Global powers show renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region, but should resist piling on with geopolitical intentions.
By Donald K. Emmerson*
The 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore might as well have been renamed the “Indo-Pacific Dialogue.” In the plenaries and the panels, in the Q&As, corridors, and coffee breaks, not even the imminent Trump-Kim summit hosted by Singapore could compete with the “Indo-Pacific” among the attendees. Although the toponym itself is old, its sudden popularity is new, reflecting new geopolitical aspirations for the region.
What explains the latest revival and rise of the “Indo-Pacific” in the international relations of Asia? What does the term now mean, and why does it matter? In March, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the “Indo-Pacific” as “an attention-grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like ocean foam.” Is he right? And is the “Indo-Pacific” purely maritime, or does it have legs on land as well? Is the strategy Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s way of labeling his shift from “looking east” to “acting east” – and perhaps his hope of looking and acting westward past Pakistan toward Africa as well? Does the term frame a potential rival to China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road? Is it an American rebranding of former President Barack Obama’s “pivot” or “rebalance” toward Asia? In the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” that Washington favors, what do the adjectives imply? Is the “Indo-Pacific” a phoenix – a Quadrilateral 2.0 meant to reunite Australia, India, Japan and the US in leading roles? Could the strategy someday morph into a five-sided “win-win” arrangement with “Chinese characteristics”?
Understandably, the officials who spoke at Shangri-La preferred not delve into such controversial and speculative questions. Satisfactory answers to some of them are not possible, let alone plausible, at least not yet. But the dialogue, a summit on Asian security, did stimulate thought and discourse about just what the “Indo-Pacific” means, for whose purposes, and to what effect.
It is easy to load the “Indo-Pacific” with geopolitical intent. Having accepted the invitation to keynote the dialogue on 1 June, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to speak at Shangri-La since the event’s inception in 2002. Many at the gathering read the prefix “Indo-“ as a geopolitical invitation to India to partner more explicitly with states in an “Asia-Pacific” region from which it had been relatively absent, and thereby to counterbalance China within an even larger frame.
Perhaps aiming to mend relations with China after the Wuhan summit, held in April, Modi unloaded the loaded term. “The Indo-Pacific,” he said, “is a natural region.… India does not see [it] as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be.” Modi flattened the Indo-Pacific to a mere page in an atlas – the two dimensions of a map – while widening it to include not only all of the countries located inside “this geography” but “also others beyond who have a stake in it.” Modi thus drained the toponym of controversially distinctive meaning. India’s rival China could hardly object to being included in a vast “natural” zone innocent of economic or political purpose or design.
Not so, countered US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Unlike Modi, he explicitly linked ideology to geography by repeatedly invoking a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Nor did these qualifiers apply only to external relations – a state’s freedom from foreign interference and its freedoms of navigation and overflight under international law. For Mattis, “free and open” implied internal democracy as well – a state’s accountability to an uncensored society. In Singapore during his question-and-answer period, Mattis acknowledged the “free and open press” that had thronged to cover the dialogue.
In corridor conversations, understandings of the “Indo-Pacific” ranged widely, from an inoffensively natural region on the one hand, to a pointedly ideological one on the other. Will the real Indo-Pacific please stand up?
The rise of the “Indo-Pacific” in American policy discourse amounts to a rejection, a resumption, and a desire. Because Donald Trump cannot abide whatever his predecessor did or said, Barack Obama’s “rebalance” to the “Asia-Pacific” could not survive. The “Indo-Pacific” conveniently shrinks Obama’s “Asia” to a hyphen while inflating the stage on which a celebrity president can play. Yet Mattis also, without saying so, reaffirmed the result of Obama’s “pivot” to Asia by assuring his audience that “America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater.” Alongside that rejection-cum-resumption, the prefix “Indo-” embodies the hope that India as a major power can help rebalance America’s friends against what Mattis called China’s “intimidation and coercion,” notably in the South China Sea.
In Honolulu, en route to the dialogue, Mattis had added the prefix to the US Pacific Command – now the Indo-Pacific Command. But continuity again matched change in that the renamed INDOPACOM’s area of responsibility was not extended west of India to Africa. As for Modi, while recommitting his country to “a democratic and rules-based international order,” both he and Mattis ignored the Quad – the off-and-on-again effort to convene the United States, India, Japan and Australia as prospective guardians and agents of the Indo-Pacific idea.
The first effort to create the Quad died at the hands of Beijing and Canberra. Quietly in May 2007, on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in Manila, the four governments met at a sub-cabinet level, followed that September by an expanded Malabar naval exercise in the Indian Ocean among the four along with Singapore. Early in 2008, however, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, bowing to pressure from Beijing, withdrew Australia from Quad 1.0 and it collapsed.
It took the subsequent up-building and arming of land features in the South China Sea by China to re-embolden the quartet. Beijing’s maritime militancy, Trump’s disdain for Obama-style “strategic patience,” the worsening of Japan’s relations with China, and alarm in Australia over signs of Beijing’s “sharp power” operations there all came together to motivate a low-key, low-level meeting of a could-be Quad 2.0 on the margins of another ASEAN gathering in Manila in November 2017.
The question now is whether the quartet will reconvene in Singapore during the upcoming November ASEAN summitry and if it does, whether the level of representation will be nudged upward to cabinet status. Trump’s addiction to bilateralism, mano a mano, may be tested in this four-way context. Or his one-on-one real-estate developer’s proclivity could cripple the Quad from the start.
More grandiose is the idea that the “Indo-Pacific” could shed its cautionary quote marks and become a rubric for building infrastructure on a scale rivaling China’s own Belt and Road Initiative to lay down railroads, roads and ports from Kunming potentially to Kenya. That surely is, so to speak, a bridge too far.
In short, the temptation to read multilateral diplomatic content into a map of the “Indo-Pacific” drawn in Washington should be resisted. Having objected to any reference to “the rules-based international order” in the June G7 communiqué that he refused to sign, Trump is unlikely to fit the “Indo-Pacific” into any such frame. Nor is it likely to think that he would wish to augment a resuscitated Quad by adding China. Not to mention that Beijing might fail to see the humor in belonging to a five-sided “Pentagon,” the name of which is a metonym for the American Department of Defense.
*Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University where he is also affiliated with the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
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