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Indo-Pacific Conceptions in the Spotlight at China’s Xiangshan Forum

Despite the many headlines the concept has generated, the state of the conversation and its future prospects remain unclear.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Indo-Pacific Conceptions in the Spotlight at China’s Xiangshan Forum
Credit: Xiangshan Forum

From October 20 to 22 this week, China held the latest iteration of the Xiangshan Forum, a regional security dialogue that Beijing first established back in 2006. While the deliberations themselves this year touched on a range of issues, among those of interest to the delegates and officials present was the state of conversation on the Indo-Pacific concept today and in the future.

As I have noted before in these pages and elsewhere, while there has often been an overwhelming focus on the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy rolled out by the Trump administration, FOIP has in fact catalyzed a wider and already previously ongoing conversation on the Indo-Pacific concept among a range of countries. While the concept is still evolving, as of now, we have seen a range of responses, with some countries and entities such as Japan, Australia, and ASEAN either unveiling or refining explicit approaches; others like Russia and China voicing their opposition to aspects of it, and still others remaining silent on it thus far. There are also ongoing efforts in various regional fora to arrive at commonly agreed upon principles despite the differences that remain.

This week, the range of perspectives on the Indo-Pacific concept was in the spotlight again at the 9th Xiangshan Forum, as it often is in Asia’s other annual security dialogues as well, such as the Shangri-La Dialogue held earlier this year. Unsurprisingly, much of the focus at the Xiangshan Forum this year was on the U.S. FOIP strategy, particularly given the troubling state of U.S.-China ties and the higher level of U.S. representation, as manifested by the attendance of new U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia at the dialogue. But the forum also featured official perspectives from other countries as well, including ASEAN and Russia, along with sessions that focused on the Indo-Pacific within broader themes such as the future of Asia’s regional architecture.

The discussions reinforced several points with respect to the Indo-Pacific concept thus far. First, there continue to be differences on how the Indo-Pacific is framed and defined by countries in rhetoric. As I have noted before, there have been references to the Indo-Pacific to varying degrees in several distinct senses with some overlap: as a strategic concept (reflecting unmistakable trends such as the convergence between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and India’s rising profile in the region and the world); as an ideational term (an effort to redefine the region following others such as the “Asia-Pacific); or as a geopolitical approach by a country or group of countries (usually conflated with FOIP or the Quad grouping).

That played in some of the remarks and conversations at the Xiangshan Forum as well. For instance, in one of the concurrent sessions, Philippe Henri Denis Boutinand, the head of the regional affairs office of France’s Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy, unsurprisingly set out France’s independent position on the Indo-Pacific as being rooted in a confluence of strategic, geographic, and diplomatic realities, a framing which both advances France’s case as an Indo-Pacific country and also spotlights its ongoing initiatives, including as the upcoming chair of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium from 2020 to 2022. By contrast, Malaysia’s Deputy Defense Minister Liew Chin Tong, in his plenary session remarks, framed the Indo-Pacific as being an unconvincing attempt to reframe the region’s collective identity – following others such as Far East, Asia, and Asia-Pacific – and argued that Asia was a far better conception as it was “the one that is most unproblematically embraced by most Asians over the last century.”

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Second, there remain a range of perspectives and degrees of support or opposition for aspects of the concept, despite some attempts to oversimplify them in more black and white terms. With regards to support, we have continued to see a pattern where even those that are part of the U.S. alliance and partnership network have either laid out their own visions of the Indo-Pacific with some similarities and differences compared to the U.S. FOIP strategy, such as Japan, while others such as the Philippines have engaged with the concept with various partners but have not themselves unveiled national positions. And even in terms of opposition, we have observed different degrees of this, whether it be a rejection of the U.S. FOIP approach more specifically or a more general dismissal of the Indo-Pacific concept.

This was in evidence at the Xiangshan Forum as well. For example, while Russia’s position on the Indo-Pacific is at times caricatured as simply being a reflexive and total rejection of the U.S. FOIP strategy, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s remarks at the Xiangshan Forum advanced a more expansive and calibrated critique of the concept, noting that while Russia agreed with the general notion of building partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, Moscow had its doubts about the lack of geographical clarity, inclusiveness, and specificity of objectives. Similarly, ASEAN Deputy Secretary General Hoang Anh Tuan’s remarks, which touched on ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, reinforced the notion that ASEAN’s approach is less a full-throated support of the Indo-Pacific as a concept and more of an effort to manage diverging conceptions by major powers to preserve its much-prized centrality.

Third, despite multiple efforts by the United States to clarify its FOIP, there remain doubts and uncertainties about its approach. In particular, perceptions continue to persist about the FOIP strategy as being merely a narrow military-led effort to confront China through initiatives such as the advancement of the Quad, rather than one that reflects broader structural realities. While some of this may indeed be advanced by those that benefit from distorting the FOIP strategy for their own interests, some realities and optics coming out of Washington do not help. The negative fallout that regional states have faced so far as the U.S.-China trade war has been waged has colored their outlooks towards U.S. regional strategy more generally, while the fact that the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report was released by the Pentagon only reinforces the perception, advanced by opponents and skeptics of the FOIP strategy, that it is a military-led effort.

This too was clear at some of the Xiangshan Forum deliberations. Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen framed the Indo-Pacific as one aspect of a broader environment of U.S.-China competition, reflecting part of Singapore’s concern about the concept that has affected developments in its alignments as well. More vividly, during one of the panel sessions on Asia’s security architecture, Sbragia stepped in to clarify that the Pentagon’s release of the IPSR was only part of a whole-of-government, White House-led effort at formulating a FOIP strategy, rather than a manifestation of a military-led strategy as a Chinese scholar had suggested on the panel. His intervention reinforced a message that U.S. officials have repeatedly attempted to advance in the past few months.

To be sure, the fact that some of the aforementioned fundamental questions remain unresolved is not surprising given that it is still early days in the heightened conversation on Indo-Pacific conceptions. And this conversation will continue into other regional fora through the next few months and years as well, be it in dialogues or official meetings. As this occurs, it will be important to continue to assess both the evolution of the overall discussion as well as national approaches amid wider national, regional, and global developments.