Photo: Global Times
US President Donald Trump and other top national officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have increasingly favored use of the term "Indo-Pacific" over the more conventional "Asia-Pacific." Scholars, politicians and strategists in Australia, Japan and India have also been pushing to popularize the idea of the "Indo-Pacific" and make it the basis for regional policy. Consequently, some observers argue that the rise of the Indo-Pacific is inevitable, with some even heralding the beginning of an "Indo-Pacific century."
The new region of Indo-Pacific is essentially a social construction created through politics. It is by no means driven by any natural geographic factors, as there exists no exact boundary delineations for the Indo-Pacific area. Its membership is also a moot point.
However, if we want to understand why the Indo-Pacific has become popular with policymakers in the US, Australia, Japan and India, we need to look at contemporary geo-economic and geopolitical concerns of the major and middle powers that make up the region.
As key drivers of a new Indo-Pacific concept, the US, Australia, Japan and India share common geopolitical concerns regarding China's rising influence as a major power. Importantly, the geographic region where their concerns come from has expanded to not only the established Asia-Pacific region, but also the areas surrounding the Indian Ocean. Thus, it is not surprising to see the development of bilateral and multilateral security partnerships among these key drivers, particularly in reference to maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean. More recently, China's "assertive" security and foreign policy toward the South China Sea has given further impetus to this new "exclusive" Indo-Pacific construct, which has been welcomed by a significant number of strategists and political pundits in the US, Australia, Japan and India. Furthermore, the values of democracy and liberalism that these powers share help to set an ideological foundation for the conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific.
China has become the "odd man out" in this conceptual mapping of the Indo-Pacific. The association of China's rise by other powers as a "China threat" is an important reason for this. As a result, Chinese strategists have become increasingly concerned about growing soft power and political dynamics fostered between the Indo-Pacific's four main actors: the US, Australia, Japan and India, known as the Quad, and how China is implicated by this.
Despite joint concerns toward managing China's rise in the Indo-Pacific region, the four Quad countries may diverge on specific strategic considerations and priorities.
First, geopolitical concerns are seeming to dictate the US government's interests above all else in the Indo-Pacific, with the US-Indian strategic partnership playing a key role in the US' "pivot" toward Asia.
Consequently, the US government has supported India's rise as a global power in order to help check China's movements in the Indian Ocean. The US has reliable alliances already developed in the Asia-Pacific, but not specifically around the Indian Ocean, and because of this, in American eyes this is a necessary move. India's recent subtle policy changes within the South China Sea territorial dispute are illustrative of its potential to support American ambitions and its potential importance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Second, for Australian officials in particular, Australia's centrality in the Indo-Pacific provides welcomed attention to its generally neglected west coast and reinforces its status as an Indian Ocean power. When formulating and implementing its foreign and defense policies in recent years, the Australian government has increasingly favored the concept of the Indo-Pacific over the Asia-Pacific. Maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region remains a key Australian national interest.
The promotion of the Indo-Pacific idea also justifies Canberra's attempts to deepen its economic and security partnerships with Southeast Asian countries and with India. This would give Australia greater room to maneuver in the future when dealing with China and perhaps even the US.
Last, India's engagement and Act East policy overlaps with Japan's "Broader Asia" vision, which is vividly manifested in the joint "confluence of the two seas" concept. Yet, while Japan's Indo-Pacific idea carries with it a strong overtone of balancing and even containing China along with "the arc of freedom and prosperity," India places a high premium on developing its own regional security, political and economic interests without losing its strategic autonomy. After all, China and India were not born to be rivals.
While the new concept of the Indo-Pacific may be socially constructed through various geopolitical and geo-economic lenses, it has the potential to turn into a very real and strategic set of relationships. Geographic position may not necessarily be destiny, but it may suit some states to act as if it is. Chinese policymakers would be well advised to attentively monitor these developments.