Indo-Pacific views from Tokyo to Tonga
29 Mar 2021|

‘Global strategic focus has shifted to the Indo-Pacific. How the region handles the next few years will determine if it becomes the cradle of crises or solutions.’

— Cleo Paskal, Indo-Pacific strategies, perceptions and partnerships, Chatham House, March 2021

Editors often conjure a good yarn on a big issue by dispatching journalists out to different places to ask the same question.

The contrasts and rhymes of diverse pubs, parishes and peoples do the alchemy, pulling the story together. Travel the miles and spend the time. Repeating a good question all over the place can turn up gold. It works as well for an academic research paper as a TV documentary.

Chatham House has just done this with a question for our times: the meaning and purposes of the Indo-Pacific. You’ll not be surprised that China looms large in the answer.

Chatham House talked to 200 experts in seven countries: the US, the UK, France, India, Tonga, Japan and China, recounted in Indo-Pacific strategies, perceptions and partnerships, by Cleo Paskal. The story she tells is how six nations regard the seventh, China.

The six aren’t as one on what the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is (the French policy community, characteristically, wants the term more clearly defined, while their Indian counterparts see benefits in ambiguity), but the six know what the construct is about: ‘[A]ll agree, to some degree or another, that the primary driver of increasing interest in the Indo-Pacific is China’s growing economic and strategic expansion.’

Looking out to 2024, the survey found three major themes:

  • Domestic divisionA constant in the six was concern that their national policies were fracturing over China, along the economic–security divide: ‘This fracture was impeding decisive and focused decision-making.’
  • An ‘extraordinary’ amount of uncertaintyIn the words of one US participant, ‘[T]here are more balls in the air than at any time since World War II.’
  • Hedging between the US and ChinaThe aim is to keep options as open as possible, but ‘the general sentiment was that, by 2024, hedging would be coming to an end as both Beijing and Washington increased pressure’.

The shock of the pandemic and the cascading impacts of China have united polities. Domestic divisions have diminished, Paskal writes, with more willingness to push back:

The pandemic has had such a severe economic effect in all six countries that the cost of some sort of ’decoupling’ from China can appear relatively minor in comparison. It seems less of an issue to rock the economic boat if that boat is already sinking.

The power of China and the expanding construct of the Indo-Pacific demand a response from even small capitals like Nuku‘alofa. Tonga switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1998, has substantial loans from Beijing, and joined the Belt and Road Initiative.

Paskal describes Tonga as ‘a clear example of increased strategic interest in Oceania, with the UK reopening its diplomatic mission there, Japan stepping up military engagement, and the US offering the country a partnership with the Nevada National Guard’.

For Nuku‘alofa, the surge in interest provides ‘more options’, which is the classic South Pacific stance. International interest means more potential donors; the skill is to play with all suitors, never settling for one. The more the merrier—Tonga wants to add India to the mix—is the established formula to achieve a balance between ‘partnerships and independence’.

On the other side of the world, France is ‘one of the least divided and most certain countries’ because its economic, political and defence outlooks are ‘closely aligned’. The aim is to shape its own Indo-Pacific reality, ‘unabashedly built around pragmatic French interests’. Paris may not be able to engage as widely in the Indo-Pacific, but it’s ‘likely to engage more deeply’. President Emmanuel Macron’s vision of a ‘Paris–Delhi–Canberra axis’ reaches into the Quad while not being in the Quad.

UK foreign policy is ‘undergoing epochal change’ and a ‘fundamental reassessment’. London’s view of China has toughened over Hong Kong and Huawei. The UK’s integrated review promises to deepen ‘engagement in the Indo-Pacific, establishing a greater and more persistent presence than any other European country’. Weigh that ambition against this comment on interviews in London: ‘When foreign policy participants were asked if the UK was a great power, there was often an awkward pause, followed by a variation on “not really”.’

Japan has the opposite problem: it’s a big player with the polite mien of a middle power. Paskal reckons a loss of trust in China as a long-term investment could substantially shift Tokyo’s position. But she ends with the familiar problem of whether Japan will step up as a big power or merely decline and recline:

It is possible that Japan will increasingly line up with its allies and partners in a stronger, rounded stance against Beijing. However, it is also possible that domestic economic and political lobbies will successfully weaken any effective pushback on China. Much will depend on the direction taken by Washington, and how that affects Tokyo.

India’s tone ‘has shifted substantially’, with much less hesitation in embracing the Quad. Paskal notes calls for an India–US ‘alliance’—though not the sort of alliance ‘recognized by lawyers’ but the sort ‘recognized by generals’. The June 2020 border conflict in the Himalayas saw popular opinion turn strongly against China:

A series of decisive actions took place, including banning Chinese apps on security grounds, restrictions on foreign direct investment, restrictions on visas for certain Chinese people, and a shift to a more forceful military strategy.

For India, as with everyone else, hedging behaviour is turning prickly, because the hedging space is contracting. ‘Countries are being forced to pick a side,’ Paskal writes, predicting ‘a new era of alliances and partnerships’.

The conclusion is a call for an Indo-Pacific charter, expressing a consensus on acceptable behaviour, rules and norms:

An Indo-Pacific Charter is one way to reduce domestic division, uncertainty and hedging by making clear internally and internationally what nations that sign stand for, in the same way as the Atlantic Charter did in 1941 … [T]he goal would be to create partnerships strong enough, and with enough levers (including economic), to dissuade nations that want to dominate unilaterally. That could mean economic boycotts or supply-chain redirecting, rather than naval blockades.