Goodbye Pacific Rim, Hello Indo-Pacific?

In recent years, the term “Indo-Pacific” has been used more and more frequently. According to some analysts, it is replacing the well-established concept of the Asia-Pacific region, reflecting a new balance of power in Asia. Beijing is suspicious of the fact that the Indo-Pacific concept is being actively promoted by Washington, believing that its ultimate goal is to contain China. We are investigating whether or not this is so – and whether Russia should be wary of the emergence of a new regional construct.

“Indo-Pacific” appeared for the first time as a geostrategic concept in a January 2007 article by analyst Gurprit Khurana for the magazine Strategic Analysis. The author, an Indian naval captain, postulates that for India, the safety of sea routes has become more and more important, since almost all of its foreign trade, including the import of energy resources, is by sea. Japan is in a similar situation – and therefore, in his opinion, the interests of the two countries will increasingly converge, which will lead to the creation of a special political and economic community uniting the two oceans.

The Indo-Pacific notion immediately gained recognition in India – if only because the concept of “Asia-Pacific” categorically did not suit Indians. In a publication dedicated to the tenth anniversary of the article “Safety of sea routes: prospects for Indian-Japanese cooperation,” Khurana quoted the former chief of staff of the Indian Navy, Aruna Prakash, who, speaking in 2009 at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum, said:

Every time I hear about the Asia-Pacific region, it seems to me, as an Indian, that my country is left out of the box. This region seems to include northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, and ends at the Strait of Malacca. But the whole world begins west of the Strait of Malacca.

The new term appeared at an opportune time: India was becoming increasingly aware of itself as an independent actor in the global arena, which was reflected in the national consciousness. As for Japan, at the beginning of the 21st century, it was already headed for rapprochement with India. Also in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke about the special role of the two countries in Asia in an address to the Indian parliament. He called for the creation of an “arc of freedom and well-being” along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent. The Indo-Japanese partnership, according to Abe, should be built on “common values, such as freedom, democracy and respect for fundamental human rights, as well as strategic interests”. The Japanese prime minister painted a grand picture – through their joint efforts, the two countries would create a new “open and transparent” community of freedom and democracy that will unite the entire Pacific region, including the United States and Australia, and ensure the free movement of people, goods, capital and knowledge.

“Confluence of the Two Seas” Speech by H.E.Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan at the Parliament of the Republic of India
By Japan and India coming together in this way, this “broader Asia” will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.

The word “China” was not heard in Abe’s speech even once, but both parties understood each other perfectly. The “arc of freedom” neatly bypasses the PRC, and the Asian giant remains outside the brackets of the “wide open Asia” that the Japanese prime minister spoke of.

During his second term in office, Abe perfected this concept, making Indo-Pacific a central theme of Japan’s security policy, economic aid and investment, writes Robert Manning, author of the Valdai Paper “United States Indo-Pacific Strategy: Myths and Reality.” In a 2016 speech, Abe defined this concept, explaining that “the goal of this strategy is to turn the Indo-Pacific region into a zone free from violence and coercion, where the rule of law reigns and where the market economy rules, ensuring regional prosperity”. The three main pillars, according to Tokyo, are: values and principles – democracy, the rule of law, free markets and the improvement of physical and institutional connectedness; safety and stability; and ensuring freedom of navigation.

Another country where the new concept was adopted with enthusiasm was Australia, which is logical, given that the country is actually washed by the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, despite being on the periphery of the newly-imagined region. For more than a decade, the economic development of the country has relied on trade with China, and in recent years Australian policymakers have been increasingly talking about the influence of Beijing on the nation’s domestic policy. Becoming overly dependent on “undemocratic” and “unfree” China is the main nightmare of the elites of one of the most “Western” countries in the southern hemisphere.. In 2013, the country's White Paper on Defence noted: “The continuing rise of China as a global power, the growing economic and strategic weight of East Asia, and India’s imminent transformation into a global power are all key trends affecting the development of the Indian Ocean region as being of heightened strategic importance. Taken together, these trends contribute to the formation of the Indo-Pacific region as a single strategic arc.”

As for the United States, the first mention of the Indo-Pacific by their officials was in 2010. “We understand how important the Indo-Pacific basin is for global trade,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, emphasising the importance of the interaction between the US Navy and India in the Pacific. At long last, “Indo-Pacific” entered the American foreign policy lexicon with Donald Trump. It was during his presidency that the format of the quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD), proposed by Shinzo Abe back in 2007, was revived. In November 2017, Trump took part in two important East Asian forums over the course of several days: the APEC summit in Da Nang, Vietnam and the ASEAN summit in Manila, Philippines. As Valdai Club expert Viktor Sumsky wrote, in public statements, Trump made no mention of the Pacific Rim, a key feature of APEC rhetoric, speaking instead about the Indo-Pacific region. A working meeting among the diplomats of four countries on the sidelines of the East Asian Summit caused a wave of publications about the formation of a new security configuration in the region – directed against China.

It must be said that Beijing perceived the very first consultations in the quadrilateral format as being directed against China, and reacted with lightning speed. On the eve of the meeting, the representatives of Australia, India, the US and Japan in Manila on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in May 2007, China sent a note to each of the four countries. Beijing’s attitude toward the Indo-Pacific concept was and remains negative, and is characterised by Valdai club expert Zhao Huasheng as one of “coldness and suspicion.”

But can it really be considered anti-Chinese? To what extent are the QUAD members attempting to contain China or confront it? Looking ahead, let’s say: no one wants confrontation, but there are nuances.

The idea of the ​​Indo-Pacific has an anti-Chinese sound only as interpreted by Washington, says Valdai Club expert Alexei Kupriyanov, a researcher at IMEMO RAN. “In the US interpretation, the Indo-Pacific is structured around the QUAD as a prototype of a defensive alliance that operates in the most acceptable form to other participating states – without commitments and exclusively through informal consultations,” he says. “The United States wants to demonstrate its interest in this project without extra spending and commitment, by trying to establish an anti-China alliance with the participation of India and Australia.”

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In turn, India seeks to maximize the use of Americans as a counterweight to China, the expert said. Delhi does not want to get too close to Washington and commit itself – and at the same time wants to increase its economic and political ties with Japan. “India is trying to maintain a balance between the US and China,” says Kupriyanov. “Although India’s political and military leaders are emphatically anti-China, its economic interests require cooperation with China. Although India bluntly rejects the idea of becoming China’s junior partner, it does not intend to take part in any anti-Chinese actions outside the Indian Ocean. ”

Japan is in a similar situation. According to Kupriyanov, it has to simultaneously cooperate and compete with China. “In addition, Japan is interested in access to the promising markets of the African countries and preserving its positions in Southeast and South Asia.

In August 2018, Indonesia announced its own vision of Indo-Pacific, and this was an interesting turn in the development of the concept. “ The importance of this step is hard to overestimate,” writes Kupriyanov. “For a decade, the ASEAN states denied the Indo-Pacific region the right to exist, fearing that the new geopolitical construct would destroy the familiar, well-known Asia-Pacific region, in which ASEAN had already staked out a key role. The decision of Indonesia, which claims to be the unofficial leader of the Association, to abandon this practice and henceforth build its policy within an Indo-Pacific framework means that one of the most serious opponents of the Indo-Pacific construct has moved to the camp of its supporters, and others will follow. ”

This step was quite logical, since it is Indonesia that serves as a link between the Indian and Pacific oceans. It is noteworthy that its vision of the Indo-Pacific region has no anti-Chinese overtones. As can be seen, the US desire to create an alliance against Beijing contradicts the objective interests of other countries of the region being created. They not only do not want confrontation with China, but also realize that trade and economic ties with the Asian giant are the key to their successful development.

However, Washington is aware of the reluctance of Asian countries to enter direct confrontation with China. Therefore, the system of restraining China's regional ambitions will be “elegant and subtle”, rather than taking the form of a defensive alliance, wrote Valdai club expert Anton Tsvetov in March 2018. Despite the continuing statements about shared values, the nature of the union, the backbone of which will remain the QUAD, will be pragmatic. This is quite natural, given that a number of states that are concerned about the strengthening of China do not fall into the category of “free” and “democratic” at all. We are talking primarily about Vietnam, which is actively developing relations with the United States and with India, despite the differences in political systems. This transition to pragmatism is reflected in the fact that the Indo-Pacific region is less and less often categorized in terms of “maritime democracies”, notes Tsvetov: “instead of this phrase, the expression ‘like-minded states’ is used.” 

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It is interesting to look at how countries from this still largely imaginary region look at Chinese infrastructure projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In Asia, this initiative is perceived ambiguously: both as a chance for development, and as a means of promoting Beijing’s influence. In February 2018, the QUAD member countries first addressed the creation of alternatives to the Chinese initiative, and the development of “quality infrastructure” was among the themes during the Japanese presidency of the G20. The term “quality”, as you might guess, means infrastructure created not under the leadership of China or with Chinese money. So far, the results have been rather modest, but this does not mean that in the future the two projects will not be able to compete, for the benefit of the countries which receive infrastructure assistance.

“Currently, the BRI and the ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific region are competing initiatives,” says Samir Saran, President of the Indian Observer Analytical Centre Research Foundation. However, the real choice will be made by developing states, who are currently leveraging both initiatives to obtain better deals. It’s not inconceivable that in the long term, some multilateral arrangement will accommodate both initiatives. The ‘viability’ of these competing propositions will depend on which resonates more with the development and security needs of developing states in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. In the short term, both will co-exist and compete.”

Japan, despite being one of the key countries interested in creating an alternative to the Belt and Road, is “inclined to cooperate with China on the BRI to advance its own commercial interests,” adds Saran. As for India, it does not plan to participate in the BRI, believing that this project undermines its sovereignty and makes it difficult to defend interests in other areas. “On the other hand, China can become the largest investor in the economy of India. Delhi will have to pursue a steadfast course in foreign policy and develop economic cooperation with China,” the expert emphasises.

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The Indo-Pacific project is only considered by Washington as a zero-sum game, says Alexei Kupriyanov: “For the US, freezing or liquidating all Chinese infrastructure and trade initiatives is beneficial, as it undermines China’s economic and political opportunities, destroys its safe rear, and forces resources and funds to be removed from the main, from the American point of view, theatre – the Pacific Ocean.”

For the rest of Asia, Indo-Pacific offers an alternative to the land projects of the Belt and Road. “It is quicker and easier to transport some goods by land and others by sea. If there is a problem with one, the other could compensate. The Indo-Japanese-Indonesian version of the Indo-Pacific and the Belt and Road project could be integrated if both sides are interested and have the political will: both initiatives increase Eurasia’s transport potential.”

That is why Russia should closely monitor the implementation of the Indo-Pacific concept, seeing in it not as a threat, but a chance for itself. “Russia should support the Indo-Japanese-Indonesian view of the Indo-Pacific as a maritime Eurasia to counterweigh the US concept of it as a space for an anti-China alliance. It is necessary to uphold the inclusive character of the Indo-Pacific (probably including renaming the concept the Indo-Asia-Pacific) and to facilitate China’s involvement in it,” Kupriyanov says.

“The Indo-Pacific project gives Moscow leverage with China in Eurasia,” believes Samir Saran, reflecting India’s traditional concern about the close ties between Moscow and Beijing. “Currently, Russia is subservient to China's economy and, by consequence, its political vision. Moscow should recognize that while China may seek a multipolar world, its vision for Eurasia is unipolar. Russia will only benefit if both the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia are truly multipolar in their power structures.”

In this regard, questions arise regarding the quality of Russia’s relations with India and the ASEAN countries, as key participants in the region being created. This topic was discussed during two important events held by the Valdai Club in 2019: the Russia-India and Russia-Vietnam conferences. The participants have stated that there is a “demand for Russia” both in India and in Southeast Asia, but Russia’s ability to increase its economic and political presence in the region is limited. Moreover, the existing bias towards military technology cooperation (especially in relations with India) may result in the loss of strategic positions in the long run.

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Therefore, it is time for Russia to form its own vision of Indo-Pacific and, importantly, bring it to the countries of the region. “A provision to the effect that Russia’s regions in the Far East (Primorye Territory and Kamchatka) are an inalienable part of the Indo-Pacific should play a key role in this respect,” Kupriyanov says. “These regions should be viewed as gates to the north that can provide access to the wealth of northern Eurasia and the joining of great Eurasian overland routes with the sea routes along its southern coast. They should also be seen as gates to the Arctic, a storehouse of resources. The Far East should be positioned as one of the centers of attraction in the Indo-Pacific, its resource, scientific and, in perspective, also its production base.”

Thus, connecting to the Indo-Pacific project could provide for Russia an addition to its large-scale turn to the East. By providing an alternative to the main sea trade route of Eurasia, Indo-Pacific also fit into the logic of building a Greater Eurasia, as Moscow advocates. Washington’s attempts to “encircle” China run up against the resistance of regional powers that do not want confrontation with Beijing, as well as excessive US influence in Asia. The geostrategic landscape is changing rapidly, and the main thing for Russia is to keep up with these changes, taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.