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Politics & Security

[All Politics is Global] The Indo-Pacific in a New Era's 'Geographical Pivot of History'

Restoring the power balance in Asia is key as the geographical pivot to the Indo-Pacific and Western Pacific is reframed around containing Chinese expansionism.

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World map showing Indo-Pacific at its center. The red circle/oval roughly depicts the Indian Ocean region. Blue circle/oval covers the Pacific region. Green oval covers ASEAN. Yellow overlay covers the Indo-Pacific. (©ASEAN via Wikimedia Commons)

Asia's destiny is being rescripted with the end of the Asia-Pacific and the birth of the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, the continuing variable in this replacement remains Asia's geographical space. The Asia-Pacific existed more so as a geoeconomic category advancing the vision of repairing political disparities through trans-Pacific economic connections. Its successor, the Indo-Pacific, is a prominent geopolitical and security-dominant entity.

Geographical Spaces in 1904

Allusions to geographical spaces and concentric circles can be referenced back to the 20th century work of British geographer, Halford Mackinder. His best-known 1904 essay, "The Geographical Pivot of History" predicted many of the global geopolitical shifts happening today. Mackinder coined the term "heartland" to capture the essence of the rising zone of geopolitical power. It described what he believed would become a new "geographical pivot of history."

In Mackinder's conception, the world of 1904 was primarily divided into three great spaces. This is also relevant while analyzing the terminology and significance of the contemporary Indo-Pacific. Namely, these were:

  1. The "pivot area" or "heartland." This is represented by Eurasia's continental interior.
  2. The Inner Crescent. Partly continental, partly oceanic, this is a crescent that runs from Western Europe through the Middle East, India, China, along the Pacific littoral, and Japan. 
  3. The Outer Crescent, consisting of Australia, the Americas, Southern Africa, and Britain.
US-Japan-Australia Joint Naval training in West Pacific.

Geopolitical Pivots in the 21st Century

Present-day geostrategic realities and tectonic shifts in the relative power of major players on the world stage make it essential to understand the role that geography plays in the making of statecraft. The contending geopolitical visions have a profound influence on policy formulation. 

Various historical conceptions of geopolitics have enthusiastically been taken up and applied in studying the imperial decline, the likes of which gripped Britain almost a century ago. This can be glimpsed in the contemporary rhetoric of American policymakers and commentators. Meanwhile, these evoked ideas of "geographical pivots," "heartlands," and "sea power." 

The most obvious among these is China's growing naval presence. Its power projection is especially visible in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. This underscores the reality that the Western Pacific and Indo-Pacific at large collectively constitute the 21st century's "geographical pivot."

national security predictions
Family photo of the Quad leaders (L to R) of Australia, the United States, Japan and India, at the Prime Minister's Office (Japan) on May 24, 2022 (Photo by Yasuhiro Yajima).

Groupings Within Regions

Regional construction is an exercise in power. Indeed, the current decade has seen many regional groupings taking shape and crystallizing. Among them are exercises in power that could potentially reshape Asia's geopolitics. 

These 21st Century Indo-Pacific groupings, in a way, are reexamining geographical divisions. For example, drawing its claim of legitimacy from the ancient Silk Road, China is trying to insert its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Essentially Beijing presents this as an anti-colonial space and advanced alternative model of geoeconomic globalization and political diplomacy.

Meanwhile, the liberal and free world is advancing the concept of open and fluid borders that concurrently enhance regional security. It represents a global scale of regional segmentation geopolitically and geoeconomically. This is achieved using groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), AUKUS, I2U2 Group, and the United States-Japan-South Korea Trilateral. However, in contrast to past decades, geopolitical interests in such groupings are finding prominence over geoeconomic relationships.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (front row, third from left) and Russian President Putin (front row, second from left) wave their hands during a group photo session at the third Belt and Road forum on October 18 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on October 18, 2023. (©Kyodo)

The Intersection of Economics and Geopolitics

This evolving regional construct underscores the significance of "metageography." This term was introduced by geographer Martin W Lewis and historian Karen Wigen in their 1997 book, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography.

The path-breaking work by Lewis and Wigen examined meta-geographical constructs by their common descriptive terms. For example, Europe, Asia, America, East, West, South, and so on. The authors further defined these constructs as a "set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world." 

Lewis and Wigen further argued that the rise of the Asia-Pacific as a geographic category was part of the Cold War narrative. They saw economic integration as the basis for bringing non-Communist countries into the American frontier. In short, geographies and the intersection of economics and geopolitics are far more complex than the related land and water boundaries would admit.

Geoeconomics had a big impact on the Asia-Pacific's changing metageography in an earlier era. Today, however, it is geopolitics that is redefining the Indo-Pacific's power dynamics. This is taking place through the relative coupling and decoupling of regional players. 

China's aircraft carrier and other PLA vessels take part in military drills in the Western Pacific.

China's Role in Reshaping Region Interest Groups

Postcolonial Asia has had many a debate when it comes to alliance politics. However, preventing China's hegemonic territorial expansionism and revisionist policies remains the primary determining driver for restoring the regional balance of power.

Predicting the rise of the Chinese state in 1944, Walter Lippmann wrote in US War Aims, "China will be a great power capable of organizing its own regional security." 

Going beyond Lippmann's prediction, China is reshaping the security and geoeconomic narrative across entire Asia, Africa, and the Western Pacific. Consequently, this reframes the geographical pivot. As Beijing seeks to alter the geopolitical status quo, today's geographical heartland also finds China at its center.

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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).

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