International relations, Law, National security | Asia, The Pacific, The World

31 March 2022

While the key idea of the Indo-Pacific is growing in salience, to make more effective policy leaders should recognise the differences in views among the countries that ascribe to it, Zenel Garcia writes.

The Biden Administration’s release of an Indo-Pacific Strategy represents the most recent phase of the United States’ decade-long efforts to reframe the Asia Pacific into the Indo-Pacific.

It also reveals the growing recognition by American officials of the region’s economic dynamism and complex geopolitical environment. The country is not alone in this endeavour, however, given that under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan began to actively promote an Indo-Pacific vision in 2007, culminating with an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2016. Other actors, including Australia, India, ASEAN, and the European Union, have followed suit.

However, while there are areas of convergence in how these actors view the Indo-Pacific, there are also places where they diverge. Understanding these will be crucial for security and defence policymakers as they assess areas of possible cooperation and conflict.

First, consider what is widely agreed upon.

The first is that all these actors recognise that the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, both economically and politically, are coming together. In this sense, there is a shared understanding that development and security in one of these spaces is increasingly contingent on events in the other.

The second is the mutual recognition of regional membership by key promoters of the Indo-Pacific idea. This is an important component of regional formation, since it identifies ‘key actors’ and plays a role in legitimising their policy aims.

Finally, the third is the foundational norms of the Indo-Pacific construct. In general, there is consensus on the importance of the rule of law, transparent governance, development, trade, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and freedom of navigation – just to name a few.

More on this: Finding the Pacific in the ‘Indo-Pacific’

Broad consensus on what the Indo-Pacific region is, which countries influence it, and what their policy priorities are does exist. Ostensibly, such broad agreement should pave the way for significant policy cooperation and coordination in the region.

To a degree, this is true. But there are disagreements too, and they do impact efforts to cooperate and coordinate policy in the region.

The first of these is the geographic boundaries of the region, which various actors define differently. The regional spaces shape how states formulate and implement policies, whether it be in choosing their security partners, allocating resources, considering membership of institutions, or opting to try and set a policy agenda in a given region.

To illustrate this gap, look no further than Japan and India. Both are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – or ‘the Quad’ – which serves as a key platform for promoting the Indo-Pacific construct.

Yet Japan, as a leading promoter of the Indo-Pacific, has a much more expansive geographical understanding of the region. To Japan, the Indo-Pacific encompass everything from the east African coast to the west coast the Americas. Its strategy looks to combine free trade agreements, economic corridors, foreign aid programs, as well as strategic partners and allies across this massive area.

India, on the other hand, has a more limited framing of the region’s boundaries, focusing primarily on the Indian Ocean region and the South China Sea, where key choke points for international trade are located.

More on this: Creating an inclusive Indo-Pacific

While the two countries remain likely to find several avenues to cooperation in India’s areas of interest, this would likely not be the case further afield, such as in northeast Asia or the southern Pacific.

The second place key actors diverge is in their approaches to securing freedom of navigation. While there is consensus that freedom of navigation is a pivotal norm for the region, there is less consensus on what that precisely means.

For its part, the United States has the most expansive interpretation of what achieving ‘freedom of navigation’ entails.

For the United States, ‘innocent passage’ should apply to military vessels, and military operations, including surveillance, in the exclusive economic zones of another state are legitimate under the Law of the Sea.

India, however, interprets the Law of the Sea differently, asserting its right to require prior notice for military vessels to conduct innocent passage, and to require prior authorisation for them to conduct exercises in its exclusive economic zone. Importantly, India is not alone in this interpretation – many ASEAN members do as well.

This interpretation is actually much closer to that of China, despite the fact that many of the promoters of the Indo-Pacific are implying criticism of Chinese activities when they focus on protecting freedom of navigation.

These differences matter, but ultimately, these countries agree on enough to move forward with building the Indo-Pacific construct.

Understanding these disagreements is crucial to this process though, and policymakers should avoid viewing the diverse key actors of the Indo-Pacific as a monolithic bloc. If, instead, they seek to understand this divergence, they can prevent it negatively affecting the region’s policy future.

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