The ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept will face new tests in 2022, but if it can grow to be genuinely inclusive and facilitate cooperation, it could help some of the region’s powers foster peace and partnership in the region, Chander Shekhar writes.
The countries of the Indo-Pacific have faced major challenges in the last 12 months.
From global challenges, such as pandemic, climate change, and economic recovery, to more localised issues like the protection of sea lanes of communication, it was another year where collective effort and cooperation were crucial to the region’s outcomes.
Importantly, in 2021, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept became a yet more explicit and popular way of conceptualising international politics in the region. Its importance can be seen in the policies of those countries, like Australia, which have adopted it as a major part of understanding Asia’s international security landscape.
This makes sense. After all, Asia is an interconnected region, where countries are dependent on one another for energy and other resources. For some of these countries, the Indo-Pacific concept has come to represent the protection of those resources despite shared challenges.
It may seem the potential of the concept to do good in the region in 2022 would simply come down to a geopolitical calculation. But it’s important to note that assertiveness from the United States and some allies under the guise of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ would probably not change the status quo.
This is because countries neither aligned with this group nor with China may respond negatively, hedging against that assertiveness. Thankfully, the unwillingness of most countries to bandwagon with a US-led Indo-Pacific ‘bloc’ makes conflict unlikely.
Further, geopolitical assertiveness in the name of the Indo-Pacific concept will harm its ability to become a primarily cooperative mechanism.
This makes a cooperative path focusing on compromise and integration the best choice going forward for countries that have bought into the concept of the Indo-Pacific.
What can these countries learn from 2021? With the pandemic having severe ramifications across the globe, 2021 gave countries many opportunities for collaboration in the Indo-Pacific.
Several countries explicitly expanded their use of the concept of the Indo-Pacific in their policies. Europe’s ‘step into the Indo-Pacific’ is a pivotal example, as was the choice of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to establish the ‘AUKUS’ trilateral arrangement.
The visits of the United States’ defense secretary and vice president in July and August 2021 to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries indicated the country’s desire to reinforce its existing ties with the countries which would play a critical role in the Indo-Pacific, but also showed willingness to operate multilaterally at the ASEAN organisational level.
Despite some worrying about ‘waning’ influence, ASEAN remained central to the region in 2021. In October 2021, the ninth ASEAN-US Summit concluded with a joint affirmation by the heads of states and government that their future interactions would be based on “building on the sustained commitment, mutual interests and values and enduring goodwill of all sides”.
Clearly 2021 was an important year for the Indo-Pacific concept, with those countries who are using it to formulate their foreign policy showing a willingness to foster peace and prosperity in the region through this Indo-Pacific lens. But how policymakers expect to see the concept evolve in 2022?
Countries using the Indo-Pacific concept in their policy-making should see 2022 as a year of potential collaboration, especially among countries that do not ascribe to the concept. They should accept that when small powers make their choices on the Indo-Pacific, they will be attempting to safeguard the shared interest of prosperity in the region, whatever they choose.
The future of the Indo-Pacific, as a concept and as a region, lies in those countries’ decision in 2022. They face the choice of letting it evolve into a purely geopolitical construct, or instead, building a more inclusive conception of the Indo-Pacific, fostering the engagement of countries that can help shape its future by building interest-based partnerships.
In the coming year, the countries that ascribe to the Indo-Pacific concept could invite other countries to join and expand their established groupings, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS, but they should also focus on issue-based collaboration with all countries of the region, whether they are part of these new groupings or not.
An obvious area in which to do this is climate policy. They should strengthen joint efforts to deal with the global climate change and build on gains made at the April Leaders Summit on Climate Change and the United National Climate Change Conference (CP26) in Glasgow.
Whatever precise form this collaboration takes, 2022 will be a key year for the Indo-Pacific concept. Using an inclusive approach, built on fostering collaboration and partnerships on key issues, countries that ascribe to the idea can build a stronger, more peaceful region for the future.