The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America placed the Indo-Pacific region at the top of its agenda due to the “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order taking place” from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States. This concept —rather than that of Asia Pacific— has been used by President Trump and members of his cabinet, such as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, since then.
But what’s in a name? As an ancient Chinese proverb says, the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name, and this reformulation of the idea of the region clearly illustrates the changing security landscape of the area that covers both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This situation, of course, has motivated the emergence of a new security architecture, that means, according to Tow & Taylor’s definition, a “comprehensive security structure for a geographically-defined area, which facilitates the resolution of that region’s policy concerns and achieves its security objectives”.
This quest to address regional security concerns is not new, as the usage of the Indo-Pacific concept goes back to 2007 when it was formally introduced by Captain Gurpreet S. Khurana in his article Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India–Japan Cooperation and endorsed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that same year in his speech to the Indian Parliament in which he highlighted the importance of the confluence of the seas and the need to create an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating like-minded nations such as the United States and Australia, in order to allow “people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely”. And that’s how, driven by this objective, India, Japan, Australia, and the United States held their first joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean and initiated the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
Although this informal forum only lived for a year before the then Australian Prime Minister withdrawn from it to avoid the wrath of Beijing, it was recently revived with the aim of strengthening and putting flesh on the bones of the Indo-Pacific idea. But, what is the main security concern for these four countries that has encouraged them to reinitiate the dialogue? The straight-forward answer is China.
The Indo-Pacific was originally conceived as a geopolitical tool to bring freedom, prosperity, and stability to the region. Yet, at the same time, it has always been about balancing the rise of China and avoiding Chinese expansionism in the form of a permanent naval and military presence in both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. In this sense, this term has a significant strategic relevance, because, as Rory Medcalf has stated, it is the chief conceptual challenge to the idea of One Belt and One Road, the China-centric vision of the extended region, and also the way to reduce the salience of the idea of the Asia-Pacific, essentially an East Asia-centric order that had come to suit China because it tended to exclude its emerging rival, India.
Given that regions, as Christopher Hemmer and Peter Katzenstein argue, are social constructions created through politics and are not fixed by geography, they can be transformed by the shape and shaping of international politics. The attempt to replace the idea of the Asia-Pacific with that of the Indo-Pacific is a clear example of this.
Therefore, the emerging Asian strategic system that encompasses both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, is being defined in part by the geographically expanding interests and reach of countries such as China and India, but also by the continued strategic role and presence of the United States and its like-minded allies Japan and Australia, two countries that conceive themselves as regional security architects.
Consequently, whether this new idea of the region could be embraced or not as a useful construct able to make of the region an area free from intimidation and open to attractive economic opportunities will depend mostly on how it is constructed by the identities, converging interests, and behaviours of all the powers in the region. In this regard, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and a potential economic corridor can play a crucial role in solving policy concerns that are resulting from the assertive ways in which China is projecting its rise as a global power to persuade other states to heed its political, economic, and security agenda.
Hence, if the Indo-Pacific is to succeed, the United States, along with India, Japan, and Australia, must develop infrastructure investment initiatives that can represent a clear alternative to China’s Belt and Road, and strengthen their military and diplomatic cooperation so they can step up to the challenges posed by Chinese actions in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Otherwise, the new concept will be nothing but a failed strategy instead of a solid reality.
Header Image: Creative Commons
Miguel Alejandro Híjar-Chiapa is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Centre for North American Studies of the Pacific Studies Department, University of Guadalajara, in Mexico, and President of the Australian and New Zealand Studies Association of North America. His research focuses on International Relations Theory and the Foreign and Defence Policies of the Anglosphere countries.