The United States’ geopolitics-first approach to the Indo-Pacific ignores the region’s complexities and treats its development goals as pawns in competition with China, Zenel Garcia writes.
The United States-led reconceptualisation of the Asia Pacific as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been partly driven by the recognition that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are increasingly linked by the problems they face.
However, this process has been primarily shaped by American anxiety about its dominant military position in the region, with direct reference to China’s growing power. Countries that have subscribed to the concept, but especially the United States, have taken a reactive and military-centric policy approach that fails to account for the region’s complexities.
The most prominent example of this are the United States’ Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM)’s ‘spatial boundaries’. While there are practical reasons for the United States Department of Defense to have boundaries for its commands, these will be necessarily arbitrary. Unfortunately, adhering to these imagined, superimposed boundaries is inherently flawed for the purpose of building a coherent concept of the Indo-Pacific.
The lines dividing the Department of Defense’s INDOPACOM, African Command, and Central Command in the Western Indian Ocean Region (IOR) ignore the increasingly linked security and development of states in east Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the rest of the Indo-Pacific. Transnational issues like climate change, pandemics, crime, trade, and migration cross these bureaucratic borders, whether American systems recognise them or not.
Despite this, the Indo-Pacific white papers produced by the Trump and Biden administrations focus almost entirely on East Asia and Southeast Asia, with the notable exception of India, which officials view as pivotal to the new regional construct. Even the recent Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity exhibits these pitfalls.
It is impossible to hide from the fact these regions receive this focus because of their importance to competition with China. Such a close focus on East Asia and Southeast Asia at the expense of other regions while espousing an inclusive concept of the Indo-Pacific reveals its reactive, military-centric character.
Whole sub-regions are sidelined by American policymakers working on the Indo-Pacific construct. The American Indo-Pacific white papers completely ignore the South Pacific, for example. Apart from revealing American intentions, leaving holes like this in the Indo-Pacific construct creates vulnerability and undermines its legitimacy.
In contrast to the United States, China has increased its engagement with countries in the area for the past two decades.
Several countries in the South Pacific have signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative and China has sought to further strengthen relations through a Common Development Vision. However, it was only China’s security deal with the Solomon Islands that prompted American decision-makers to commit to opening new embassies and grow America’s aid presence in the region.
The South Pacific’s experience shows that as it stands, the United States neglects its partners in the Indo-Pacific until they become useful for geopolitical competition with China.
This competition-first approach ignores these countries’ hopes for their future. It is why when they call for investment or actionable commitments to climate change mitigation, so many of these countries view China as having listened better than the United States. China, at least, has provided a comprehensive development policy to these countries.
Rather than helping its case, the United States’ renewed focus in the South Pacific in response to a security deal actually further highlights its reactive and inadequate approach.
Until the Indo-Pacific construct involves real trade and climate change policies that address the needs of the broader region, and pursues development for its own sake rather than for its geopolitical objectives, these patterns will continue.
Furthermore, viewing China’s activities in the region through a purely military lens denies South Pacific countries the very agency and sovereignty the United States claims to protect, all while appearing profoundly hypocritical to the parties they’ve neglected.
The idea of the Indo-Pacific only makes sense if officials genuinely account for the intertwined nature of the security and development dynamics that span its various sub-regions.
Doing this requires working beyond the INDOPACOM spatial boundaries, in recognition of these dynamics. For example, a functional Indo-Pacific policy cannot ignore the role that east African and Persian Gulf countries play in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific at large.
While military issues will always remain important, the security needs of most of the region are intrinsically linked to economic development and the effects of climate change. These are the issues that will decide their future and their biggest security concerns.
What this approach shows is that the United States is likely to overplay the challenges that China poses and underplay how much cooperation is possible. It is committing itself to promoting a status quo that no longer exists at the expense of its own, and the region’s, long-term interests.
Ultimately, an Indo-Pacific policy that serves primarily to protect American power, rather than solve these problems, is not fit for its espoused purpose – to contribute to ‘cooperation, stability, prosperity, development, and peace within the region.’