The term “Indo-Pacific” has become an analytical hot potato. U.S. strategists and political leaders (including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have increasingly used the term to describe the set of strategic relationships that structure behavior in from the Eastern Indian Ocean into the Western Pacific. The term effectively puts China, India, Japan, Australia, and the United States is the same geostrategic orbit, a move which would seem to work to the benefit of the United States.
The term was found in print in contemporary usage in 1993 (and again by Gurpreet S. Khurana in 2007), to describe the increasingly dense nature of maritime networks of trade and contact in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. U.S. policymakers began to adopt the term more widely in the last decade, in large part because the “Indo” half of Indo-Pacific draws India into a strategic relationship with China, Japan, Australia, and the United States. U.S. policymakers (and to an extent their Japanese counterparts) foresaw growing strategic tension between New Delhi and Beijing, and sought to make India a counterweight to the growing power of China.
But simply because the term has utility to a specific political viewpoint does not necessarily mean we should adopt it, especially given the concept’s potential for shifting the terms of the debate on power in the Indian and the Pacific. There are a few markers that we might use to consider the legitimacy of a regional definition.
Economics is potentially an obvious marker; is the trade of a region sufficiently tied together that individuals, businesses, and governments make economic decisions in light of how others in the region behave? But trade has tied regional economies together since ancient times; it is not useful to lump Caesar’s Rome and Han China into a “region” simply because they engaged in long range exchange of goods. And as technology has radically reduced the cost of transport, individual economic decisions increasingly have global impact.
Social or civilizational ties may also be a marker of a region; languages, religions, and cultures tend to tie societies together, and bind them to one another. Self-awareness of civilizational similarity (modern Europe, for example) can vary a great deal, but regionally coherent groups of people can sometimes self-identify with a common civilizational heritage. But even within regions, a shared sense of identity may create conflict, as was the case in the 20th century in both Europe and Asia. Intra-civilizational (to borrow from Huntington) conflicts inevitably became trans-regional, trans-civilizational wars.
Technology has an impact on both of these, as well as the military dimension. New technologies can reduce transport time (affecting economic decisions), increase the density of communication (producing new sense of community), and increase the lethal ranges of weapon systems. Arguably, the advent of the ICBM and the transcontinental strategic bomber rendered distance irrelevant to the United States and the Soviet Union, at least in strategic terms. And the ability of the major military organizations in the Indian and Pacific regions to strike at long range and with great precision certainly expands the operational
It is under these terms that we can at least begin to think about what the Indo-Pacific is, and whether it constitutes a useful analytical unit. What nearly all of these metrics suggest is that the analytical creation of a geostrategic region (which is to say the introduction of terminology that allows us to include a specific group of actors) is considerably easier to defend in the context of massive technological change than it was even 30 or 40 years ago. And given that China, Japan, and India recognize each other as relevant strategic actors (the decisions of the one affect the decisions of the others) an analytical grouping makes sense.
But before U.S. analysts embrace the term, they might ponder a question for the future: “How does the United States fit into the Indo-Pacific?”