What’s in a Name?: Strategy Behind the “Indo-Pacific”

Throughout his tour of Asia in November 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the region through which he travelled not as the “Asia-Pacific,” but rather as the “Indo-Pacific.”  While other American presidents have spoken of the “Indo Pacific” before, they did so infrequently. Trump’s continuous use of the term prompted some to speculate whether it offered a clue to the future of American strategy in the region.

Only a week later, Australia released a new white paper that embedded the term “Indo-Pacific” into its broad foreign policy objectives. The white paper made mention of the “Indo-Pacific” 74 times and the “Asia-Pacific” only four times. In contrast, Australia’s prior foreign-policy white paper, published in 2003, mentioned the “Asia-Pacific” 26 times and the “Indo-Pacific” not at all. Clearly, policymakers have intended the term to hold some deeper meaning.[1]

You Say “Asia-Pacific,” I Say “Indo-Pacific”

What does the term “Indo-Pacific” convey that the term “Asia-Pacific” does not? It conveys a wider view of the region to include the Indian subcontinent and, specifically, India. Why include India? Most likely it is because incorporating a country of India’s size and significance into the traditional conception of the Asia-Pacific region would help to balance the growing economic and military heft of China in it.

That makes sense, given that Australia, Japan, and the United States have already brought India into their Asian security discussions. Back in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe first suggested formalizing such a multilateral collaboration through what he called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. He hoped to bring together Asia’s four liberal democracies to promote their shared security goals. At the time, the concept fizzled for fear of alienating China. But that apparently is less of a concern today. With the rise of Chinese assertiveness, the four countries have begun to participate in joint military exercises all along Asia’s periphery. Since 2014, India, Japan, and the United States have conducted annual naval exercises from the Bay of Bengal to the Western Pacific. And, since 2015, Japan has joined the biennial Australia-U.S. military exercise called Talisman Saber.

Indo-Pacific Security Relationships

Still, for the moment the Indo-Pacific region’s only formal security alliances are the bilateral ones that link the United States with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea in what some have described as a “hub-and-spokes” arrangement. The United States also has long-standing security relationships with Singapore, Taiwan, and until recently, Thailand. All other regional security ties are fairly nascent, including the one between Australia and Japan. Though both countries seem drawn to one another, their bond is not yet strong. Seen in that light, Australia’s recent decision to abandon a Japanese design for its future submarine fleet was probably a missed opportunity to reinforce that bond.

Meanwhile, India, which leaned towards the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War, has a relatively new security relationship with the United States. It was not until President George W. Bush orchestrated a civil nuclear deal with India, which implicitly recognized its nuclear weapons status in 2005, did that relationship really start. And even then, it did not grow quickly. Many Indians, including former National Security Council military advisor Prakash Menon and the former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, had reservations. In 2012, they, along with some notable Indian security experts, penned a strategy paper entitled Nonalignment 2.0 that downplayed the importance of stronger ties with the United States.[2]

Since then, however, China’s growing pressure on India’s borders and influence among India’s neighbors have made Indian leaders less concerned about India’s distance from the United States and more interested in finding common cause. As a reflection of that, India—once an exclusive Russian arms importer—has begun to acquire American military equipment and to consider Japanese ones, too. Australia specifically cited its interest in “much closer” ties with India in its recent foreign policy white paper.[3]

Indo-Pacific Encirclement of China?

For years, Chinese strategists have chafed at what they regarded as the geopolitical encirclement of China. But the number of such commentaries seems to have fallen over the last year or so. Perhaps that is because China has strengthened its relationship with Russia and made diplomatic headway in Southeast Asia. Or perhaps that is simply because China feels more powerful than it was. Ironically, China would have more reason to feel encircled today, if the other major Indo-Pacific powers choose to revive something akin to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

What’s in the name “Indo-Pacific?” The answer, in this case, might be a strategy for balancing Chinese power in the region.


[1] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017; and Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, 2003.

[2] Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran, and Siddharth Varadarajan, Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century (New Delhi: Centre for Policy Research, 2012).

[3] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017, p. 42.

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China’s Nuclear Interest in the South China Sea

Economic and sovereignty interests are commonly cited as the reasons for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The security of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent could be added to that list of reasons.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has worried about external threats—and justifiably so. During the Cold War, it faced down both the world’s superpowers, first the United States and then the Soviet Union. Both were armed with nuclear weapons at a time when China was still developing its own arsenal. But even after it successfully produced nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, China could not rest easy. It still had to ensure their survivability to create a credible nuclear deterrent.

China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent

Early on, China understood that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to preemptive attack than those based under the sea.  And the longer they could stay under the sea, the safer they would be.  Thus, in the late 1950s, China began to acquire the technology needed for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which can operate underwater for long periods, and for their associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).[1]

By the 1980s, China built its first SSBN, the Type 092 (or Xia-class), along with its first SLBM, the JL-1. Though only one Xia-class submarine ever became fully operational, China went to great lengths to protect it. Chinese engineers tunneled under a rocky promontory at Jianggezhuang, adjacent to the Yellow Sea, to provide the submarine with a hardened shelter. As it turned out, the Xia rarely went to sea during its service life.[2] But if it sailed into the Yellow Sea today, China might have some cause for concern, given the proximity of capable naval forces from Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the sea’s eastern edge.

China’s Southern Strategy

After the Cold War, China continued to improve its sea-based nuclear deterrent. About a decade ago, China began serial production of its second SSBN, the Type 094 (or Jin-class). So far, the Chinese navy has commissioned four Jin-class submarines; the completion of the JL-2 SLBM followed.[3] But years before the submarines entered service, China had already started construction on a new naval base for them that runs along Yalong Bay, near the South China Sea. With satellite imagery, one can see the grand scale of the new base.  (See image below.) It even features a submarine tunnel, like the one at Jianggezhuang, but with enough room for loading facilities and multiple submarines.[4]

Yalong Bay Naval Base

 

China’s Jin-class SSBNs are now regularly seen at the base.  (See image below.)  South of it is the South China Sea—a region increasingly dotted with Chinese military outposts and airfields. It is also a region with no navies capable of directly challenging China’s. Indeed, Chinese strategists may have envisioned the South China Sea to be a naval bastion, a partially enclosed area where China’s SSBNs could safely operate under the protection of friendly air and naval forces. The Soviet navy operated in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in much the same way during the Cold War.

Jin-class Submarines
Source: Jamestown Foundation

To be sure, the South China Sea carries drawbacks as a naval bastion. The biggest is probably the fact that operating there would put China’s SSBNs further from potential targets in the Western Hemisphere, though future SLBMs may have longer ranges. Still, the South China Sea does enable China to disperse more widely its undersea nuclear forces, and thereby improve their survivability. If China has come to see the South China Sea as important to the security of its sea-based nuclear deterrent, then those who hope that patient economic and diplomatic engagement will persuade China to change its behavior in the region are very likely to be disappointed, as they have been to date.


[1] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 23–125, 129–205.

[2] Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships 2014-2015 (London: Jane’s Information Group, 2014), p. 128.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, Apr. 2016), p. 26.

[4] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Secret Sanya: China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008, pp. 50–53.

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Not Over Yet: China’s Progress in the South China Sea

China may be hoping that the recent easing of tensions in the South China Sea marks a turning point in the region—one that leads to the countries of the Asia-Pacific abandoning their confrontational approach to China. In February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi could point to some “clear progress” toward that end. After being stalled for years, negotiations between China and several Southeast Asian countries finally produced a draft of a new code of conduct for the disputed waters.

China could also cite progress on another front: relations with the Philippines. Throughout the term of former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, which ended in June 2016, the Philippines had been a thorn in China’s side. Not only did it offer the United States access to its military bases, the country also won a legal victory against China’s South China Sea claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), an international tribunal in The Hague. But the election of a new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, created an opportunity for China.

Duterte’s violent anti-drugs campaign drove a wedge between the Philippines and United States. And so, as Washington publicly criticized Duterte, Beijing offered him $24 billion of economic inducements. That made it easier for Duterte to overcome domestic opposition to his pivot away from the United States. He soon ended joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea. While he has not terminated his predecessor’s base-access agreement, he may yet do so.

Enduring Challenges

Even as some challenges to China have receded, others remain, and new ones have emerged. Certainly, last year’s leadership change in Vietnam did little to alter that country’s determination to counter Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Satellite images showing that China is building new logistical and military facilities in the Paracel Islands (which Vietnam also claims) have led Vietnamese leaders to do more, not less. Hanoi continues to improve the security of the islands that it occupies.

New Challenges

Meanwhile, Indonesia has become more vocal. Once, Indonesia was content to smooth over its maritime dispute with China by obliquely asserting that no “territorial” dispute existed. Today, Indonesia has taken a clearer line. As Chinese fishing boats, sometimes accompanied by the Chinese coast guard, have pushed deeper into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, Indonesian authorities have stepped up their patrols of the region. In February 2017, Indonesian President Joko Widodo unexpectedly revealed that he would welcome a joint naval patrol with Australia in the South China Sea.  His suggestion was all the more surprising given the rocky security relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

While it refrained from taking up Widodo’s suggestion, Australia did urge Southeast Asian countries to use the PCA’s rejection of China’s claims as the basis for their new code of conduct with China.  For the moment, that quelled concerns over whether Australia would gradually accept Chinese behavior in Southeast Asia as its economic ties with China grew. Some had wondered whether such a process would accelerate, particularly after the stormy conversation between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Donald Trump in January.

But possibly the most worrisome to China is Japan’s vigorous activity in Southeast Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe routinely visits the region, often bringing with him promises of greater economic and military cooperation. He has offered both the Philippines and Vietnam offshore patrol vessels to monitor the waters they dispute with China. Tokyo has also encouraged Japanese companies to expand their engagement with the region through trade and infrastructure development. A year ago, Japan sent one of its newest attack submarines, the Oyashio, on a tour of Southeast Asia, the first time a Japanese submarine has done so in 15 years. In May 2017, Japan intends to send its largest warship, the helicopter carrier Izumo, to the region. The carrier will spend three months there before it sails onto the Indian Ocean to participate in a joint India-U.S. naval exercise.

Future Progress

It appears that even without the United States leading the way, other countries of the Asia-Pacific are not yet ready to resign themselves to Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. Resistance to China may have reached less of a turning point than a plateau. The South China Sea is now far more militarized than ever before. All claimants to its waters have strengthened their claims to the region and their defenses on their respective island outposts. Even the Philippines is continuing with its plans to upgrade the airfield and harbor facilities on Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelago. While a period of intense confrontation in the South China Sea may have passed, it does not mean that further Chinese progress will be easy.

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