A Term Whose Time Has Come: The Indo-Pacific

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A Term Whose Time Has Come: The Indo-Pacific

The idea of an Indo-Pacific is not new and may better describe a region that is quickly shaping global events.

We are constantly told that the world’s center of economic and strategic gravity is shifting to Asia. But what is Asia? More precisely, what is the Asia that matters to global security and prosperity?

As a new regular contributor to The Diplomat’s Flashpoints blog, I would like to experiment with an answer. Let’s call it Indo-Pacific Asia.

There are some sound arguments for this term as a coherent analytical description of the emerging strategic and economic order linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Indo-Pacific Asia, or the Indo-Pacific for short, is a more credible and contemporary name than the Asia-Pacific or some more narrow East Asian or Western Pacific formulation.

What is the Indo-Pacific? I would suggest it is an emerging Asian strategic system that encompasses both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, defined in part by the geographically expanding interests and reach of China and India, and the continued strategic role and presence of the United States in both. An insightful new book by leading Indian strategic thinker C. Raja Mohan is premised on a similar point.

Indo-Pacific terminology is hardly new.  It has a long-standing acceptance as a distinct biogeographic region in marine science.  It has also been used in ethnography since the 1850s, when “Indo-Pacific islanders” was one way of identifying the people of Indonesia.

But in geopolitics, the term lay dormant for decades. It was occasionally used in the early and mid-20th century. Notably, it has reemerged in a gathering tempo of expert commentaries and official statements in recent years, including in the United States, India, and Australia – a nation whose two-ocean geography it naturally suits.

There is no doubt that the Indo-Pacific idea is contested on at least two fronts, however.

For starters, some will argue that this super-region is too big to be a coherent strategic system. To be sure, some of Asia’s most serious security flashpoints – from the Korean Peninsula to the India-Pakistan relationship – seem principally sub-regional. 

Yet each of these closely engages the interests of one or more of the three big Indo-Pacific powers – the United States, China and India. And one of the wider region’s most complex and sensitive theatres of tension, the South China Sea, ultimately engages the interests of all Asia’s major maritime trading nations and indeed players further afield including the Middle East and Europe.

In any case, to talk Indo-Pacific is not to suggest that every nation from Chile to Mozambique is equally able to affect the interests of every other nation bordering the two oceans. Rather, it is the intersecting interests of the big maritime trading and strategic powers – the United States, China, India and, to some extent, Japan and others – that create the tension and the glue of an emerging strategic system.  And in this it may be a core Indo-Pacific, encompassing the South China Sea, maritime Southeast Asia and the Bay of Bengal, that matters most.

The second criticism is more pointed. Some countries, particularly China, could well have misgivings about seeing the region through an Indo-Pacific prism.  Is the Indo-Pacific really just code for balancing against or excluding China?

Let’s assume that Washington and others are actively building embryonic balancing coalitions in light of uncertainties about future Chinese power. Assume also that the Indo-Pacific idea makes it more feasible to include India in such a coalition and to extend any prospective area of operations to the Indian Ocean. These are reasons why an Indo-Pacific strategic construct might seem to suit America and India more than China.

Yet against these points must be weighed the realities of growing Indo-Pacific interconnectedness of many nations’ economic and strategic interests, including the fact that the Indian Ocean is now the world’s busiest trade corridor, carrying two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments and a third of its bulk cargo, mostly to or from East Asia. These linkages are undeniable and at the level of analysis the term Indo-Pacific or Indo-Pacific Asia is simply a plain way of describing them.

True, an Indo-Pacific map of Asia is one in which Chinese influence is more diluted than in an exclusively East Asian setting.  But, even according to China’s own economic, energy and thus strategic interests across the Indian Ocean, the Indo-Pacific also happens to be the wider regional context in which China is rising.

Even if we assume that China’s grand strategy and security ambitions are unknown or unknowable, a map of its commercial interests, energy sources, and diplomatic attentions – from East Africa to Pakistan, from Sri Lanka to Myanmar, from Australia all the way along the Western Pacific littoral – leads to a conclusion as clear as the waters of the Maldives. China is the quintessential Indo-Pacific power.