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Can the ‘Indo-Pacific’ compete with China?

The old but new geographical term “Indo-Pacific” is now increasingly used to replace “Asia-Pacific.” In August 2016, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his regional vision called the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.” U.S. President Donald Trump echoed the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” during his first Asia tour in November and in his administration’s national security strategy released in December.

Australia, which referred to the Indo-Pacific in its 2013 defense white paper, again cited the phrase in its 2017 foreign policy white paper. India’s strategic community also understands the geostrategic importance of the Indo-Pacific to their country. In November, senior diplomats from Japan, Australia, India and the United States met in Manila and agreed to ensure a free and open international order in the Indo-Pacific based on the rule of law.

It remains to be seen, however, whether all these countries are closely aligned in what they see in their “Indo-Pacific strategy,” in particular as to whether they view China as a “competitor.”

It was the U.S. Pacific Command that developed the geopolitical concept of Indo-Pacific during the Cold War. After the United Kingdom withdrew its military from east of the Suez at the end of the 1960s, the Soviet Union expanded its military presence and influence throughout the Indian Ocean region. To counter the growing Soviet threat in the region, the U.S. Pacific Command came to cover both the Pacific and Indian oceans in 1972. Since the 1970s, the U.S. Pacific Command has regarded the two great oceans as a unified strategic theater and described it as “Indo-Asia-Pacific.”

Tokyo has redefined the Indo-Pacific as a geostrategic concept of the 21st century. Abe’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy dates back to his first stint as prime minister — having its origin in his speech titled “The Confluence of the Two Seas” delivered to the Indian parliament in August 2007. Abe advocated that Japan and India, as like-minded maritime democracies, should promote freedom and prosperity in the “broader Asia.” This “broader Asia” would be linked with the United States, Australia and other Pacific nations, evolving into an immense network that would allow people, goods, capital and knowledge to flow freely.

Abe’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy provides Tokyo’s geo-economic vision in the region. The strategy aims at combining the dynamism of Asia and Africa, and envisions a greater regional integration along the coastlines of the Indian Ocean/Pacific Ocean by promoting high-standard infrastructure building and enhanced connectivity. The strategy is also a geopolitical counterbalance vis-a-vis the growing Chinese influence and presence in Eurasia and Africa under President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

Maritime security and the rule of law are critical parts of Japan’s new strategy as the Indo-Pacific is a unified maritime theater. China’s militarization of the South China Sea, fortification of its military facility in Djibouti and growing naval activities in the Indian Ocean make regional countries wonder what Beijing’s real intentions are. This is why the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy emphasizes the protection of maritime commerce and the freedom of navigation.

The key to Abe’s strategy is a quad among Japan, India, Australia and the U.S., or the “democratic security diamond.” Abe and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi have agreed to seek interaction between Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy and India’s “Act East” policy. New Delhi is concerned about the proposed China-Pakistan economic corridor project and China’s port development in countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The Malabar naval exercise among India, the U.S. and Japan in the Bay of Bengal last July demonstrated the participants’ resolve to defend the free and open Indo-Pacific.

As an island nation facing both oceans, Australia has also been looking at the Indo-Pacific concept. Canberra relies heavily on stability in the Indian and Pacific oceans. As Australia’s foreign policy white paper describes, although its alliance with the U.S. remains the key to national security, Canberra is expanding security partnerships with others in the region, especially Tokyo. The security partnership between Australia and Japan is tied by a common interest in maintaining the rules-based regional order in the Indo-Pacific — despite the failure of Japan’s attempted sale of its submarine to Australia.

Washington finally joined Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra in emphasizing a free and open Indo-Pacific but with a different tone. Trump’s national security strategy bluntly calls China a “strategic competitor” in political, economic and military spheres, and a “revisionist power” seeking to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” The strategy clearly recognizes the past U.S. administrations’ assumption that engagement would turn China into a benign international player was “false” and calls for competition. Competition, it argues, does not necessary lead to conflict; competition is the best way to prevent conflict.

Asian experts in Washington generally welcome the Trump administration’s shift from engagement to competition with China. Perhaps Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra also share Washington’s assessment of challenges posed by China in the Indo-Pacific. However, Japan, India and Australia have not given up on engagement with China. Japan is now showing interest in cooperating with the One Belt, One Road initiative as it seeks more stabilized bilateral relations. New Delhi has agreed to rebuild bilateral ties with Beijing after the land border standoff last summer. Canberra emphasizes constructive ties with China under the comprehensive strategic partnership expecting Beijing’s greater responsibility.

It is little known that the Trump administration has adopted a classified Indo-Pacific strategy, which is said to be in line with its national security strategy. Most likely the classified document calls for a strategy of competition vis-a-vis China in the Indo-Pacific. The question is whether or not the other countries in the Indo-Pacific — Japan, India, Australia, ASEAN members and South Korea — are ready for competition with China. Maybe not (yet).

As the U.S. national security strategy seeks more cooperation and contribution from allies and partners, close coordination is necessary. Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific strategy is most similar to that of the U.S. Therefore Tokyo should persuade Washington to implement the strategy in a way that other countries in the region can accept, while encouraging the countries in the region to prepare for strategic competition with China in their future Indo-Pacific vision.

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