The concept of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" has been appearing more often in US diplomatic rhetoric. US President Donald Trump used the term many times during his just concluded Asia tour. During the East Asia Summit in the Philippines, leaders from the US, Japan, Australia and India held their first "quad" talks on Indo-Pacific cooperation, triggering a lot of speculations.
The "Indo-Pacific" label did not break the traditional framework of the US' Asia strategy. Compared with "Asia-Pacific," "Indo-Pacific" merely indicates a readjustment of US strategic view and strategic focus, while providing India with a role.
The rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific strategy focuses on security and economy, while the "Indo-Pacific" strategy has yet to come into shape. Judging from the use of the term in US and Japanese diplomatic circles, it seems to cover a wide spectrum including issues relating to security, economy and values.
Most US strategists and public opinion makers believe the rebalancing strategy has failed to encircle, let alone contain China's rise. The idea of "Indo-Pacific" is a fresh one, but if reviewed carefully, it appears as another empty slogan. What is most important is that China is the biggest trade partner of all four countries.
Indo-Pacific countries have been strengthening trade and cultural ties with China with the facilitation of the China-led Belt and Road initiative. The US and Japan have little leverage to play geopolitical games in the region, and few countries are willing to fall into the orbit of Washington and Tokyo.
Southeast Asia is a typical example. The region was the focal point of the rebalancing strategy, and the South China Sea dispute was a maneuver aimed at manipulation. However, Washington has failed to push forward the strategy, and the Philippines' about-face has made the US a laughing stock.
In the event of a war, the "Indo-Pacific" strategy may prove useful. But a military showdown among major powers in the 21st century seems unimaginable. No country would welcome it at the cost of its development.
What is the significance of China's rise in a globalized era? This is the core question in international politics this century. While some elites in the US and Japan are worried, depressed and jealous of China, they nonetheless tried to incite other countries to counter China with hollow strategies, which only reflect their anxieties.
India has its own trick to play. In the past, the mainstream media in India was obsessed with competing with China on GDP growth and international status. Now they are keen to compare their country to Australia or Japan to see which can curry more favor from the US. After the US began using the term "Indo-Pacific," some Indian media outlets were ecstatic that their country had become an important pillar of this new US strategy.
Another round of debate over strategies will no doubt flourish, but what will ultimately determine the future strategic landscape is each country's ability to develop on its own terms. China only needs to be dedicated to development and to implement its Belt and Road initiative in a down-to-earth manner.