By Siddharth Anil Nair*
At different points over the past decade, capitals and blocs around the world adopted the ‘Indo-Pacific’ discursively and in policy; essentially foregoing the older Asia-Pacific framework. The Indo-Pacific is geographically large—close to two-thirds of the globe—with around 60 per cent of the world’s population and economy. Global security today is viewed primarily through the Indo-Pacific lens. By definition, it is the most happening place on Earth.
How did this come to be? This review charts the trajectory of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, from conceptual infancy to defining foreign policy feature, over a nearly 10-year period. The primary motivator was China’s rise, which created the conditions for greater Eurasian participation in global collective security.
The Asia-Pacific and China’s Rise
In 2009, the Indo-Pacific idea was in its infancy. The global financial crisis accelerated its development. The East, not the West, was going to be the future of global growth. Western economies imploded, and Asian ones, led by China, emerged from the recession relatively unscathed. And, as Asian economies grew, so did their militaries.
Around 2011, capitals around the world, especially those at the global high table, recognised that the international system would now be reorienting to the East. This was validated by China becoming the world’s largest energy consumer and second-largest economy the following year.
In 2013, China embarked on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which would see it entrenched in Eurasia’s strategic architecture. Global trade and energy supply chains that first crisscrossed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Arabian Sea, gradually began to relocate towards the Western Pacific. However, maritime and territorial squabbles remerged, and geopolitical issues became more prominent.
By 2015, Beijing started to aggressively assert its “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea (SCS). With close to 40 per cent of global trade in its waters, the SCS dispute was, and is, contentious. China also operationalised its rapidly modernising and expanding naval force and securitised commercial interests.
A rising China’s revisionist and authoritarian ideas of world order were in contrast to the Washington-led, “open, free, rules-based” system. Beijing’s growing relationships with Moscow, Tehran, Islamabad, and Pyongyang, stoked further concern, particularly in democratic capitals. This cemented the notion that the Asia-Pacific was going to be the site for 21st century great power conflict.
Southeast Asia in the Middle
The Indo-Pacific is an amalgamation of otherwise distinct geographic and geopolitical spaces driven by two factors: a powerful China, and a not-so-powerful US. While Beijing helped anchor the importance of the Asia-Pacific framework, Washington ushered in the age of the Indo-Pacific.
The US had lost its strategic edge in multiple regions across Eurasia and the Western Pacific. The Asia-Pacific, home to two major territorial issues —Taiwan and the SCS—was the prime arena for competition.
In the meantime, Beijing worked to strengthen central control over autonomous territories. It changed social and cultural laws in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, and violently repressed democratic protests in Hong Kong. It also began to threaten Taiwan—the final step in Beijing’s quest for ‘reunification’. Intrusions into Taiwanese airspace and waters increased. China even sent in nuclear-capable bombers on multiple occasions. As a result, ties between Taipei and Washington grew. American ambiguity over collective defence was slowly chipped at.
There was also the issue of Southeast and East Asian developmental and territorial sovereignty. The BRI, with its debatable financial nature, was aimed at hobbling Asian and African economies, leaving many indebted to Beijing for decades.
China deployed armed maritime militias to harass Southeast Asian fishing folk; used these flotillas to swarm neighbouring islands; refused freedom of passage to extra-regional and regional navies; and built artificial dual-use reefs across the littoral landscape. In the past three years, Chinese vessels have begun to venture beyond the Western Pacific. Fleets have been found in South American waters engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
The strength of the US security umbrella in the Western Pacific was brought into question, turning international attention to Southeast Asia. The straits that meandered through the region, connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans, were as important as the SCS itself. Regional collective security hinged on the integrity of sea lanes of communication (SLOC) in the area. In the face of a rising China and waning US, the international community pursued greater strategic economic and military ties with Southeast Asian countries —their security, in many ways, meant global security. “ASEAN centrality” was a belief no longer bound to Southeast Asia.
By the middle of the decade, democracies from New Delhi to Washington were actively participating in the Southeast Asian security discourse. India, for example, repackaged its Look East Policy as the Act East policy in 2014, and pursued greater engagement with Southeast and East Asia, rooted in the idea of the Indo-Pacific.
India and the Indo-Pacific
Recognising its declining power and the need to revamp its Asian relations, the US, with Japan, pushed for a newer, broader conception of security in the East. It was to be couched in the democratic principles of freedom, fairness, and openness, and building shared capacity to protect the upholding of these principles. India was the only other Asian power with the relative means and will to counter China’s aggressive behaviour. It is here that the Indo-Pacific found water.
Back in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during a speech to the Indian parliament, put forward the idea of collective security focused on a “…‘broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries”—a transregional form of development, connectivity, and security from South to East Asia. It was also around the same time that the US, India, Japan, and Australia initiated an informal grouping known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD). The ‘Indo-Pacific’ as we know it today exists as a result of the interactions and exchanges between these four states and others in the region.
India’s concern in Asia was, as it continues to be, a stronger China with an encroaching mentality. Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) continue to worsen, and have become more frequent and intense over the years. Notable incursions were the 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident, 2014 Demchok standoff, 2015 Burtse face-off, the 2017 Doklam standoff, and the recent 2020 Galwan Valley clash. The last clash, which saw Indian and Chinese troop casualties, has made the Galwan Valley—like the Taiwan Strait—a flashpoint for heightened conflict. While disengagement talks continue, both parties have accelerated their infrastructure and military development plans in the region.
Continental threats aside, China also entered the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), adding to long-term Indian insecurity. Through the BRI, China developed the so-called “string of pearls” in the region; a series of deep-sea ports, railway lines, highways, airports, and energy conduits aimed at establishing a permanent presence. It also ramped up its naval presence, surveying and operating in critical regional choke points. All these events finally tipped the power scales in China’s favour.
In response, New Delhi began pursuing policies aimed at achieving comprehensive power in the subcontinent and the IOR. The now-famous Malabar Exercise was expanded several times over the decade. They started taking place in regions beyond the Indian Ocean. Japan became a permanent member in 2015 and Australia returned in 2020, participating as the fourth permanent member. Additionally, military and developmental cooperation with other Southeast Asian countries were expanded in minilateral formats.
The relevance and significance of the Indo-Pacific is thus fundamentally tied to China’s aggressive actions and India’s rise on the global stage.
The Past Three Years
In the past three years, the Indo-Pacific has become the most important foreign policy vehicle to those that emphasise a free, fair, rules-based international order. It is obvious why: in 2017, China was officially termed a “competitor nation” by the US.
As a result, regional and extra-regional actors have begun to invest a great deal in the concept. In 2017, Washington officially renamed its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command. The same year, Tokyo included the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ within its “Arc of Prosperity” policy, and Canberra published a Foreign Policy White Paper focused solely on the Indo-Pacific. Japan also convened a high-level foreign minister meeting with QSD members during the ASEAN Summit later that year.
In 2019, New Delhi established a separate Indo-Pacific division under the Ministry of External Affairs, and ASEAN published its joint 2019 “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”. The latter was designed to reinforce the concept of ‘ASEAN centrality’ in the region, at least from the organisation’s own perspective, while validating the Indo-Pacific framework itself. Others in Europe also adopted the Indo-Pacific to counter China, considered by now a “systemic rival.” By the tail-end of 2020, France, Germany, and the Netherlands had announced their strategies for the Indo-Pacific. The UK followed the next year. Defence partnerships among these actors were also further strengthened to varying degrees, with the signing of many logistics, acquisition, and intelligence-sharing agreements.
2010-2020 witnessed radical changes in the global balance of power. Strategic competition moved from covert to overt. The twin trends of nationalism and regionalism generated greater insecurity, resulting in a world that was constantly reorienting itself. Even though the US remains at the head of the global high-table, others, like China, have begun actively seeking more assertive and influential roles. The ‘imbalance’ created by the rise of China required a new geo-conceptual framework. Thus, the Indo-Pacific.
The past 10 years can be considered the first Indo-Pacific decade—perhaps the first of many to come.
*Siddharth Anil Nair is Research Assistant with IPCS’ South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP).