The term “Indo-Pacific” has become widely resonant as a diplomatic and geopolitical construct, especially at the highest levels of Australian, Indian, Japanese, and US governments.
Being expansive in scope and emphasis, the Indo-Pacific construct is not entirely different from the rhetorical operation of the “Asia-Pacific,” which was popularised to accentuate the role of the US in Asia in the 1990s. Against this backdrop, some wonder whether the “Indo-Pacific” is “just a code for balancing against or excluding China.”
For India, its support for the Indo-Pacific construct complements its need to develop strategic deterrence vis-à-vis China and bolster its “Act East Policy,” which aims to foster greater economic and security engagements with East Asia. Not surprisingly, in the Asean-India Commemorative Summit held last month in New Delhi, India announced steps to promote greater maritime cooperation with Southeast Asian nations.
For the US, the Indo-Pacific construct is strategically oriented toward China through strong collaboration with US allies and partners. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson mentioned that India and the US are the “bookends” in the Indo-Pacific region and are keys to “great coordination between the Indian, Japanese and American militaries.”
Donald Trump’s “America First” policy coincides with the Indo-Pacific construct due to relative gains considerations. First, the US seeks to revitalise its economic and industrial power by addressing US trade deficits and unfair trade practices by countries such as China.
The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) stated that, “economic security is national security” and that China and Russia are “rival powers,” that aim to “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
More recently, in Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Latin America, he boldly evoked the “Monroe Doctrine” and warned about China’s “imperial ambitions” in the continent. Second, Washington seeks to maintain its status and influence as the preeminent power in the world. This is evident in Trump’s championing of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War slogan of “Peace through Strength,” which implies that the balance of power will remain in the US’s favor and global peace will be maintained on US terms.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) was specific on the need to reinforce the traditional tools of US diplomacy where the Defense Department “provides military options to ensure the President and [US] diplomats negotiate from a position of strength” because “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”
While many seem to believe that Washington has turned isolationist and renounced global leadership, US strategic and military presence in the Asia-Pacific region remains intact and deeply engaged.
The US continues to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and keeps economic and military pressure on North Korea.
Although the preference for economic bilateralism, withdrawal from multilateral environmental commitments, and Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks have affected US credibility as a global leader. The NSS and NDS also recognise the importance of strengthening Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships in preserving the US competitive edge and strategic advantage.
To a large extent, the Obama administration’s norm-building through a “principled security network” and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s “Democratic Security Diamond” or “ Democratic Alliance” in the form of the Quad remain in place. Noticeably, all countries in the Quad have prominent disputes with China, which make their interests strategically aligned.
Given the pattern of interested parties and shared interests in the “Indo-Pacific” and the “Quad,” it is not impossible that such regimes may expand and include other like-minded countries in the region.
Aaron Jed Rabena is program convener at Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Manila and associate fellow at the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations. This commentary first appeared in PacNet.