Indo-Pacific: from construct to contest
24 Jun 2019|

‘Indo-Pacific’ has shifted from a geographic construct to an arena for mounting contest—and the label for a US strategy.

The journey from construct to competition has been short and sharp.

At the start of this decade, ‘Asia–Pacific’ was the dominant geographic descriptor. That geographic understanding stood not too uncomfortably in the vicinity of the idea of the ‘Asian century’, the vision China’s Deng Xiaoping raised with India’s Rajiv Gandhi when they met in 1988. The US preferred ‘America’s Pacific century’, but it seemed more a question of perspective than dangerous difference. Australia easily embraced both the Asia–Pacific and the Asian century.

Any sense of comfort has fallen away as the use of ‘Indo-Pacific’ has zoomed up the charts over the past five years. The descriptors are no longer gently touching or rubbing along easily.

The uneasy jests and questions tell some of the story about the construct competition.

Jest 1: The Indo-Pacific puts two oceans together to squeeze out Asia—or ‘two oceans drowning Asia’. Not much Asia-for-Asians joy there.

Coming at the same crunch from the other side of the Pacific, the cover of the latest Foreign Affairs shows an American bald eagle shedding feathers, with the headline, ‘What happened to the American century?’ Plenty of people are asking versions of the ‘what happened’ question.

Jest 2 concerns ASEAN’s edgy effort to agree on an Indo-Pacific ‘concept’, which is now arriving at the uneasy embrace of an Indo-Pacific ‘outlook’. ASEAN proclaims its centrality, yet the Indo-Pacific outlook shows it’s easier just to stand out and look.

The Shangri-La defence dialogue revealed the Indo-Pacific spectrum, ranging from those who still question the construct to those who now proclaim the strategy.

As I noted last week, ASEAN peers, picks and pokes at the Indo-Pacific because the US proclamation of the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) has electrified the idea. The IP (intellectual property) of the FOIP sparks and surges.

One of the few policy footnotes of the short leadership of acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is that at the very moment he stood to speak at Shangri-La, the US released its Indo-Pacific strategy report.

Shanahan may be gone, but the FOIP is up and running. See Peter Jennings’ discussion of the strategy report.

The most high-profile questioning of the Indo-Pacific idea at Shangri-La was in Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s keynote speech, worrying about efforts to ‘create rival blocs, deepen fault lines or force countries to take sides’.

The most detailed questioning was in the annual Asia–Pacific regional security assessment, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

It’s called the Asia–Pacific assessment, but four of the 12 chapters have the term Indo-Pacific in their titles. When I asked about Indo-Pacific versus Asia–Pacific tensions, Dr Tim Huxley, executive director of IISS–Asia and one of the document’s editors, replied that Indo-Pacific is ‘not a neutral term’ and is ‘value-laden and politically charged’. That was a view discussed in the first chapter of the assessment: ‘The United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’.

The chapter calls the FOIP a work in progress that reflects US President Donald Trump’s ‘erratic and idiosyncratic style of diplomacy’. The IISS judges that the FOIP strategy ‘aims at recalibrating trade and investment relationships; competing with and in some areas confronting China; and reassuring like-minded states as best Washington can, given the circumstances’.

The FOIP is described as an amalgam, based on a compromise between Trump’s ‘America first’ agenda and long-established policies favoured by the Washington bureaucracy.

The IISS suggests that among the Quad countries (the US, Australia, Japan and India), Australia’s response to the FOIP ‘was arguably the most muted’, even though Australia has been using Indo-Pacific language since the 2013 defence white paper.

Australia views the Indo-Pacific as a unified strategic space where it seeks a regional rules-based order. A US–China trade war and a shift to US transactional bilateralism ‘may affect both Australia’s economy and that order’.

The IISS describes a series of challenges facing the evolution of the FOIP:

  • Trump’s ‘capricious and unpredictable method of conducting diplomacy’
  • clear tension between the administration’s proponents of ‘America first’ and the traditional preferences of the US national security bureaucracy
  • China’s response.

In the chapter’s penultimate paragraph, the IISS judges:

The FOIP has put all off-balance, and all stakeholders are hedging as a result, including China. While many in Canberra, New Delhi, Seoul, Tokyo and beyond welcome a more competitive US approach to China, doubts in the region about Washington’s resolve and about the relative erosion of US economic and military power persist. The spectre of a US–China grand bargain, inimical to the interests of others, also lingers, partly because Trump has repeatedly said he hopes the two powers might agree on one. As a result, US allies and partners are exploring ways of collaborating to protect their interests and defend all or some of the rules-based order.

The institute points to how Trump frequently questions alliances and is always looking for a deal. The destination the Indo-Pacific could be heading for, the IISS concludes, is ‘a fundamental reshaping of the region security order, with China playing a more dominant role’.