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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U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?

At times, it seemed as though the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would go on interminably.  Begun in 2010, the TPP evolved from the four-country Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement to encompass twelve Asia-Pacific countries, including the United States.  It would eventually take five years for the trade representatives from those countries to hammer out an agreement, the final terms of which were settled on Monday morning.

Trans-Pacific Partnership Member Countries

Over the coming months, much will be said, both for and against, the possible economic and social implications of the TPP as it is debated in the legislatures of its twelve member countries before it can be enacted.  But the TPP also carries with it strategic implications—not only for its smaller members, but also for its largest, the United States.  American interest in the TPP began during the last year of President George W. Bush’s tenure.  But it was the administration of President Barack Obama that moved the TPP to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.  So important has the TPP become that Obama persuaded his political opponents in the U.S. Congress to award him “fast-track” trade promotion authority, so that American trade representatives could assure their counterparts from other countries that the U.S. legislative body would not tinker with the specific terms of the trade agreement once it was reached.

Strategically, the United States has come to see the TPP as critical to its long-term security in the Asia-Pacific.  It helps to ensure that, even with China’s rise, countries around the rim of the Pacific Ocean would have economic incentives to pursue strong relationships with the United States.  As that line of thinking goes, the more closely the trade interests of the TPP’s twelve member countries are aligned, the more closely their economies will integrate and, ultimately, the more likely their political outlooks will align.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States is also pursuing a trade agreement similar to the TPP with the countries of Europe called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP.

That line of thinking is not lost on either China or Russia.  While China chose not to participate in the TPP to avoid more pressure to remove its many trade barriers, it pushed for another (less onerous) trade agreement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, which did not include the United States.  China has also championed its own form of economic integration, called the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (tying together China’s land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and sea-based “Maritime Silk Road” efforts).  That initiative has sought to knit together the various economies along the ancient Silk Road between China and Europe.  Beijing even created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank earlier this year, in part, to support the construction of the trade infrastructure needed to facilitate that integration.

For its part, Russia has tried to cobble together the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) from the countries that were once parts of the Soviet Union.  Russia has pursued the economic integration of the former Soviet republics as a way to not only expand its market space, but also strengthen its sphere of influence over them.  While most of the former Soviet republics could not ignore the economic potential of the EEU, they have been cautious about their participation in it.  Even Kazakhstan, an early supporter of the EEU, has repeatedly stressed that the EEU should remain an economic, rather than a political, grouping.  As can be expected, most former Soviet republics are protective of their new-found sovereignty.  And so, they are keenly sensitive to any Russian scheme that may absorb them into a reconstituted empire, particularly in light of what has happened to Ukraine’s Crimea and Donetsk provinces.

But lest we are to believe that closer trade and economic ties will inevitably lead to closer political alignment, history provides plenty of examples where that failed to happen.  One cannot say that closer economic integration between the European Union and Russia has brought the two to a more closely aligned political outlook.  Instead, they have used their respective trade dependencies on one another as weapons against one another in their political clash over Ukraine.

In the Asia-Pacific, one needs to look no further than the experience of China and Japan.  In the 1990s, Japanese companies led the multinational charge to set up outsourced factories and develop new markets in China.  In 1999 the two countries did $66 billion in bilateral trade.  By 2011 that figure climbed to $345 billion.  The two economies became increasingly integrated, with China more reliant on Japan for industrial machinery and Japan more reliant on China for consumer goods.  But then tensions over the Senkaku Islands, which began in late 2010, boiled over in 2012 and sparked anti-Japanese riots in China.  Tensions have run high ever since, cooling their economic relationship.  Every year after 2011 trade between the two countries has fallen.  Last year their bilateral trade slipped to $309 billion; the trade figures for August 2015 suggest that this year’s total will be lower still (indeed it is on track for a steep decline).  Rising costs in China and a stagnant Japanese economy surely contributed too, but they cannot fully explain the drop, given China’s continued, albeit slower, economic growth.

China Japan Bilateral Trade in Goods

The causal logic that closer trade and economic ties will lead to closer political alignment could be turned on its head.  One could argue that it is when political outlooks are aligned that closer economic integration often seems desirable (and also that when political outlooks are in conflict that economic integration often seems dangerous).  That is not to say that the TPP is not a worthy accomplishment; it is.  But the United States should be wary of relying too heavily on the TPP to ensure its security in the Asia-Pacific.  Even if the U.S. Senate ratifies the trade agreement, the United States should continue to actively pursue other strategic initiatives in the region with equal verve.

[1] Japan External Trade Organization, Japanese Trade and Investment Statistics, 1999-2015.

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