The Indo-Pacific is a vast geographical region that encompasses the Indian Ocean and the western and central Pacific Oceans, including the many seas in Southeast Asia and Oceania. In a geopolitical context, the term only started to appear in the lexicon of geopolitics in the late 2010s. The late Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo first referred to the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans in mid-2007, and the official use of “Indo-Pacific” first appeared in Australia’s 2013 Defense White Paper. Since then, the U.S., India, EU, and ASEAN have all published their respective visions and strategies for the Indo-Pacific. What drove the emergence of this vast super-region in the geopolitical discourse?
Mental Maps, the Far East, and the Asia-Pacific
Regions are social constructs that serve political agendas. Fundamentally, they are mental maps that revolve around power, shape identity, agenda setting, and sense of belonging as a stakeholder in a shared space. Regional identities form the basis for which a state perceives itself vis-à-vis others. A logical consequence of the dynamic nature of political agendas is that regional constructs are also dynamic, and subject to reflect the given state of international relations.
The contemporary Indo-Pacific construct is a relatively recent phenomenon. Previously, the term “Far East” was widely used. The term has mostly fallen out of popular use, due to its certain connotations with eurocentrism, colonialism, and cultural exoticism. The term was also initially used by Imperial Japan, but it later opted for “East Asia” in an attempt to create an alternative region order in the form of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Fast-forward to the late twentieth century, the Asia-Pacific emerged as a new regional construct with the world’s largest ocean – the Pacific – at its heart. What was previously seen as a geographical barrier is instead seen through the lens of connectivity, where shipping lanes and flight routes would bring the emerging economies of Asia closer to the developed markets of the U.S. This occurred in the context of the unipolar moment, where the United States emerged from the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower. It is within this unipolar framework that the U.S. was able to act as the security guarantor the regional order through hubs and spokes – a series of bilateral security ties between the U.S. and its partners in Asia.
Institutions played a key role in upholding the regional order. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) perhaps best encapsulates the idea of an Asia-Pacific construct. Formed in 1989, APEC promotes free trade and economic cooperation between the Pacific Rim economies. Although economic in nature, the institution has diplomatic implications. It promotes dialogue between member states and has a normative effect on regional stability and integration. Hence, the narrative mattered as well. A 1993 World Bank report titled The Eat Asian Miracle brought forth the idea of the Four Asian Tigers, referring to the exceptionally high growth rates of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Evidently, the Asia-Pacific narrative is one of prosperity and economic integration, as well as optimism for said integration to develop into cordial political relationships. For instance, China’s inclusion into the World Trade Organization (WTO), APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) signalled to the world an upward trend to prosperity and a general acceptance of the US-led “rules-based international order.”
In short, the Asia-Pacific region pays tribute to the growing connectivity in trade between Pacific Rim countries as a result of shrinking geographic distances due to globalization and geopolitical change. Multilateral institutions like APEC and ASEAN are key features in the Asia-Pacific construct, contributing to narratives of prosperity and amiable cooperation.
Into the Indo-Pacific
The emergence of the Indo-Pacific in geopolitics coincided with challenges posed to the Asia-Pacific. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) was the first roadblock to the vision of endless prosperity and development. In the aftermath, the US-led International Monetary Fund (IMF) alienated many Asian countries that resisted pressure for internal reform, creating frustration with the regional order. Consequently, an East Asian identity emerged, and as scholar Alice Ba contends, the post-AFC East Asian regionalism does not include the United States, or at least seeks to see the U.S. play a more minimal role. On the contrary, China came out of the AFC relatively unscathed and have instead increased its reputation within the region. Its refusal to devalue the Chinese Yuan and its contribution to bailout its struggling neighbours were well received by regional stakeholders. To reinforce this perception, the World Bank published a report in the same year stating that “continued growth in China has been an important source of stability for the region and for the world.”
The AFC represented the first major challenge to the Asia-Pacific, especially the centrality of the U.S. within it. Other developments in the world like the September 11 attack and the subsequent quagmire in the Middle East further affected the U.S. position in the Asia-Pacific. An increasingly powerful (but not yet assertive) China wanted to play a greater role in regional order building. Chinese participation in regional multilateral institutions grew. For instance, the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) arrangement demonstrated the growing weight of China but more importantly, excluded the U.S. It was within this context – the disillusionment with hegemonic order and the AFC – that set the stage for the Indo-Pacific construct to emerge in the 2010s.
The India Factor
The “Indo-Pacificization” of Asia is manifested in two ways – first, the recognition that India may no longer be excluded from the Asian strategic system; second, the emergence of contending visions for regional order building. The India factor is the most intuitive, representing the “Indo” in “Indo-Pacific,” but its meaning is two-fold – a more proactive India, as well as the merger of the Indian and Pacific Oceans into one strategic system.
India is a rising power, which apart from growing internally, also has a proactive foreign policy culture. India’s Act East Policy, the successor to the Look East Policy, is an effort by New Delhi to cultivate extensive economic and strategic ties with nations in the Indo-Pacific. For instance, the India-Japan strategic partnership saw both nations engage in regular naval exercises, political exchanges, and military-to-military contact. Accordingly, scholar Dhruva Jaishankar stated that “Tokyo has become an indispensable partner in the region’s security architecture as per New Delhi’s calculations.”
Furthermore, India also expanded diplomatic, economic and security ties with South China Sea countries like Vietnam, and demonstrated a general willingness to strengthen its ties with ASEAN. With that, India increased its presence in the South China Sea when its navy conducted bilateral exercises with various ASEAN member states, signalling to the world its stake in the region. The implication of which is that India’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is partially driven by its concerns regarding China’s newfound status.
Given the current state of U.S.-China relations, it would seem logical that the U.S. would welcome the inclusion of India to contain China, manifested in the minilateral arrangements such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). Yet, scholar Rory Medcalf rebuffs claims of containment and exclusion. Rather than excluding China, the Indo-Pacific recognizes that China, like India, would play a major role in the region and instead legitimizes their security roles. However, there is no doubt that including India would dilute China’s influence and relative weight in the region.
Indeed, the inclusion of India does not translate into the enlargement of the U.S. containment camp. For one, India lies outside of the U.S. alliance structure, and its non-alignment tradition means that India has maintained extensive ties with different countries and has avoided picking sides in the region. In fact, Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan argues that India pursues an evasive balancing Indo-Pacific strategy, which is a combined effort to balance and reassure Beijing. Rather than seeing the Indo-Pacific through the lens of containing China, Modi’s speech in the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue claims that India does not wish to see the Indo-Pacific as directed against anyone, and should not be a space for domination by vying powers.
India’s proactive Act East Policy is also reflective of the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The global trade that passes through the Malacca Straits also passes through the vast Indian Ocean. From the Chinese and Japanese perspectives, their overwhelming dependence on the sea lines of communication (SLOC) for energy imports means that their economic security rests on the Indian Ocean as well, alongside their trade and naval access. China’s interest in the Indian Ocean is demonstrated by its String of Pearls strategy, a term that was never used in official Chinese lexicon, but is widely believed in American and Indian circles. The enlargement of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) means that its presence in the Indian Ocean will continue to become more frequent, including counter-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and port visits to surrounding countries. More recently, China has been accused of using infrastructure investments to acquire port facilities in countries surrounding India, with the Pakistani Gwadar Port and the Sri Lankan Hambantota Port being the more controversial and high-profile examples.
As evident, the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans is a result of a growing and increasingly proactive India, but also a result of China looking westward to the Indian Ocean. In that sense, as scholar Priya Chacko argues, China and India are the most important drivers of the emergent Indo-Pacific. The region also highlights the economic-security nexus, as maritime trade routes become interlinked with energy security and naval access.
Contending world views – FOIP and the BRI
The second way the “Indo-Pacificization” of Asia is manifested is seen in the emergence of contending visions for regional order building. The Indo-Pacific construct forms the basis for the continued relevance of the U.S. in the regional order. The Cold War and the unipolar moment that entrenched the Asian security architecture still exist today, however, the challenges that emerged in US-China strategic competition mean that the U.S. would have to offer more to legitimize its interests in the Indo-Pacific. That came in the form of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), which is a strategy derived from Japan’s 2016 FOIP concept. At its core, FOIP is a status-quo-oriented strategy that promotes the rule of law, economic prosperity, connectivity in sea lanes, and peace and stability. However, many regional actors have published their own interpretation of FOIP with small though important nuances that reveal the different ways the Indo-Pacific is conceptualized.
For example, Japan’s FOIP strategy has a greater emphasis on connectivity in the form of quality infrastructure investments, such as the economic corridors that would connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans through mainland Southeast Asia. Japan’s FOIP also places significant attention on the growth potential of East Africa, again through nation-building assistance and infrastructure investments. Investment and development have strategic undertones as well, as China invests in the same regions for geopolitical influence.
In contrast, the U.S. FOIP has a greater emphasis on its security alliances and partnerships, with a greater strategic weight given to its traditional allies like Japan and Australia, as well as fostering closer relationships with India and ASEAN. Furthermore, the 2022 U.S. report explicitly calls out China for its coercive behavior and accuses it of possessing hegemonic ambitions. Medcalf argues that the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy sets the stage for a more fully fledged strategic competition with China. However, this is also a contestation of visions for regional order building, which is evident when considering China’s vision – the BRI.
China has refrained from using the term “Indo-Pacific” as they believe it is a ploy by the U.S. to contain its rise. This may create the impression that China does not have an Indo-Pacific strategy, yet it does exist – the BRI is China’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The global infrastructure development strategy, enshrined in China’s constitution, became the centrepiece of Chinese foreign policy. Although economic in nature, the project does have geopolitical implications. Professor Li Mingjiang posits that the BRI would transform China’s security policy to protect its overseas investments. While scholar Wei Ling, taking a more constructivist international relations approach, argues that the BRI would advance Chinese norms and values like non-interference. This suggests that the BRI is a means for Chinese power projection, both materially and normatively.
Furthermore, China’s investments are present from the Solomon Islands to Pakistan, which strongly indicates its Indo-Pacific geographic scope. In fact, scholars have pointed out that the BRI is just the “Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics.” Economics and security are intertwined in the Indo-Pacific which has significant diplomatic and normative repercussions. Given its comprehensive nature, the BRI may be more accurately labelled as a vision for regional order building. Together with FOIP, these regional orders go beyond traditional security and into prosperity and values of social progression. The Indo-Pacific construct plays a critical role in these visions, in the sense that it interlinks the fates of the two oceans and provides the framework for countries to understand the economic-security-diplomatic connection.
The Indo-Pacific as we know it today inherited many attributes from the preceding Asia-Pacific. It remains a fact that the region is one of economic growth and cooperation, however, with greater strategic elements infused into it. Perhaps the biggest and most significant difference between the two regional constructs is the latter’s inclusion of India and the Indian Ocean. The country has demonstrated a willingness and capacity to engage in the region, both economically and strategically, and both bilaterally and multilaterally. The Indo-Pacific is not only India looking eastward, but also China looking westward, as it realizes that its fate and fortunes extend beyond the Malacca Straits and into the Indian Ocean. The result of which is the emergence of regional ordering visions like FOIP and BRI to make sense of this super-region.