The Indo-Pacific concept is here to stay: but will it unify?

10 Jul 2019
The Indo-Pacific concept is here to stay: but will it unify?
The Indo-Pacific has solidified as a concept. It is no longer aspirational; it has become the mental map for security and diplomatic policymakers across the region. This was abundantly clear at the 33rd Asia-Pacific Roundtable (APR) on 24-26 June 2019, which started out with a plenary session entitled Asia Pacific vs Indo Pacific: Rationale, Contestation & Implications to frame the next two days of discussions hosted by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The rise of China

Three developments have helped the abstract Indo-Pacific region solidify into a concrete policy framework. The first is the rise of China. To be sure, the Chinese do not use the term but they nonetheless have placed a strategic value on access to the Indian Ocean. Part of their strategic game is to open up alternative, overland routes to bypass the Strait of Malacca, a “chokepoint” for shipping. Their navy has been active in the Indian Ocean and their Belt and Road infrastructure initiative (BRI) has developed ports in countries like Sri Lanka.

India’s interests expanding

C. Raja Mohan, one of the panellists in the first plenary session observed that as nations rise, they integrate the spaces around them. India will inevitably do the same and this is the second development that makes the Indo-Pacific a reality rather than a theory. India’s economic growth necessitates integration with East Asia, and along with it, its scope of strategic interest grows to encompass the broader region.

ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook

The third is ASEAN’s recognition of their central position within the Indo-Pacific. As they described themselves in the recently released Indo-Pacific Outlook, ASEAN is a “conduit and portal” in the region and has an inherent interest in shaping its economic and security architecture.  One element of ASEAN’s concept of the Indo-Pacific is that it sees the Pacific and Indian Oceans “not as contiguous territorial spaces but as a closely integrated and interconnected region…” The Outlook makes it clear that ASEAN values cooperation instead of rivalry. Unfortunately, this is where the Indo-Pacific meets its limitations.

A framework for cooperation or competition?

Although the Indo-Pacific offers a common strategic geography, there are plenty of issues for the countries within it to contest. Many of the Roundtable’s subsequent plenary and concurrent sessions outlined areas of contestation and flashpoints: nuclear arms control, humanitarian crises in Myanmar and Bangladesh, China’s role in the region, technological rivalries, the Korean peninsula, and state-sponsored influence operations. The discussions at the Roundtable suggest that the Indo-Pacific is not a unifying concept. Two areas of discussion are illustrative: in infrastructure and technology.

A fledgling infrastructure “cold war”

The Indo-Pacific region suffers from a constraining infrastructure “gap” that needs $1.5 trillion of investment per year from 2016-2030 to fill. Countries in the region have responded by launching a number of initiatives to address this gap, including major powers like China, Japan, and the United States. Rivalries between these powers have begun to spill over into a race to build infrastructure and gain geopolitical influence. Infrastructure initiatives are cast by media and foreign policy commentators as competitors

A fledgling infrastructure “cold war” might be beginning, but there are pathways to rapprochement. Akio Takahara from the Japan Institute of International Affairs outlined four conditions under which Japan would cooperate with China’s BRI:  openness, transparency, fiscal health of the country receiving the assistance, and profitability of projects. A Chinese representative said the U.S. is welcome to join BRI, but that the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept and the aims of the BRI are incompatible.

Technology Rivalries and National Security: “It’s not rivalry. It’s decoupling”

An engaging concurrent session on technology rivalries in the region drew out some novel ideas what is taking place. Jasmine Begum, Director of Legal and Government Affairs for Microsoft in Malaysia argued that what is taking place is not a rivalry but a “decoupling” emerging from risks that cannot be solved diplomatically. Two separate technology blocs are forming in the region, aligned by who owns the “data estate”. In China’s case, it is ultimately the government who has custody over data, while in other countries it is private firms.

Collection and storage of data by Chinese companies is controversial because of the People’s Republic of China’s Security Law. The law requires Chinese citizens and companies to hand over data to Chinese intelligence agencies when requested. Concerns about data security and privacy have led many countries to deny contracts for Chinese companies like Huawei to build, or use their equipment in, fifth-generation (5G) cellular networks. 

Final thoughts

While some Roundtable attendees suggested the APR change its name to the “Indo-Pacific Roundtable, it definitely appears that countries are ready to adopt the Indo-Pacific as a concept. They are resistant, however, to adopt it as a credo that defines their behaviour and objectives along the lines of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” promoted by Japan and the United States. National interest still reigns supreme in the region. The diplomatic agenda in the region therefore must focus on identifying where national interests overlap. This is where the Indo-Pacific might work best as a framework for cooperation: it provides a common, definitive backdrop against which countries can clearly articulate their interests.
Kyle Springer attended ISIS Malaysia’s APR as part of a Early Career Researchers Team supported by AusCSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific), based at the Australian National University.


Kyle Springer
Kyle Springer
Senior Analyst
Kyle Springer is the Senior Analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre. He provides high-level program assistance and develops the think tank and external outreach programs of the Centre. Kyle also directs the Centre's Indonesia programs and convenes policy workshops focussed on Australia-Indonesia relations.
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