When NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently visited South Korea and Japan, the Western defense alliance issued a flurry of statements to convey the message that “transatlantic and Indo-Pacific security are deeply interconnected” and to stress “the importance of like-minded democracies standing together to protect the international rules-based order.”
What unites these “like-minded countries,” according to NATO, is “the systemic challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China.” Although Stoltenberg shied away from depicting China as an outright adversary, he made sure to point out that “its growing assertiveness and its coercive policies have consequences. For your security in the Indo-Pacific. And ours in the Euro-Atlantic.”
As a geostrategic arena in the making, the Indo-Pacific region is attracting growing attention not just from the NATO secretary general. Many observers are focusing on how the intensified China-U.S. great power competition is changing the security architecture of the region, leading to the emergence of new regional groupings such as the Quad and AUKUS, the Australia-U.K.-U.S. security alliance.
Others concentrate on the shifting geoeconomic landscape amid the formation of free trade blocs such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), as well the U.S.-initiated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) for economic cooperation.
Still others explore how regional patterns of connectivity could be determined by competing infrastructural projects (China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the G-7 countries’ Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, or PGII), or the rapidly expanding technological decoupling agenda, including the supply chain politics of advanced semiconductors.
What has received far less attention, however, is the role played by identity-forming processes of coalition-building and boundary-drawing in the Indo-Pacific region. Indeed, “like-mindedness” – the idea of sharing basic political values and principles – seems to have become an important criterion for Western countries as they rapidly expand their strategic engagement with, and coalition-building in, the Indo-Pacific, while increasingly criticizing and distancing themselves from China.
By affecting strategic choices about whom to rely on for security assistance, geoeconomic partnership, and infrastructural/technological connectivity, such coalition-building efforts will shape the geostrategic landscape of the region in fundamental ways. Because the stronger these identity dynamics become, the more likely they are to reduce all the specific strategic choices into a single overarching dilemma: Whether to side with China or the U.S.-led Western coalition.
It raises a particularly important question about the extent to which Western countries are aligned in their coalition-building practices. Although Stoltenberg has recently adopted a vocal stance, as noted above, the G-7 countries have actually spearheaded Western coalition-building efforts in the Indo-Pacific since 2021.
Based on official government statements and strategy papers from the G-7 countries, a new report from the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) conducts a systematic empirical mapping of the relative scope and depth of current Western coalition-building endeavors in the Indo-Pacific. With the publication in late November of Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, most of the G-7 countries (including France, Germany, the United States) have now adopted an official strategy, while Britain and Japan have presented their strategic guidelines in a less comprehensive way (and Italy merely in a position paper). Notwithstanding this considerable diversity, the report finds that all the individual G-7 countries share a deep-seated commitment to the rule of law and a rules-based regional order in the Indo-Pacific amid growing concern about China’s increased coercion and assertiveness (although not all G-7 countries directly single out China as an outsider or challenger).
As a group, however, the G-7 countries have in the past couple of years issued a series of joint statements that go significantly further. In fact, they have adopted a remarkably strong common stance, portraying themselves as a coalition of like-minded states, sharing a broad set of liberal values and principles beyond their individual commitment to a rules-based order. Furthermore, they have consolidated their common stance by consistently promoting a narrative about a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and based on the rule of law, the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, transparency, territorial integrity, and the peaceful and inclusive resolution of disputes.”
In their joint statements, the G-7 countries also unmistakably depict China as the main challenger to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”:
We encourage China to uphold its commitments within the rules-based international order… We remind China of the need to uphold the principle of the U.N. Charter on peaceful settlement of disputes and to abstain from threats, coercion, intimidation measures or use of force… In line with China’s obligations under international and national law, we urge China to fully respect human rights.
These identity-based endeavors of building a coalition of like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific have also been pushed by the Quad countries (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) at their summits, and recent liberal values-promoting declarations such as the Open Societies Statement suggest an even wider agenda.
Obviously, the Biden administration has been a leading protagonist in all this, with the U.S. president himself having not only invoked an overarching ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies, but also launched the Summits for Democracy (the first held in December 2021, the second set for March 2023). However, the DIIS report demonstrates how the like-mindedness agenda resonates among a much broader group of Western countries that are currently positioning themselves as strategic actors in the Indo-Pacific.
For its part, China’s government has dismissed U.S.-led Western coalition-building efforts in the Indo-Pacific as an “outdated Cold War script” aimed at “creating various sorts of small cliques by ganging up on others under the banner of ‘freedom and openness.’ ” But the stakes are high for Beijing as it risks being confronted with an increasingly united bloc of Western countries that strive to draw Indo-Pacific countries into their own sphere of influence. Ultimately, such identity-building practices could significantly reshape the geostrategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific and potentially sideline China despite its strong economic and infrastructural links to most countries in the region.
Perhaps this is why Beijing has recently pivoted away from its “wolf warrior” style of diplomacy and seemingly launched a charm offensive instead. Whether it will succeed in bringing the Western countries out of alignment in the Indo-Pacific remains to be seen.
This article is based on the author’s recent report for the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), “How the West builds a coalition of the like-minded in the Indo-Pacific.” Read the full report here.