopted by some notable actors.
January 2021
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Hossein Ebrahimkhani

            In recent years the new geographical term of “Indo-Pacific” has emerged as a widely referred-to regional conception. With it a new theater of global interaction is taking shape through translation of the Indo- Pacific concept into Indo-Pacific strategies adopted by some notable actors. As more stake holders lineup behind the new concept, diversity, both on the geographical scope and the direction of the possible grouping under the flag of the concept, is brewing. These actors have defined the geographical scope of “Indo-Pacific” to shape their own conceptualized region.

            Regardless of which academic or strategist of what nationality first introduced the Indo-Pacific idea, the credit of the first use of the concept goes to the Japanese former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At his address to the Indian Parliament in August 2007 Abe proposed the establishment of what he called the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity in the Broader Asia”. He stressed that there are four--to be engaged-- major powers, namely India, the United States, Australia and Japan, without referring to China, which is indicative of the political dimensions behind the use of the concept. Prior to that, the Asia-Pacific was the dominant term used to define the integration of two distinctive regions of strategic importance and possible alliances, whereas the Indo-Pacific region refers to the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which interconnect in Southeast Asia. This shift from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific is not just a matter of “Realpolitik”, rather it reflects major geopolitical readjustments that have occurred globally over the span of the past two decades.

             The United States initiated the use of the term Indo-Pacific under the Obama administration’s rebalancing strategy towards Asia. However, Washington changed its geographical definition immediately after President Trump officially announced a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” as its new regional policy. The Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept echoes the wording used by Shinzo Abe, but with a more overt military-strategic orientation. It clearly aims to contain China and is thus an expression of the growing strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. In it, the Indo-Pacific was defined as "the region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States” thus, the Indo-Pacific was enlarged to include the entire Pacific Ocean, whereas it shrunk in the Indian Ocean by excluding the western part of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Africa. The United States reflected the adjusted geographical definition in its military structure too. In May 2018, it renamed the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) as US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).

            The US Department of Defense in its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report of June 2019, declared that the “Indo-Pacific” was “the single most consequential region for America’s future”. Washington now uses this concept as its regional strategy with close cooperation among the QUAD members and an eye to possible support from some smaller states like South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia to balance China. As part of the initiative’s security component, the US works with some countries of the region on military training and maritime security. Though the US is spearheading an open campaign of mustering support for its containment policy towards China, to bring along all major players adopting distinctive Indo-Pacific concepts of varying interpretations, scope and essence may not be a for granted and settled venture.  

             Japan as a prime mover of the Indo- Pacific concept has adopted, and updated its own direction under the title of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP)”. Tokyo’s geographical perception now includes the western part of the Pacific Ocean, Southeast Asia with ASEAN acting as the hinge of the two Oceans, almost the entire Indian Ocean to include South Asia, the Middle East and the East African littoral countries. This strategy lists India, the United States and Australia as strategic collaboration partners to bring it into shape. Noteworthy in Tokyo’s approach to the concept is inclusion of the whole of China in the coverage area of the FOIP as a sign of its “inclusiveness” and Japan’s reluctance to openly support the idea of “containment” of China.

            India with the legacy of being the superior player and security provider in the ocean area named after itself, is willingly or otherwise at the focal point of the concept. In June 2018, Prime Minister Modi presented India's vision of Indo-Pacific as a region “from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas”. In particular, he mentioned the Pacific and most of India’s partners — ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, China, United States, the Indian Ocean region, Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Island nations, Russia and Africa. He also indicated some of the controls which should regulate the concept, namely openness, inclusiveness and non-exclusion, the centrality of the ASEAN member countries, and non-targeting of specific parties, referring to China. The large geographical scope including China and Russia offers India wider options for achieving its national interests in the “Indo-Pacific”, avoiding an advance commitment to a specific side. Modi’s geographical definition was evident that India’s vision for “the Indo-Pacific Region” was a positive one and had many elements. He stressed that his country did not see the region as a strategy or as a block of limited members, nor as a grouping that sought to dominate; and, India did not consider it as directed against any other nation. However the undeniable Sino-Indian rivalry aggravated with the June 2020 border clashes, and New Delhi’s fear of Chinese success in winning soft corners in the Indian Ocean island nations of Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles may dictate a major adjustment to Modi’s geographical definition of the indo-Pacific Region.

            Australia was the first country to use the “Indo-Pacific” keyword in its 2012 strategic document by introducing the “Indo-Pacific” as a new conception for the Asian region, portraying the western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean to be one strategic arc. The Australian government vide its 2017 Defense vision provided a more clear definition of the Indo-Pacific, as a region “ranging from the eastern Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean connected by Southeast Asia, covering India, North Asia and the United States” including the sea lines of communication, with enlarged “Indo-Pacific” to reach the United States. As a result, Australia’s geographical scope has become identical to that of the Trump administration with a clear indication that the alliance with the United States is central to its approach to the “Indo-Pacific”. The white paper also lists the “Indo-Pacific” as Australia’s third strategic defense interest, after the Australian mainland itself and the South Pacific and Timor-Leste.

            The European Union and its member states are under increasing pressure from Washington to commit themselves directly or indirectly to the “Indo-Pacific” – and thus, from a US perspective, for Washington and against Beijing. The United Kingdom has recognized “Indo-Pacific” as one of the core regions for its vision beyond its exit from the European Union, called “Global Britain” without providing an independent national definition of what it meant by the term “Indo-Pacific”. Although the United Kingdom did put new emphasis on the “Indo-Pacific” region and has already deepened its engagement with the countries that employ “Indo-Pacific” in its various conceptions, it does not seem to have a clear geographical definition of the region. It is now confirmed that the United Kingdom has endorsed the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, through recent joint statements with Japan and India, and that the United Kingdom already had structures of military engagement with the QUAD nations, including participating in joint naval exercises. However, some British Parliamentarian have cautioned the government that its “Indo-Pacific” policy should not give rise to the impression that London seeks direct military confrontation with China.

            France has recently started to use the “Indo-Pacific” in terms of defense and security as a replacement for the “Asia-Pacific”. The change was probably a terminological adjustment in line with the emerging use by several countries of the “Indo-Pacific” with its various conceptions. Having recently released its own Indo-Pacific Strategy, France is a major stake holder with its Indian Ocean Island territory of Réunion, lending sense to the French version of the “Indo-Pacific”, the largest one among the countries that use the “Indo-Pacific” concept. It constitutes a maritime and land geographical area, shaped by interactions around strategic centers of gravity — India, China, Southeast Asia and Australia. More specifically, it mentioned that the “Indo-Pacific” comprised the Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans and formed a security continuum spreading from the East African coastline to the western American coast.

            ASEAN, inspired by Indonesia, which has long had its own ideas about an “Indo-Pacific” formulation- and they are quite different from those of the US-  adopted at its 34th summit of June 2019 the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”, with “inclusivity” and “ASEAN centrality” as the core theme. The Outlook reiterates that ASEAN considers the term “Indo-Pacific” as a paraphrase of “the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions”, thus viewing the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, not as contiguous territorial spaces but as a closely integrated and interconnected region, with ASEAN playing a central and strategic role. Noteworthy is the fact that the Outlook puts the Asia-Pacific region first and Indian Ocean region second, notwithstanding the word order of “Indo-Pacific”. It so appears that ASEAN’s “Indo-Pacific” tends to cover the member states of the existing regional and sub-regional mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions, and unlike the United States, ASEAN’s version of the Indo-Pacific isn’t directed at China. Admittedly, there are still divisions within ASEAN on the level of support for the Indo-Pacific concept. Despite most ASEAN member state’s reservations regarding China’s supra-territorial ambitions and assertive regional conducts, they struggle to accommodate American call of inclusion in the new grouping without provoking Beijing.

            As for China, it is openly opposed to the Indo-Pacific concept and considers it to be a US-led containment ploy directed against its own rising economic and military capabilities. China appears to be reluctant to identify itself a part of the Indo-Pacific and prefers to safeguard the validity of the Asia-Pacific Region instead. China’s geography always propels it to seek an outlet to the Indian Ocean when it wishes to pursue economic and military expansion. Through its near-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has expanded its economic and possible military foothold in the Indian Ocean, the most notable of which is the acquisition of its first ever overseas military base in Djibouti.

            Countering the ever increasing push of the Indo-Pacific notion, China has the Russian Federation on its side. Moscow’s denouncement of the Indo-Pacific Concept points yet to another consideration—its strategic partnership with Beijing. Russia considers America’s presence in North and Northeast Asia as illegal and a threat to its national security. Moscow sees the Indo-Pacific Concept as a vehicle to contain China, which in turn results in Russia’s own containment. In 2019, Foreign Minister Lavrov made clear Moscow’s opposition to the “Indo-Pacific Region”, calling it a US-led attempt to contain and exclude China. The Kremlin has also repeatedly indicated that the concept is flawed as it undermines ASEAN’s centrality in favor of extra-regional actors engaged in great power competition. Russia and China have even recently issued a joint statement expressing their objection to the Indo-Pacific idea claiming that the strategy leads to dissociation of regional countries and would be disruptive of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific.

            While the dispute between the two geographical concepts the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and the ‘Asia–Pacific’ may be fairly easily settled in the future, US–China strategic competition has just begun.

 Hossein Ebrahim Khani

             (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)       

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