The Indo-Pacific, already a concept that attracted interest in foreign policy circles, increased significantly in importance after it was included in the 2017 US National Security Strategy and the 2018 Defence Strategy. The concept has thus, in media circles at least, been branded “America’s new geopolitical world view for Asia,” and, associated with the Trump presidency, has been criticised as one of a number of American attempts “to boil down foreign policy into just a few words.” Trump’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” has also been signalled as a rejection of earlier American approaches to regional diplomacy, such as the Pivot to Asia highlighted by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
While the exact implications of Trump’s endorsement of the Indo-Pacific are unclear, what is clear is that the United States sees the Indo-Pacific as a military and diplomatic “strategy” geared towards enhancing American interests and relations with allies in the region. In particular, it is also a call to confront and perhaps even contain China. This is the sense in which the Trump administration uses the term “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as a normative statement of what the region should be and a policy agenda that American allies should get behind.
The Indo-Pacific concept, however, is hardly new, nor is it the exclusive preserve of either the Trump Administration or US foreign policy circles. The term has been used as early as the 1920s, but in its more contemporary concept, it had regularly featured in the informal discussions of US politicians and officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The first time the term gained clear official currency was when the Australian, not American, government included it in its 2013 Defence White Paper. Moreover, as an official position, Australia’s approach to this newly defined region recognised China as an important trading partner and was intended to be complementary to the Obama administration’s “management” of China through the Asian “pivot.”
The Indo-Pacific and its related concepts such as the “Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue” also have evident precursors in Japan, where officials in the first Abe administration from 2006-2007 outlined the need for such security concepts as a (geographically much broader) “arc of freedom and prosperity” and, later, an “Asian democratic defence diamond” based on attachment to fundamental values, notably democracy, open commerce and respect for international law.
It’s useful, then, to explore the different articulations of the Indo-Pacific concept. For the Indo-Pacific is beginning to pique the interest of observers and policy practitioners as far away as Europe. But engagement with the Indo-Pacific will be not be fruitful without an understanding that it has different implications for different actors. Here, I trace the development of the Indo-Pacific as a regional concept in order to highlight variety in national articulations, focusing in particular on Japan, Australia, and India, states that have lent a great deal to the development of the term, as well as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which is now reluctantly engaging with the Indo-Pacific concept.
The Confluence of Two Seas
Although, in its recent context, the term “Indo-Pacific” emerged in the United States, it has been the foreign policy communities in Australia and Japan that have been responsible for the early development and diffusion of the Indo-Pacific as a regional concept. In fact, the current normative American formulation of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” arguably owes much of its development to ideas that have been circulating in Japan since the mid-2000s. It was then that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promoted the concept of the quadrilateral dialogue or the “Quad.” Building on existing structures, such as a series of trilateral meetings between Australia, Japan and the United States, Abe proposed the addition of India to a formal strategic dialogue between the three democratic partners, which convened in May 2007 on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila, following military exercises in Japan between the four parties.
Understandably, Abe’s initiative was criticised by Beijing as a move to counter Chinese influence in the region. Indeed, many observers of security policy in Asia took it for granted that the Quad was conceived from the start as the beginning of a serious regional effort to contain Chinese power. Some urged caution in an era when the foreign policy goals of nations in the Asia-Pacific still focused on shaping “China’s peaceful rise.”
Criticism of the Quad as a new form of containment was particularly uncomfortable for Australia, given its increasing economic reliance on Chinese trade and investment. After coming to power in 2007, a new Labor government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat with extensive experience in Beijing, announced that it would not propose another session of the four-way meeting in 2008. The announcement of Australia’s “withdrawal” from the Quad came during a joint press conference between Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, fuelling speculation that Australia’s international position was leaning ever further towards China. Neither Rudd nor his successor Julia Gillard showed any interest in reviving the Quad during their time in office.
Abe, however, continued to pursue the concept of greater regional integration. Speaking in India shortly before he resigned as prime minister due to health reasons, Abe spoke of a “broader Asia” emerging from a “Confluence of Two Seas,” the title of a book authored in 1655 by an Indian prince. At the same time Taro Aso, Abe’s foreign minister, who soon after Abe became prime minister, spoke of broadening “the horizons of Japan’s diplomatic activities and, indeed, Japan’s outlook” by helping to maintain an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” a broad geographical semicircle that encompassed Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and India before heading through Afghanistan on its way to Europe. The concept of democratic nations working together to foster prosperity thus contained components analogous to the later American conceptualisation of the Free and Open Indo Pacific.
Language on regional integration based on a concert of democracies, however, subsided when Abe and Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party fell in 2009 to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama stressed a pan-Asian form of integration and continued Japanese engagement with India but resigned less than a year after his victory after becoming embroiled in a dispute over U.S. basing rights in Japan. For the rest of its time in office, the DPJ’s foreign policy priorities were to repair its relations with the United States and, after a maritime dispute with China, to reorient its security posture to focus more intently on the region to its South.
Back in office in late 2012, Abe attempted to revive the Quad, referring to the concept in an opinion piece as a “democratic security diamond,” where he directly referenced his 2007 India speech and the idea of the “Confluence of the Two Seas,” in other words, his version of the Indo-Pacific. Beijing’s attempts to claim territory in the South China Sea, coupled with the island dispute with Japan, had since raised concerns in Washington about China’s military posture. With the narrative about China rising peacefully sidelined, Abe could now let loose about the purpose of a four-power arrangement, which was to allow like-minded states to safeguard the maritime region between Japan, Australia, India, and Hawaii and to prevent the South China Sea from becoming “Lake Beijing.”
Abe’s proposal of a four-power defence arrangement to counter China was initially met with little enthusiasm, but by 2013 found a fairly receptive partner in Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose Australian Liberal Party had ousted Labor. However, political intrigue within his own party meant that Abbott would be replaced in 2015 by Malcolm Turnbull. Canberra’s subsequent decision to purchase French Shortfin Barracuda submarines to replace Australia’s aging Collins-class fleet cooled relations with Tokyo considerably, as Abe apparently believed Abbott had all but assured him Japan’s Soryu class subs would win the contract. Indeed, Richard Samuels, a prominent American analyst of Japan’s defence posture, noted at the time that of all the deals on offer, “only the Japanese choice would have strengthened strategic cooperation between America’s two most important partners in East Asia.” For the first year of the Turnbull government in Australia, relations between Tokyo and Canberra remained cordial, if rather chilly.
Australia has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Indo-Pacific concept, if not always in the terms articulated by Abe. It was shortly after Abe’s re-emergence as prime minister, and his articulation of the “democratic security diamond” that Australia became the first nation to take up the term officially, in its 2013 Defence White Paper. However, under the then-Labor government led by Gillard, the concept of the Indo-Pacific was far less confrontational towards China than Abe’s thought-piece. Indeed, the White Paper “welcomed China’s rise” and the attendant economic opportunities that would accrue to Australia.
Later documents published after the Australian Liberal Party came to power in 2013 outlined an Indo-Pacific that was more in line with Abe’s notion of the region. While the 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper noted the importance of Australia’s relationship with China, this was more because “of China’s growing influence on the regional and global issues of greatest consequence to our security and prosperity.” This new White Paper noted the importance of Australia’s partnership with Japan and in a nod to the Quad noted that Australia was ready to work in “small groups” with “major Indo-Pacific democracies, to promote and protect a shared vision for the region and to support a balance in the region favourable to our interests.”
The difference in Australia’s position between 2013 and 2017 certainly reflects changing attitudes in Australia towards China, but also suggests that in Australia, more diverse understandings of the concept influence the debate on the Indo-Pacific than in Japan and the United States. It also highlights the fact that since 2012, at least, Japan’s leadership has been more stable than Australia’s. As noted, Abe made the Quad his pet project in 2006 and reiterated it almost immediately after taking office again in 2012. Since then, the conceptualisation of the Indo-Pacific at Japan’s highest level of government has remained largely consistent.
Not so in Australia, where there have been five different prime ministers over the same period and at least two major understandings of the Indo-Pacific. The first of these understandings is that the Indo-Pacific merely relabels Australia’s region in a way that is more apt to Australian national interests than older formulations like the “Asia-Pacific.” Former Australian Defence Secretary Ric Smith, for example, sees the term as a useful construct for outlining the importance of the Indian Ocean to Australia’s trade and security, without discounting the importance to Australia of Asia or the Pacific. Within this conceptualisation, the Indo-Pacific is not a construct used to challenge China, but a description of a region where China is a very important and potentially constructive actor.
It is no coincidence that several of the key supporters of this view of the Indo-Pacific are, like Ric Smith, from or based in Western Australia. Most of Australia’s mineral trade is exported from the state and travels either across the Indian Ocean or through the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) in Southeast Asia. Stephen Smith, for example, the former foreign minister who was no enthusiast for the Quad, is nevertheless a supporter of the Indo-Pacific in this less “confrontational” articulation. In fact, the Indo-Pacific has entered the common parlance more in Western Australia than in any other Australian state. The Indo-Pacific is regularly referred to in Western Australian media commentary as the central concept that defines the region. Meanwhile, the Perth USAsia Centre, a think-tank based in the state capital, highlights Western Australia as “the gateway to the Indo-Pacific.” This demonstrates that even within nations, and certainly within Australia, differences in location can influence preferred definitions of regional concepts.
The second understanding of the Indo-Pacific in Australia is closer to Abe’s formulation, and agrees that the more troubling aspects of Chinese geostrategic behaviour point to desire for regional domination that must be checked. However it less emphatically promotes the notion of a stable group of states challenging China. According to this articulation, the Indo-Pacific is an area where like-minded states can discuss and implement common policy programs, but always with an eye on China’s increasing power and with a sense that floating coalitions of states in the region can work to prevent Chinese dominance without rigid containment strategies that might provoke an outright Chinese attack.
This conceptualisation, articulated most prominently by the Head of the National War College at the Australian National University Rory Medcalf, who has done much to develop the concept of the Indo-Pacific since the 2000s, is gaining ground in the Australian policy discourse. In 2017, the same year the Foreign Policy White Paper appeared, Australia responded positively to the approach from Abe to rejoin the Quad, signalling renewed warmth in relations between Japan and Australia. Indeed, Shiro Armstrong, a researcher at the Australian National University claims that it was cooperative diplomacy on the part of Abe and Turnbull that pushed Trump to recognise the Indo-Pacific as a central strategic concern for the United States.
However, official conceptualisations of the Indo-Pacific in Australia still tend to stress the notion of the Indo-Pacific as the region, rather than a set of relations that Australia can work within to forward its interests. While the opposition Labor Party now sees some value in the Quad, moreover, the “geographical” aspects of the Indo-Pacific would come more clearly to the fore were a Labor government to gain power in the next election cycle, something that is unlikely to happen in Japan. While the two countries have both added much to the concept, there are different nuances to their approach to the Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, India has become a most unlikely cheerleader of the Indo-Pacific concept, but again, this is couched very much in its own terms. For years, even after Australia’s withdrawal from the Quad, New Delhi was seen as the least committed major actor to the concept of the Indo-Pacific, despite the increased attention to India the concept was encouraging. Indeed, Australian strategic thinker Hugh White, who is sceptical about the Indo-Pacific as a strategic concept, bases his criticism largely on a sense that the interests of India do not converge with supposedly “like-minded” states in the way that analysts like Medcalf presume: while White sees Chinese domination of the Western Pacific as an inevitable security threat to states like Australia, he sees this domination as less of a concern to India, separated from China by the geographical barriers of the Himalayas and from the Western Pacific by South East Asia. India in this articulation has its own concerns about Beijing’s motives, but they do not overlap neatly with the concerns of those who more clearly share maritime space with China.
White’s critique is undergirded by historical experience: India’s security relations with Japan and Australia have traditionally been shallow, and India has traditionally sought non-alignment in international affairs. There is continued reticence in some quarters of New Delhi to see Australia in particular as a potential regional security partner. To be fair, Indian reluctance in dealing with Australia is grounded in part in Australia’s withdrawal from the Quad—which New Delhi viewed as an abrupt unilateral move taken without prior consultation. Australia’s economic overexposure to China is also seen as a sign that Australia would be a fair-weather friend in a confrontation with Beijing.
However, India’s recent behaviour suggests that its government is taking the Indo-Pacific, including relations with Australia, much more seriously. There has been increasing speculation, for example, that India will invite Australia to participate in its Malabar naval exercises in 2020. Relations between Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Abe and current Australian Prime Minster Scott Morrison are exceedingly warm, and all three have managed to cultivate good relations with Trump, which is no easy feat. As in Australia, a section has been set up within India’s foreign affairs ministry to deal specifically with the “Indo-Pacific.” And most noteworthy of India’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific was Modi’s decision to focus on the concept in his keynote speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, arguably Asia’s most important dialogue on regional security.
Somewhat predictably, given White’s concerns, India’s articulation of the Indo-Pacific is markedly different to that expressed by Japan, Australia, and certainly the United States. In his Shangri-La speech, Modi stressed the notion of the Indo-Pacific as an “inclusive” concept. However, Indian analysts such as Rajesh Basrur and Rajesh Rajagopalan consider it obvious that India’s recent adoption of the Indo-Pacific concept is designed to hide a strategy designed to deal with China’s rise. Thus, talk of inclusion is not the same as describing the Indo-Pacific in the geographical terms as is popular in some quarters in Australia. Instead, according to Rajagopalan, writing in a recent issue of International Affairs, India “is balancing China while trying to reassure it.” India does not want Beijing to interpret the Indo-Pacific as “aimed at” China, although that is precisely New Delhi’s motivation for supporting it. Rajagopalan sees this strategy—what he calls “evasive balancing”—as ultimately unsustainable, suggesting either that India will need to become more forthright and critical of Chinese power or White’s thesis about India’s lack of commitment to the Indo-Pacific concept will eventually prove correct.
In the meantime, Modi is attempting to marry the Indo-Pacific to concepts inherent in India’s past approach to the region. His Shangri-La speech stressed ASEAN centrality, consistent with the “Look-East” and “Act-East” policies that India had previously espoused. Those policies stressed India’s economic integration into the East Asian region through ASEAN, however. The continuation of a military dialogue between Japan and India after the first iteration of the Quad failed and the revival of the Quad in 2017 suggest a much more strategic aspect to India’s ideas about the Indo-Pacific. Even while engaging with the three other Quad partners, though—and Modi has been much more “forthright” in this respect than his predecessor—India does try to mute strategic language. It refers not to the “Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue” or even “the Quad” but merely to “India–Australia–Japan–US consultations.” Language about ASEAN centrality, meanwhile, is clearly designed to suggest that India’s attention to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad is rooted in more benign and earlier notions of its foreign policy.
For its part, ASEAN has been notoriously sceptical of ideas for regional integration that emerge from outside its membership, and the Indo-Pacific is no exception in this regard. Nevertheless, Modi’s focus on ASEAN centrality, coupled with the increased American attention to the Indo-Pacific as a strategy moved the ten-nation group to publish its own position on the concept, titled the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” in 2019. The move was seen as extremely significant by some commentators. Here was evidence, perhaps, that ASEAN had finally come to see the concept as the basis for wider regional integration.
However, it is hard to see any new thinking in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Rather, the document is a sign that ASEAN has capitulated to new terminology while trying to cement the ideas of the Indo-Pacific within familiar regional institutions. While the ASEAN Outlook does refer to the Indo-Pacific as a “closely and interconnected region” ASEAN nevertheless sees this “region” as consisting of two distinct entities—the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean—not a “contiguity of territorial spaces.” Like most articulations of the Indo Pacific, the Outlook stresses the “importance of the maritime domain and perspective in the evolving regional architecture” and of “development and prosperity for all.” Importantly, maritime cooperation and connectivity head up a list of four “Areas of Cooperation” in the document, and the importance of freedom of navigation, dialogue and peaceful settlement of maritime disputes is stressed throughout.
The Outlook’s references on maritime security and connectivity might underscore what Australian, Japanese and American strategists have highlighted for decades: that the SLOCs flowing through the ASEAN states are crucial to an international system of open trade and therefore to regional security. The Outlook, however, almost bends over backwards to avoid any mention of strategic rivalry—no country, let alone China and the United States is mentioned by name in the document—and freedom of navigation is referenced among a cornucopia of issues including “sea piracy, robbery and armed robbery against ships at sea, etc.” Traditional security threats from particular nation-states are never clearly realised in the document, which places it in stark contrast to strategic documents of the United States, Japan, Australia, and other nations of the Indo-Pacific.
As indicated by its repeated references to the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean, the Outlook, then, is not a signal that ASEAN has embraced the concept of the Indo-Pacific. Even the very title has a certain distancing effect: ASEAN is not necessary “in” the Indo-Pacific so much as looking out “on” it. The text refers to the Outlook itself as merely a “guide for ASEAN’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean.” In the section on Areas for Cooperation, there isn’t a hint of anything that looks like a practical policy measure that might address the issues the section highlights. In place of proposing solutions, the Outlook offers measures that are very much within type for ASEAN: continual dialogue. Strategic discussions on “practical cooperative activities can be pursued at ASEAN-led mechanisms including, among others, the EAS, the ASEAN Plus One mechanisms, ARF, and ADDM-Plus.”
The lack of a clear policy agenda in the Outlook may highlight the differences in the level of support among ASEAN member states for the Indo-Pacific concept: the governments of Indonesia and Thailand were broadly supportive of the Indo-Pacific as a concept—in Jakarta’s case, in order to bolster claims of the centrality of Indonesia to the region—while Malaysia, at least under the presidency of Mohamed Mahathir, and Singapore were broadly sceptical or even hostile to the idea. This lack of agreement is one factor behind the absence of a clear policy roadmap for the Indo-Pacific with ASEAN at its centre.
In general, though, the ASEAN Outlook is symbolic of ASEAN’s desire not to be left behind in—and indeed, its desire to be central to—debates that are happening within its region. The Outlook also stands as only reluctant recognition that the Indo-Pacific has become a term of choice among some of ASEAN’s key partners. As with India’s conception of the Indo-Pacific, it is clear that the document is designed to tip-toe around Chinese sensibilities, but unlike India, there is little sense in the Outlook that ASEAN is trying to find ways to deal with the challenge of Chinese regional power outside of the norms and institutions that ASEAN has already established. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Outlook attempts to redefine the Indo-Pacific in ways that stress the historical centrality of ASEAN and its institutions in the development of Asian regionalism. The ASEAN Outlook, far from buying into a new regional discourse, simply attempts to reassert comfortable forms of dialogue.
Despite the attempt by actors such as the United States and, to a large extent, Japan to articulate the Indo-Pacific in terms of a clear strategy to counter China, the Indo-Pacific is thus “still under construction.” The Indo-Pacific is variously a geographical description, a term to emphasise the importance of a maritime environment, a strategy through which US allies can balance China and assert the rule of law, a way of building shifting coalitions between like-minded states in the region, a rubric for reinventing past relationships while insisting those relationships remain the same, and a way of insisting that actors in the region not stray too far from the norms and institutions that have in the past served as useful platforms for dialogue.
If external actors—Europeans, for example—are interested in engaging in the region, they will need to note these differences, because joining the conversation on the Indo-Pacific may have vastly different connotations depending on the interlocuters involved. In fact, critics like Hugh White may be right, to an extent: given the vast geographical distance and different strategic environments within the region, it is unlikely that we will ever see an Indo-Pacific of “member states” on the same strategic page. But the Indo-Pacific is not going away. At the very least, it serves as a prompt for conversation about how states in the region can cooperate, even if on an ad hoc, shifting basis, to meet complementary if not completely mutual interests, and that, perhaps, is the ultimate value of the concept.
Author: Bryce Wakefield