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China-US relations

‘Indo-Pacific’: containment ploy or new label for region beyond China’s backyard?

Analysts from five countries weigh in on the Trump administration’s move away from the conventionally used term ‘Asia-Pacific’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 November, 2017, 11:45am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 November, 2017, 8:49pm

As US President Donald Trump continues his first Asian trip, he and his administration appear to have pivoted in their approach to the region.

In official schedules and speeches, Trump and top US officials have begun using the term “Indo-Pacific” instead of the more conventional “Asia-Pacific”, embracing a concept seen as part of a policy to contain China.

Trump used the term during a press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and reportedly reached an agreement with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has promoted the concept since 2007, to build a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

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But China’s foreign ministry downplayed the US president’s affection for the terminology. Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the region remained important and had great potential, regardless of “whatever concept or term is employed”.

The “Indo-Pacific” label broadens the region’s concept, moving focus away from China – the key actor in “Asia-Pacific” – to emphasise India and the Indian Ocean. This framework paves the way for a quadrilateral alliance between the United States, Japan, Australia and India. It has gained support in those nations over the years, with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop saying she welcomed discussions to “maximise our opportunities within the Indo-Pacific region”.

The South China Morning Post asked five analysts from each of the five countries to weigh in on the term’s use.

Liu Zongyi, senior fellow at the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

Shanghai, China

The administration of former US president Barack Obama raised the “Indo-Pacific” concept, which emphasised India as the “pillar” of its policy in the Indo-Pacific region. But Obama’s regional policy was recognised as a “rebalance” of the Asia-Pacific.

Now that the Trump administration is using the term Indo-Pacific, there are three levels of significance. First, it reflects a differentiation of [Trump’s] policy from Obama’s. Second, the policy is a response to requests from Japan and other nations. Japan has been very active in working to establish a “free and open Indo-Pacific region”, particularly after the Communist Party’s national congress, as the United States, Japan and other countries are alarmed by China’s booming development momentum.

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The third reason is to further bolster India’s significance in US regional policy, using India as a check to China’s power and to help with the war in Afghanistan.

If the United States aims to contain China by creating a maritime alliance to counter China’s political, economic and military influence, then this Indo-Pacific policy will bring more conflict and turmoil to the region. Currently, the US’ Indo-Pacific policy is still rather vague. How much will the US invest in this policy? What is the future of India’s development? Both of these questions will have a decisive impact on this policy.

“Indo-Pacific” and “Asia-Pacific” are just different terms; the key point will be their substance.

Satu Limaye, director of the East-West Centre

Washington, United States

The term “Indo-Asia Pacific” has been used publicly in recent years by US military commanders who head the US Pacific Command. The term denotes an emphasis on the maritime space running from the Arabian Sea and eastern Africa into the Pacific Ocean. The Obama administration also used the term “Indo-Pacific”. So, there is a certain continuity in the use of the term. The term also allows [for the] inclusion of India in a more integral way for US relations with the wide region.

The implications are immediately twofold: emphasis on two oceans connotes a maritime focus and includes India [in] a more important role in overall regional policy. It also emphasises the shared focus with Japan.

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The US is generally receptive to the quadrilateral framework and has welcomed the trilaterals that undergird such a quad, including US-Japan-Australia, US-Japan-India and Japan-India-Australia. This is an element of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, not the purpose of the Indo-Pacific concept.

US-China relations are significant and important and complex and will not be shaped or fundamentally altered by the use of this strategic-geographic term. However, clearly China’s assertiveness in the maritime space, including the South and East China Seas, has given impetus to Japanese, Indian, US and even Australian receptivity to the term and their efforts to work together across that space.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation

New Delhi, India

Clearly, the US has interests in bringing India into the Asia-Pacific and there is no better way to indicate that larger role for India than by using the term Indo-Pacific. It is also the indication that the growth of China’s power now affects the wider region [rather] than China’s immediate neighbourhood.

It remains to be seen whether [the US’ strategy] is going to be a rhetorical stance or something more substantial. But clearly, this [terminology] is indicative of the US’ interests in seeing the Asian region in its entirety rather than dividing East Asia and South Asia.

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India has been somewhat sceptical of the concept because it hints at a closer regional alliance which includes the United States; but over time, India has become more comfortable with this. Whether India will continue using this term will depend on China’s behaviour. If China continues to be aggressive, then India is likely to embrace this more fully but if China becomes a more accommodative power, then the momentum towards the Indo-Pacific idea may fade.

[Whether it will affect New Delhi’s bilateral relationship with Beijing] entirely depends on China. If China is more understanding of India’s concerns, it will not affect Sino-Indian relations. But if China refuses to recognise the effects of its behaviour on its neighbours, the consequences can be quite negative.

Takashi Terada, international relations professor at Doshisha University

Kyoto, Japan; visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore

Amid growing concern over the credibility of US commitments in the region due to [Trump’s] preoccupation with the “America first” policy, as well as his strong inclination to bilateralism, the US has found a serious policy intellectual gap between [Trump’s] policy preferences and the regional political reality. This background – together with a substantial level of intimacy with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who originally developed the concept – encouraged the White House to accept and promote [the Indo-Pacific concept] as its own regional strategy.

First, the concept clarified the US position in Asian multilateralism – working together with Japan, as well as Australia and India, to promote the rule-based regional economic order. Second, the adoption reassured Japan, which had some suspicion over the US’ intention about their partnership. Finally, it also helped to reassure the other regional states, which welcome China’s economic engagement in the region but are cautious about its intention to use economic linkages to achieve its strategic interest.

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China’s growing economic influence, potentially rewriting the existing economic rules and norms, is a key factor behind the four nations coming closer. If [the Indo-Pacific] concept were developed as a counterbalancing mechanism against [China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”] with a different set of economic rules – based on freedom, openness, transparency and fairness – China would feel uncomfortable, resulting in harsher competition over regional economic hegemony. Yet, no concrete policy or institutional body has yet to emerge within the Indo-Pacific concept. There is a possibility that the Indo-Pacific concept will rapidly develop with more strategic elements by strengthening military and defence cooperation among the four nations.

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University

Canberra, Australia

I believe the US Administration has adopted this term out of a recognition that it is a realistic way to understand the changing regional dynamic in Asia. The fact is, China itself has adopted an Indo-Pacific strategy, even if it goes by the name of the Maritime Silk Road. I am sure that the efforts of Japan have had some influence – indeed, Japan, India and Australia have all been encouraging Washington to take a more Indo-Pacific view. The logic is that China is overextending into the Indian Ocean, a place where all key regional powers have interests and where India is the resident power. So managing China’s rise can only occur in this wider region, not solely in East Asia.

We can assume that the US will now place increased strategic weight on ties with India, and will look to develop an Indian Ocean dimension to its defence ties with Japan, Australia and others. We can also assume that the US will look for ways to support Japan and India in competing with China for influence. But potentially the US will also recognise the need to find ways to cooperate with China across this wider Indo-Pacific region.

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Australia has officially pursued an Indo-Pacific framework for its defence policy since 2013. Australia’s view of the Indo-Pacific is one that embeds relations with China in a wider regional order. We are not seeking to exclude China, but to ensure China does not dominate such a vast region.

The Indo-Pacific idea should not be an obstacle to a mutually respectful relationship between Australia and China. After all, China is the quintessential Indo-Pacific power. In many ways, it is the extension of China’s interests and power into the Indian Ocean that has brought about this new regional framework. Much will depend on whether China recognises that the Indo-Pacific is not an anti-China plot but rather a natural reflection of Australia’s own two-ocean geography.

(Comments have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity )