Pacific rivals vie for prize of India

Richard Halloran says the US and China are each trying to draw South Asia into their camp

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 6:16am

To the Confucian scholar Xunzi, writing in China 2,500 years ago, calling things by the right name was imperative. If things were properly named, he asserted, "there is no longer the danger of people's ideas not being understood". This concept of the "rectification of names" is as applicable today as it was in ancient times.

Take the vast region that is the area of operations for the US Pacific Command, which stretches from the US west coast to the east coast of Africa and from the North Pole to the South Pole. Until recently, that expanse was widely referred to as the "Asia-Pacific" region.

Now comes a subtle change in the name that suggests a more intense competition between the US and China as each seeks to draw India and the rest of South Asia into its camp.

In the late 1980s, Americans defined the "Asia-Pacific" region as China; Northeast Asia, meaning Japan, Korea and the Russian far east; Southeast Asia, the nations on the shores of the South China Sea; Australia and the Pacific islands. India and South Asia were largely ignored.

Today, however, without any fanfare, that area has been renamed the "Indo-Asia-Pacific" region. The focus of attention has been enlarged to take in India and the other nations of South Asia, plus the Indian Ocean through which passes two-thirds of the world's oil shipments and one-third of its bulk cargo each year.

The Pacific Command commander, Admiral Samuel Locklear, introduced the term "Indo-Asia-Pacific" in testimony before a congressional committee in March.

Americans are not alone in revising their terms. In Australia, whose west coast faces the Indian Ocean, a white paper on defence released this month launched the term "Indo-Pacific" as an emerging concept. It says the new term reflects India's new stature "as an important strategic, diplomatic, and economic actor" more engaged in regional frameworks.

China, with its expressed objection to being "contained", is keenly aware of the shift in strategic outlook and is seeking to counter it. Hence, the Indian foreign minister's recent visit to Beijing and Premier Li Keqiang's trip to India.

At the same time, however, US and Australian officials have privately questioned whether India is prepared to play a major international role. They said Indian politicians and bureaucrats seem stuck in the cold war days when India proclaimed that it was "non-aligned", pacifist, and aloof from the critical issues of the day.

Some critics have pointed to a recent issue of The Economist magazine, which concludes that, "Whereas China's rise is a given, India is still widely seen as a nearly-power that cannot quite get its act together."

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington