The Indo-Pacific century

New concept, new challenges

David Brewster

International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, Australia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific

10 August 2016

The Indo-Pacific concept is a useful way of understanding changing regional dynamics, David Brewster writes, but it also reflects a key strategic challenge – the relationship between China and India.

Through the 1980s Australia was one of the foremost proponents of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ as a new and useful way of understanding the world around us. The idea behind the Asia-Pacific brought together East Asia and the Pacific to emphasise and promote the interdependence of the East Asian tiger economies with Pacific countries such as the United States and Australia. It successfully locked those bits of the world together in a prosperous and mostly peaceful embrace.

Although contested by some at the time, the idea of the Asia-Pacific has now become almost ubiquitous in our understanding of the world. The idea of this space as a ‘region’ underlay the establishment of new groupings and forums such as APEC and the East Asia Summit to better manage these dynamics.

Australia is now at the forefront of new debates about the concept of the Indo-Pacific as a useful mental map for understanding the changing dynamics in our part of the world. The Indo-Pacific focuses on the growing strategic and economic interactions right along the Asian littoral, from the Korean peninsula to the Persian Gulf, with Southeast Asia at its centre. The concept of the Indo-Pacific is not intended to replace the Asia Pacific, merely to emphasise that, at least for certain purposes, we need to be considering a broader geographic space and a broader set of interactions. The concept emphasises the growing interactions between the major East Asian powers and the burgeoning economies of Southern Asia (including but not limited to India) and the strategic implications of these interactions, particularly in the maritime realm.

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While the parameters and nomenclature of the Indo-Pacific are not yet settled, the concept is increasingly being overtaken by reality. Australia’s fast-growing strategic partnerships, with countries such as Japan and India, reflect these dynamics. India’s Act East policy, in which it is reaching out to new partners in the Pacific theatre, is the Indo-Pacific in action. China’s Maritime Silk Route initiative, in which it is building new maritime pathways across the Indian Ocean, is merely the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics. But we are still playing catch up in terms of understanding the strategic implications of these developments.

Two recent publications address different aspects of these growing Indo-Pacific interactions. In March 2016, the National Security College at The Australian National University hosted a conference of eminent experts and practitioners to discuss maritime security challenges and cooperation within the framework of the Indo-Pacific. An edited volume from this conference addresses several key areas of Indo-Pacific maritime security. Critically they examine new dimensions in Australia-Japan maritime security cooperation and the role of Japan in the Indian Ocean, managing maritime tensions in the East and South China seas, the potential for cooperation on transnational security issues, and emerging maritime security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.

One key set of issues addressed is understanding Japan’s growing security role across the Indo-Pacific. This is driven by concerns over the security of Japan’s sea lines of communication through the Pacific and Indian oceans, perspectives on the need for new maritime security partnerships with countries such as Australia and India, and debates about Japan’s future roles in the Indian Ocean. Japan’s wider role as a key strategic partner will only become ever more important for Australia. The Indo-Pacific is also forcing countries such as India and Indonesia to re-examine traditional perspectives on maritime security partnerships in the region, including with Australia.

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Another crucial dimension of Indo-Pacific security is the growing interaction of China and India across this space. China and India are fast emerging as major maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific as part of long-term shifts in the regional balance of power. As their wealth, interests, and power expand, the two countries are increasingly coming into contact with each other in the maritime domain. How India and China get along in the shared Indo-Pacific space—cooperation, coexistence, competition, or confrontation—may be one of the key strategic challenges of the 21st century.

But the Sino-Indian relationship is a difficult one: security relations remain relatively volatile and are complicated by numerous unresolved issues. Not least is China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi perceives Beijing as attempting to reshape the strategic environment in its favour, including by forming alignments with neighbouring countries that could be used against India.

A recent publication by the US National Bureau of Asian Research sheds light on this dynamic through a collection of essays by leading analysts, examining Sino-Indian maritime interactions from political, economic and security dimensions. What is apparent from them is the wide gap between Indian and Chinese understandings of their respective intentions and roles in the Indian Ocean region. China seems intent on developing its economic and military interests in the Indian Ocean in a manner that almost inevitably will have a major impact on the regional balance power. Moreover, Beijing intends to develop this presence without significant regard for Indian views: India will just need to learn to live with it.

For its part, India sees the growing Chinese presence in highly securitised terms: a mixture of acute defensiveness over its prerogatives and protecting what it sees as its own backyard, but also a desire to leverage its own strategic advantages over China. These factors are a relatively volatile mix, creating a significant risk of strategic instability and competition in the region in coming years.

Understanding the changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific and the key strategic relationships across that region will be a continuing challenge as we enter what could become the Indo-Pacific century.

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One Response

  1. Bishal says:

    Thank you David for the read. My comment is on India and its neighbours.

    India is an integral and important party to the Indo-Pacific century but the country seems to have not realise it’s potential role in leading the region going forward. It is evident in its ‘narrow’ and heavy-handedness in dealing with countries in its own ‘backyard’. India loves to meddle in internal politics of its small neighbours as evident in recent election in Sri Lanka or support of ruling party in Bangladesh. It also doesn’t shy away from using harsh measures (taking benefit of its sheer economic size and international stature) to ‘treat’ the country which go against its will. Economic blockade to Nepal (2015) and Bhutan (2013) prove the case. While India is happy in keeping its neighbouring country in ‘their place’ politically, China is slowly and steadily expanding its economic influence in the region not just with the foreign aid but with the investment in infrastructure and businesses. South Asia is therefore a part of ‘One Belt One Road’ strategy of President Xi. Not surprisingly, these countries in South Asia, most of whom are underdeveloped, welcome the move.

    India seem to be incognisant of the development aspirations of its neighbours. and thus, as author pointed out, ‘sees the growing Chinese presence in highly securitised terms: a mixture of acute defensiveness over its prerogatives’. However, China role in South Asia is only going to increase and its a new normal that New Delhi ought to acknowledge, sooner the better for them.

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