Of late, the term “Indo-Pacific” has gained increasing currency, as seen during the recent Asian tour of United States President Donald Trump. India’s importance in the US foreign policy calculus has been increasing progressively, as seen in a major policy speech delivered by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He remarked that “the United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence.”
Meanwhile, a White House statement after the Modi-Trump meeting on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila notes that the two countries “pledged to enhance their cooperation as Major Defense Partners, resolving that two of the world’s great democracies should also have the world’s greatest militaries.”
For starters, it encapsulates the growing importance of India and the Indian Ocean countries, especially as Beijing seeks to carve out its own sphere of influence in the region and beyond.
With the US walking out of agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, many Asian countries and others are beginning to wonder if Washington is really serious about performing its traditional role of ensuring a rules-based order in Asia.
In addition, contrary to the fiery rhetoric used by Trump in his election campaign, during his recent visit to China, he seemed to be bowled over by the majestic reception, which his Chinese hosts had arranged. In addition, President Trump has been running with the hares and hunting with the hounds with regards to China. He needs Beijing’s help when it comes to tackling Pyongyang’s increasingly provocative shenanigans.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has also strengthened his hold on power. At the recent Party Congress in October, he was given a second consecutive five-year term.
Meanwhile, Australia has been debating the extent of Chinese influence in the country, and the Trump administration’s vacillations have not done much to assuage growing concerns in Canberra.
New Delhi, on the other hand, has had a recent run-in with the Dragon, when China started constructing a road through the Doklam region of Bhutan (claimed by China). Though the standoff ended much sooner than most in Delhi would have expected, it may just be the ominous beginning of a new round of tensions in the region between the two Asian behemoths.
Australia’s recent foreign policy white paper notes: “Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes.”
As shown by the recent meeting of some senior officials from India, Japan, the US, and Australia on the sidelines of the recent ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit in Manila (which led to the re-establishment of the “Quad”), these countries are looking to have a countervailing structure in the region. However, the major challenge for these countries would be how to mesh their economic and strategic priorities as all of them have huge amounts of trade with China.
Of particular importance in the growth of the concept of “Indo-Pacific” has been the role of Japan and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Way back in 2007, he said in a famous speech (titled “Confluence of the Two Seas”) that “the Pacific and the Indian oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.” In the same speech he had also remarked that “a broader Asia” that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form.”
The recent revival of the “Quad” is also a step in that direction, which Japan has been actively promoting. The Japanese government has been promoting the concept of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” which is important for Japan’s continued economic success and also for its strategic interests.
As the concept of Indo-Pacific gains increasing salience in both academic and policy circles, one must keep in mind the role of Japan and PM Abe in being one of the primary drivers of this concept and also in being far ahead of the times.
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. His latest book is The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India? He has been a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge (UK) and the Japan Institute of International Affairs (Tokyo). The views expressed are personal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @rupakj.