Is the much heralded ‘Asian Century’ now losing its significance with the US-led Indo-Pacific concept which seeks to redefine geographical boundaries?
Doung Bosba tries to answer this perplexing question.
On May 30, Defense Secretary James Mattis officially declared the renaming of the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command with the aim of concretizing and energizing the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy.
“America’s vision is shared by most nations in the region. For every state, sovereignty is respected, no matter its size and it’s a region open to investment and free, fair and reciprocal trade not bound by any nation’s predatory economics or threat of coercion, for the Indo-Pacific has many belts and many roads,” Mr Mattis said.
“Relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability. We stand by our partners and support their sovereign decisions, because all nations large and small are essential to the region if we’re to sustain stability in ocean areas critical to global peace,” he added.
“Further, in recognition of the increasing connectivity, the Indian and Pacific Oceans, today we rename the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command.”
Since the US launched this concept in its National Security Strategy (NSS) in December 2017, many countries have been struggling to figure out the real intention and institutional mechanism of this vague concept. Arguments among various countries, at the time, seemed like a contest of patent rights over the intellectual property of the concept.
The only thing that is clear is, according to the NSS, this concept is the US’s containment policy against the revisionist state, China. The above speech of Secretary Mattis reconfirmed this core intention when he said that, “the Indo-Pacific has many belts and many roads”, not just “One Belt, One Road” which was proposed by China in 2013.
Still, the Indo-Pacific concept is not as concrete as the X Article, formally titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, which was written by George F. Kennan in 1947, advocating a policy of containment of the Soviet Union and strong bulwark against the spread of communism.
Comparing with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), two major differences can be observed namely the absence of the economic aspect and exclusiveness of the Indo-Pacific.
Although some may argue that this concept is a balancing tool against China’s BRI, the development of the Indo-Pacific concept, so far, focuses more on geopolitical orientation and military and strategic interests, rather than economic aspects, which is the main interface of the BRI.
While the BRI has many implementing mechanisms such as the Belt and Road Forum, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Silk Road Fund, Mekong-Lancang Cooperation, etc., the Indo-Pacific, however, does not have any of these other than the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply the Quad, which includes the US, Japan, Australia and India.
Even among the Quad members, not all of them can be seen as explicitly supportive of being confrontational or all-out-against China as these countries are trying to balance their geopolitical, military and strategic, and economic interests.
Another aspect of the Indo-Pacific is exclusiveness. In the BRI, countries can opt in or opt out in terms of their engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative. India and Japan have their own free will to join the BRI. Malaysia can opt out by canceling the proposed multibillion-dollar high-speed railway link to Singapore. Myanmar has a choice to downsize the $10 billion port development project to avoid possible indebtedness. Cambodia has chosen not to request loan from AIIB due to the availability of other loans with better terms.
On another note, as a supporting mechanism for the BRI, the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation is complementary to Asean’s integration process by adopting the three pillars of Asean community building. In contrast, the Indo-Pacific, although it has the words “free” and “open”, does not include China and Asean. The Quad has been selective and restricted in nature and Asean centrality and the regional grouping itself is in danger of being sidelined under the Indo-Pacific.
The lingering questions are: What is the real nature of the Indo-Pacific? What is it trying to achieve? Who will take the leadership for this concept? Who will follow the US-led Indo-Pacific? What will be the implementing mechanisms of the concept?
With all these uncertainties, how does Asean fit in in this new concept? Is the much heralded “Asian Century” now losing its significance?
For any Asian, if it can be said so, there is nothing as weird as when Secretary Mattis said that he was visiting the Indo-Pacific when he made the trip to China, South Korea, and Japan in late June. It is perplexing and also disturbing that the US now is redefining geographical boundaries to serve its own narrow interests.
Doung Bosba is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh