The Indo-Pacific is no Shangri-La

Key powers offer competing visions

Richard J Heydarian

International relations, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

28 June 2018

India, America, and Indonesia all have different views on how the newly conceptualised region should work, writes Richard Heydarian.

Decades from now, the 2018 edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue will likely be remembered as the formal commencement of the Indo-Pacific age.

As Australian strategist Rory Medcalf explains, the Indo-Pacific, as the new geostrategic register supplanting the Asia-Pacific, is crucial, because it “reflects changes in economics, strategic behaviour and diplomatic institutions” in the world’s most dynamic region.

Befittingly, the high-profile summit, which brought together the world’s leading defence officials and security experts, was kicked off by no less than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his keynote address, comprehensively composed and confidently delivered, the Indian leader projected his country as the new pillar of the global order, as well as a non-aligned nation capable of deftly navigating geopolitical fault lines.

“Our principal mission is transforming India to a New India by 2022, when independent India will be 75 years young,” declared Modi. He wasted no chance to emphasise his country’s growing trade linkages with East Asia, its technical and developmental assistance to smaller Asian nations, and the burgeoning maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations. He also pointed to India’s strategic partnerships with South Korea, Japan, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Presenting India as a pivot state, Modi extolled the “extraordinary breadth” of US-Indian relations, India’s “special and privileged” strategic partnership with Russia, and the “maturity and wisdom” guiding Sino-Indian relations.

More on this: Policy File: what should we make of the 'Indo-Pacific'?

Yet, the Indian prime minister was also quick to underscore India’s commitment to a “rules-based” and “free and open” order in the Indo-Pacific theatre. Thus, he managed to subtly criticise both the Trump administration’s trade protectionism as well as China’s maritime revisionism.

“Solutions cannot be found behind walls of protection, but in embracing change. What we seek is a level playing field for all,” he declared. “[India] stands for a free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific region, which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity.”

At the heart of Modi’s message, however, was the centrality of like-minded ‘middle powers’ to the robust preservation and stable evolution of a liberal order in the Indo-Pacific region. He constantly emphasised the collective role of ASEAN, Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea in undergirding an open, stable and free regional security architecture.

In Modi’s geopolitical vision, the Indo-Pacific is a geographic and value-based paradigm, which shouldn’t be driven by ‘great power rivalry’, but instead middle power diplomacy. Yet, the Indian prime minister’s was just one among three major narratives competing for the soul of the Indo-Pacific as the new geographical pivot of history.

In his highly anticipated speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the United States’ Defence Secretary James Mattis forwarded an alternative conception of the Indo-Pacific, where American resolve and power continue to undergird a stable and prosperous status quo.

“Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theatre,” the defence secretary announced, and then quickly proceeded to portray China as the main threat to an open, free and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.

He characterised China’s behaviour in the South China Sea as a negation to the openness promoted by US strategy and said it “calls into question China’s broader goals” in the region as it becomes Asia’s dominant indigenous power.

Mattis zeroed in on “China’s militarisation of artificial features in the South China Sea” and the negative repercussions of the “deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and, more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft” at contested land features in the area.

More on this: Many belts, many roads at the Shangri-La Dialogue

The American defence chief’s version of the Indo-Pacific closely tracks the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, which openly portray China as America’s primary rival.

It also draws on former admiral (and incoming ambassador to South Korea) Harry Harris’ more muscular conception of an American-led alliance of major powers: namely the Quadrilateral alliance of India, America, Japan, and Australia, checking China’s maritime ambitions.

As Rory Medcalf points out, America’s deployment of the more maritime-oriented notion of the Indo-Pacific is also a subtle way to dilute China’s profile and downplay its impact in a larger ocean where the United States remains militarily supreme. Both Modi and Mattis, however, have forwarded visions of an Indo-Pacific region where China is either partially or entirely excluded as the ultimate strategic “other”, which has to be kept in check.

And here comes the third version of the Indo-Pacific, forwarded by the ASEAN’s informal leader, Indonesia.

For the Southeast Asian powerhouse and its smaller neighbours, excluding China from the Indo-Pacific theatre is misguided, provocative and impractical, considering Beijing’s growing economic and military influence across the region.

What Jakarta proposes instead, is an ASEAN-driven Indo-Pacific paradigm, where China can play a central role as a responsible stakeholder.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has, accordingly, unveiled a more inclusive narrative of the Indo-Pacific that promotes an “open, transparent and inclusive” order and is driven by ASEAN values such as “the habit of dialogue, promoting cooperation and friendship, and upholding international law.”

It’s far from clear which version will ultimately prevail. What’s certain, however, is that China will shape the cadence and direction of the ongoing debate over Asia’s evolving security architecture.

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