Reimagining Asia: From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific

The map of Asia is being reimagined. The idea of the Asia-Pacific, which made good sense as a framework for regional order in the late twentieth century, is giving way to another construct: the Indo-Pacific. This changing use of geographic terms has real-world consequences for how states and leaders perceive the regional strategic order, the challenges it faces, and the ways to address them.1 Accordingly, a contest is emerging over how to define Asia conceptually, including choice of terminology. This will have strategic implications, not least on managing the growth of China’s power and interests.

Leaders and senior policy figures from Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, and the United States are increasingly using the term “Indo-Pacific” or similar language in speeches and statements.2 Even where the precise wording differs there is increasingly an intersection between the idea of the Indo-Pacific and terminology used by policy leaders to describe the changing regional order. Notable among these is the “Maritime Silk Road” idea, which China under President Xi Jinping has promoted since late 2013 as a way to define its economic and diplomatic engagement across the Indian Ocean and beyond.3 The evolution of India’s “Look East” policy to an “Act East” agenda under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is part of a serious effort by India to become a more influential power east of Malacca. Since 2007, Japanese policy speeches and statements have occasionally referred to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s formulation of the “confluence of two seas” (futatsu no umi no majiwari). And Indonesia President Joko Widodo has, since his inauguration speech in late 2014, defined his archipelagic nation as a strategically important maritime nexus between the Indian and Pacific oceans.4 Meanwhile, other Asian middle powers, such as the Republic of Korea, while not necessarily yet embracing Indo-Pacific terminology, are acknowledging their economic and strategic dependence on developments across a much wider maritime region, from the Middle East to the United States.5

This Indo-Pacific tendency is much more than a matter of superficial or semantic difference. The way policymakers define and imagine regions can affect, among other things, the allocation of resources and high-level attention; the prioritization of security partners among countries; and the membership and agendas of regional diplomatic institutions. Thus, the increasing use of the term Indo-Pacific carries implications for the way countries approach security competition or cooperation in maritime Asia. This has ramifications for how countries manage and incorporate China’s rise in a regional order. Whether the region’s strategic future is dominated by competition or develops in a more cooperative fashion, the game is likely to unfold increasingly in a super-region connecting two oceans. There will, thus, be a growing imperative for the region’s powers to develop what might be termed an Indo-Pacific strategy, difficult though such a comprehensive approach may be.

Defining the Indo-Pacific

The idea of an Indo-Pacific region involves recognizing that the growing economic, geopolitical, and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions are creating a single “strategic system.”6 At its simplest, this can be understood as a set of geopolitical power relationships among nations where major changes in one part of the system affects what happens in the others. In this sense, the Indo-Pacific can be understood as a maritime “super-region” with its geographical center in Southeast Asia.7 This should not be mistaken as some kind of effort to reduce the centrality of Asia in regional conceptions; rather, it is a region with maritime Asia at its core.

The Indo-Pacific concept underscores the fact that the Indian Ocean has replaced the Atlantic as the globe’s busiest and most strategically significant trade corridor, carrying two-thirds of global oil shipments and a third of bulk cargo.8 The powerhouse economies of East Asia depend acutely on oil imports across the Indian Ocean from the Middle East and Africa, and this dependence is set to deepen further. Around 80 percent of China’s oil imports, perhaps 90 percent of South Korea’s, and up to 90 percent of Japan’s are shipped from the Middle East and/or Africa through the Indian Ocean.9 This, in turn, is a major strategic vulnerability, which is influencing diplomacy and partnership building, as well as the hard-power priorities of naval modernization. Together, these developments are making the Indo-Pacific the world’s economic and strategic center of gravity.

The reality of an Indo-Pacific region has been brought about by a confluence of economic and strategic factors. A principal driver has been the rise of China and India as powers that have become increasingly outward-looking in their economic and military affairs. This has led to the rapid expansion of their economic interests and, therefore, of their strategic and diplomatic imperatives into what the other might once have considered its primary maritime zone of interest—China’s into the Indian Ocean and India’s, to a lesser but growing degree, into the Pacific.10 This thickening of economic and strategic interaction between China and India is a major part of the Indo-Pacific story. This relationship is almost certain to keep expanding as the two powers’ wealth, military capabilities, and strategic interests continue to grow, and an Indo-Pacific context for their interactions, competitive or even cooperative, becomes more obvious.

Even so, the Indo-Pacific power narrative is not only about China and India. The region involves the intersecting interests of at least four major powers—China, India, Japan, and the United States—as well as significant middle players including Australia, South Korea, and the most substantial of the Southeast Asian countries. In parallel to the geographically expanding interests and reach of China and India, the continued strategic role and presence of the United States in both the Pacific and Indian oceans is a major factor defining the Indo-Pacific idea. The interests of Japan and of South Korea, which rely even more acutely than does China on energy supplies across the Indian Ocean, also need to be taken into account.

Japan’s active strategic diplomacy in recent years, including an enhanced security and economic partnership with India and the establishment of a small military base in Djibouti, can be seen as Indo-Pacific in character. Indeed, Japanese policy statements are now frank about declaring that security issues in the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, South China Sea, and East China Sea cannot be treated separately; Japan has a stake in all of them.11 To some degree, the same can even be said of the Republic of Korea, which has undertaken lethal and effective special forces action against pirates in the Gulf of Aden; is developing “blue-water” or oceangoing naval capabilities in part to contribute to the protection of its energy-supply lifelines; and which, since 2011, has deployed 150-strong special-forces contingents to the United Arab Emirates on rotation to train local forces in counter-terrorism and to protect South Korea nationals and interests.12

The most active power, however, in developing and advocating the Indo-Pacific idea has undoubtedly been Australia. Canberra has a unique role here: it is a middle power in the gathering Indo-Pacific strategic game, in multiple ways. These include its relative diplomatic influence, its unusual two-ocean geography, its proximity to and monitoring oversight of the crucial sea lanes connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, and its perceived status as a state that—despite being a close US ally—is also developing important economic, societal, and even security relations with multiple Asian powers. Moreover, Australia has long grappled with its singular status as neither an Asian nor a Western power, perceived as both integral to yet separate from both the Western world and the Asian region. All of this helps explain why Australia has been at the forefront of driving an Indo-Pacific understanding of the region, notably by formally recognizing this as the name of Australia’s zone of strategic interest in its 2013 defense white paper.13 Australia is the first country to definitively and comprehensively redefine its region as the Indo-Pacific, and this has become a bipartisan view among foreign and security policy leaders, from the 2013 Labor government under Prime Minister Julia Gillard to the current conservative government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The potential for the middle powers to have influence in an Indo-Pacific setting has also been implicitly recognized in statements by Indonesian leaders since 2013 as well as the way Modi has characterized Australia (“the heart of the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region”).14 As powers between the United States and China continue to explore closer security cooperation with one another, some of them are beginning to couch their connections in terms of shared Indo-Pacific interests.15 For instance, the low-key but historically important trilateral meeting in mid-2015 between the foreign secretaries of India, Japan, and Australia appears very much to have discussed the region and its security challenges in this shared frame of reference.16

The Indo-Pacific and its Limitations

For all this, does the Indo-Pacific make sense as a strategic system? The concept can quite easily be criticized on the grounds that it refers to a region so large as to encompass much of the globe and therefore too large to be a significantly bounded zone of strategic interaction. Certainly, much of what happens in one part of the Indo-Pacific region will not necessarily be of critical importance to others. Moreover, when it comes to solving security problems, the sheer scale of the region would seem to preclude the establishment of a cohesive, inclusive set of security or diplomatic institutions.

To be sure, many of the Indo-Pacific security challenges are not problems common across all of its sub-regions—in that sense it is not a fully integrated, interdependent strategic system. For instance, tensions on the Korean Peninsula are not of overwhelming concern to India, and India–Pakistan tensions would not generally seem to be a principal concern for East Asian countries. China–Japan friction in the East China Sea, even more the China–Taiwan problem, is principally a Northeast Asian concern. The sub-regions of Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, which remain home to Asia’s hottest near-term security challenges, will undoubtedly retain their own distinct security dynamics.

For the United States, there does not seem to be a single defining or over-arching Indo-Pacific security problem, other than strategic competition and the risk of conflict with China. The latter was already an Asia-Pacific problem before the emergence of Indo-Pacific economic and political currents. Some analysts even argue that, whatever the linkages between them, the United States ought actively to differentiate between the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, so as not to disperse its strategic capabilities and influence.17 However, this point disregards the fact that the very nature of America’s China challenge is now Indo-Pacific. Just as China’s interests, capabilities, and vulnerabilities are extending across the Indian Ocean, so too are the reasons for the United States to respond to opportunities for cooperation or competition with China across this domain. The perception that it should keep its regional strategy narrowly focused on East Asia fails to adequately recognize that it already has an established strategic role in the Indian Ocean and possesses certain advantages there. The Indian Ocean has long been part of the Pacific Command’s (PACOM’s) area of operations; the US–India partnership is consequential and growing; and the United States, its partners, and allies have a long record of basing, surveillance, and patrolling in many parts of the Indian Ocean.

The notion that the entire Indo-Pacific is becoming one connected region does have its obvious limits. Nevertheless, there exists a complex, multi-layered Asian system where sub-regional contests exist alongside wider regional and global dynamics. If Asia is becoming the global center of economic gravity, any conflict there involving a major power would have a global impact. In any case, tensions can no longer be quarantined in local neighborhoods. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are being watched as a laboratory for how a powerful China behaves when it does not get its way. Trading nations everywhere have stakes in Southeast Asian shipping lanes, and many regional players have a deep interest in what developments in the South China Sea mean for the fate of a rules-based order.

A Brief History of the Indo-Pacific

The term Indo-Pacific may seem new to geopolitics, but the underlying idea is anything but. In some ways it is an evolution, rather than a rejection, of the late twentieth-century idea of the Asia-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific has a long line of antecedents, dating back to pre-colonial times. It has been a more enduring way of understanding the geography of Asia than the late twentieth-century separation of East Asia and South Asia—a consequence of Cold War dynamics and the inward-looking, non-trading nature of the Chinese and Indian economies in the first few decades after World War II. Economic and cultural interactions between Asia’s sub-regions go back millennia, as attested by the spread of Buddhism from India to East Asia. The interactions were not always from west to east: in the early 1400s, the Chinese empire sent a powerful “treasure fleet” led by Admiral Zheng He on multiple voyages into the Indian Ocean. Chinese interest in this enterprise was not sustained, and the emperor ceased the voyages after seeing little merit in them.

Soon after Zheng He ceased his expeditions, from the fifteenth century onwards, European adventurers saw merit aplenty, and began to visit the Indian Ocean and the waters and lands to its east and north. The activities of European mercantilist trading companies, explorers, diplomats, and military expeditions were not confined to narrow twentieth-century conceptions of Asia. The British Indian Empire, for instance, depended on links via Singapore to China and Australia, and westward to Africa and Suez. Throughout colonial times, European maps entitled “Asia” encompassed an Indo-Pacific arc from the Indian Ocean rim, through Southeast Asia to China, Korea, and Japan.

Ideas analogous to the Indo-Pacific became popular in the development of the study of geopolitics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. American sea-power theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan and British geographer Halford Mackinder each saw Asia as an integrated region. Indo-Pacific definitions of Asia came to further prominence, but also took on an ideological distortion, with another early twentieth-century advocate, German geographer Karl Haushofer.18 Haushofer drew on his travels in Japan, China, Korea, and India to create his own geographical determinism. In 1924, he envisaged a world of four “pan-regions,” arguing that each was a suitable sphere of interest, to be dominated by one strong power.19 The Indo-Pacific was becoming an accepted term in ethnography and marine science. Applying it to geopolitics, Haushofer saw the strategic and economic unity of this pan-region as the preserve of Japan, to be shared perhaps with Russia. Thankfully, today’s Indo-Pacific concept is precisely the opposite of Haushofer’s20—it is about finding ways peacefully to manage the intersection of multiple powers’ interests in a vast commons, rather than using geography for allocating spheres of influence.

During WWII, the allies recognized their theater of operations against Japan as having something like an Indo-Pacific character. After the war, British strategic planning for the region continued to be Indo-Pacific, using that terminology into at least the 1960s. Nor did regional countries automatically abandon the idea of the Indo-Pacific as one region even when barriers to interaction arose with the onset of the Cold War and the economic inwardness of newly independent India and Communist China. Australian defense documents assessed the country’s security outlook in terms of risks and challenges across the “Indo-Pacific Basin” into the 1960s.21

To the Asia-Pacific and Back Again

Change was afoot, and from the late 1960s the Asia-Pacific came to dominate conceptions of Asia. This was generally understood as a region connecting Northeast and Southeast Asia with Oceania (and therefore Australia) and the Americas. Much of the purpose of this idea was to reflect and reinforce the crucial US strategic and economic role in Asia, as well as the success of the East Asian industrialized countries as US trade partners.

The Asia-Pacific reached new levels of relevance and institutionalization by the late 1980s, with the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) process. Its consolidation, including most East Asian and Australasian countries, plus the United States, Canada, and three Latin American countries, helped allay concerns about US retrenchment at the end of the Cold War. By the time China began engaging with Asian multilateralism in the 1990s, it found an Asia-Pacific set of institutions: not only APEC, but also ASEAN and its wider security dialogue the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). In retrospect, the Asia-Pacific concept could not last without coming to terms with two factors that emerged in the 1990s: 1) the rise of India as a substantial economic and military power with interests beyond South Asia; and 2) the increased connection between the economic powerhouses of East Asia and the Indian Ocean region, related especially to their demand for energy and other resources.

These new dynamics were soon reflected in Asia-Pacific institution-building. The ARF came to include India and other South Asian players in the mid-1990s. At its crowning moment—the establishment of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2005—the process of institution-building took a decisive twist, which, in retrospect, can be seen as Indo-Pacific in nature. Southeast Asians accepted India, Australia, and New Zealand as members of that regional leaders’ forum from the outset—against China’s lobbying—, and so the contemporary Indo-Pacific-era began. This interpretation of events was subsequently borne out in 2013 by Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, when he argued that the shaping of the EAS was a conscious act of Indo-Pacific diplomacy by Southeast Asian states.22

Since the early 2000s, the Indo-Pacific has returned in name as well as in substance. An explicit Indo-Pacific framework has entered the policy discourse of at least five countries. Although Australia has led the way by rebadging its region as the Indo-Pacific in its 2013 defense white paper, officials in the United States, India, Japan, and Indonesia have also begun using the term. This points to a growing acceptance of the concept. Abbott has continued in the footsteps of Gillard, repeatedly using Indo-Pacific terminology to describe Australia’s strategic environment and referring to the Indo-Pacific as the focus of the world’s economic dynamism.23 Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began using the term in late 2012 and into 2013 as a way of defining his country’s relations with ASEAN and Japan.24 Modi, has used analogous language, e.g., in describing his vision for relations with Japan and Australia.25 Abe has begun utilizing explicitly Indo-Pacific terminology.26 In May 2013, Natalegawa began an initiative for an “Indo-Pacific treaty.”27 In late 2014, Widodo spoke of his own new maritime vision for Indonesia as a strategic actor between two oceans.28

The Indo-Pacific appears to have entered the official American foreign-policy lexicon in 2010, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell started using the term in speeches leading to the US “pivot” or rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, notably in the way they defined US strategic relations with India and Australia.29 Indo-Pacific terminology is frequently used in the US armed forces: for PACOM, the default definition of the region in which their forces operate is the “Indo-Asia Pacific.”30 The United States under President Barack Obama has not explicitly replaced Asia-Pacific with Indo-Pacific terminology at all levels or in all agencies. However, Indo-Pacific language and thinking is now regularly used in State Department declarations of policy, and “Indo-Asia-Pacific” wording is now standard for PACOM. It would be fair to conclude that those parts of the Obama administration most regularly engaged with Asia see the region as Indo-Pacific in character, with India’s eastward strategic and diplomatic engagement seen as integral to Asia’s future.31 Most significantly, during his historic visit to India in January 2015, Obama implicitly endorsed the Indo-Pacific concept in the formulation of his joint statement with Modi, which recognized “the important role that both countries play in promoting peace, prosperity, stability and security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.”32

This increasing evidence of Indo-Pacific terminology and thinking by various governments is an evolution of parallel perspectives, albeit with some cross-fertilization. It does not result from any formal coordination of positions. It is an organic process, not a plan. Of course, there is presumably some interplay and mutual encouragement, experimentation, or emboldening at work. Some notable appearances of the term have been, for instance, in joint statements or press conferences, such as in India’s interactions with ASEAN, Australia, or Japan, or Australia’s with the United States. There is also an accumulating body of literature from think tanks and academics that reflect and help shape the emerging policy view.

China’s Indo-Pacific: Follow the Maritime Silk Road?

Of course, a viable strategic definition of Asia cannot be based solely on what the United States and its allies think. The enduring validity of an Indo-Pacific way of seeing and acting strategically in Asia will rest also on the perspective, choices and behavior of other countries, most notably China. Some observers suggest that the Indo-Pacific idea, particularly as presented by American voices in the context of the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, is unlikely to appeal to China and could even heighten its perceptions that it is the target of a US-led containment strategy.33 The same observers and other analysts, however, recognize that the Indo-Pacific need not be a politically loaded concept. It would seem counterproductive and futile to employ the term to deemphasize the importance of China’s role in the regional order, or to delegitimize China’s pursuit of its interests as a major maritime trading nation in the Indian Ocean, for the simple reason that the Indo-Pacific includes China, by definition. For the same reasons, Chinese analysts are caught in a self-defeating semantic game if they seek to discount the Indo-Pacific idea by dint of its association with US, Japanese, Indian, or Australia policy statements—after all, there would be no basis for an Indo-Pacific view of Asia if not for China’s own expanding interests and power. In that sense, China—not India—is becoming the quintessential Indo-Pacific power. There will, however, be a continuing need to manage Chinese sensitivities that the Indo-Pacific idea is in some way endorsed by—among others—Japan, India, Australia, and the United States, participants in a quadrilateral dialogue in 2007 that unnerved Chinese policymakers, who saw it as the embryo of a regional security alignment.

An Indo-Pacific definition of Asia lends further legitimacy to India’s growing role as a strategic actor in East Asia, including the South China Sea and Western Pacific.34 It also offers a rationale for a stronger US–India relationship.35 The Indo-Pacific idea could dilute Chinese influence in those regional forums that adopt an Indo-Pacific membership, simply because one power’s influence will naturally be lessened the more other strong, independent voices are in the same room. However, the Indo-Pacific concept also recognizes China’s role and interests in the Indian Ocean, and, therefore, dilutes Indian dominance, obliging it to at least consider how to address China’s interest in joining regional bodies like the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

In any case, China’s responses to the Indo-Pacific idea have not been wholly negative. They have included suspicion36 and indifference, but, sometimes, Chinese analysts or officials are engaged and interested. Some Chinese observers have stated that the US rebalance involves a broad definition of Asia that encompasses the Indian Ocean, while others have warned that it is inventing a term to exclude China; yet some seem open-minded about the Indo-Pacific concept, acknowledging that China’s own interests are Indo-Pacific in nature.37

Ultimately, it has been the very expansion of China’s interests, diplomacy, and strategic reach into the Indian Ocean that most raises consciousness of the Indo-Pacific. China is undeniably expanding its influence and presence in the Indian Ocean, where its interests—particularly energy imports—have grown sharply. With growing Chinese oil demand, the building of ambitious overland pipelines will only slightly offset China’s critical reliance on the Indian Ocean.38 An estimated million or more Chinese nationals are also living and working in Africa, where China is a principal foreign investor. Additionally, Chinese security personnel are playing a variety of roles in Africa, including as contributors to “public goods” such as medical relief and evacuation of noncombatants from crisis zones.

The development of China’s naval capabilities is also a clear sign that its strategic priorities are tending towards the Indo-Pacific. The construction of a blue-water navy in recent years, including the recent investment in a fleet of new replenishment ships to allow long-range naval deployments, suggests that Beijing’s maritime priorities will not remain limited to the so-called “near seas” off China’s eastern seaboard.39 In mid-2015, the latest Chinese Defense White Paper plainly signaled China’s ambition to become a maritime power and one not confined to East Asian waters. “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned,” the document stated. It was explicit about adding a role called “open seas protection” to the PLA Navy’s existing task of “offshore waters defense.”40 This turn to the “far seas” of the Indian Ocean is increasingly apparent in deployments. China has a long-term security presence in the Gulf of Aden, as well as increased naval activity and port investment in multiple locations across the Indian Ocean. Some Chinese naval activity is becoming indisputably Indo-Pacific in character. The sustained counter-piracy activity since late 2008 is the obvious example, as is the “goodwill” voyage of the PLA-N hospital ship Peace Ark to many Indian Ocean countries in 2013. More potently, in late 2013 and early 2014, a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine undertook a long-range patrol across the Indian Ocean, to both test and signal capability. In early 2014, a Chinese surface action group, including two destroyers and a large amphibious ship, entered the Indian Ocean via the Sunda Strait and conducted combat-simulation exercises, causing some concern in Australia and India.

The story of Chinese submarine visits to Sri Lanka, perhaps, best illustrates the new geopolitics of China’s Indo-Pacific naval ambitions. In late 2014, a Chinese submarine twice docked in Sri Lanka. The growth of China–Sri Lanka economic and security ties, from the submarine visits to the development of massive Chinese-financed port infrastructure, has increasingly been identified as a key manifestation of Sino-Indian strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. The submarine visits are widely reported to have stirred serious security anxiety in India. Some commentary has drawn a direct link between India’s reaction to the submarine visits and the surprise defeat of the Rajapaksa government in the January 2015 Sri Lankan general election, which has been described as a major setback for Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean.

Much Chinese diplomatic activity has also taken on an Indo-Pacific flavor. Li Keqiang’s first foreign visit as premier was to India in May 2013. More pointedly, in September 2014, Xi Jinping combined his first presidential visit to India with visits to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The trips to the Indian Ocean island nations were conspicuous for the emphasis Xi placed on comprehensive engagement, including generous investment and aid deals, and the reframing of these relationships as part of the Maritime Silk Road. This in turn can be seen as a new strand in Chinese external policy, indicating that Chinese strategists are thinking in ways analogous to the Indo-Pacific idea.

The Maritime Silk Road could be viewed as both an alternative to and an endorsement of the Indo-Pacific idea—with Chinese characteristics. It is a major diplomatic and economic initiative for developing a China-centric network of relationships covering the sea route westward between China and Europe. Some Chinese analysts are comfortable using Indo-Pacific terminology in their writing, e.g., calling for an Indo-Pacific era of India-China cooperation.41 Another notable recent development is Beijing’s emphasis on continental and Eurasian frameworks and partnerships, notably the China–Russia relationship, the SCO, and the Conference on Confidence-Building and Interaction in Asia.42 But this continental vision is a complement to, not a substitute for, China’s engagement with the maritime domain.

Some Principles and Parameters for Managing Indo-Pacific Tensions

Whether the region’s strategic future is dominated by competition or develops in a more cooperative fashion, an understanding of the regional dynamics playing out across the Pacific and Indian oceans will be necessary to inform effective policies for maintaining stability.Existing in the same strategic space geographically does not automatically result in the alignment of interests and notions of regional stability. The gradual emergence of an understanding among key powers that the fates of the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions are interlinked does not in itself translate into security cooperation or the amelioration of mistrust across such a broad space. Yet, if the Indo-Pacific is to have a peaceful and prosperous future, these are crucial objectives. The essential questions for policymakers relate to how a shared Indo-Pacific geographical understanding can contribute to security partnerships and stability. If the global center of economic and strategic gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific, how can regional powers manage the strategic tensions arising from such shifting power balances across this immense canvas?

Wider questions remain about how China can be incorporated into a two-ocean regional order without worsening the security anxieties of other states. A diplomatic and maritime-security infrastructure is needed to reduce the risk of conflict as the great powers expand their interests in the Indo-Pacific. These are uncharted waters but some basic principles can be identified. Coexistence among the significant powers, especially China, India, Japan, and the United States, will clearly be vital to the super-region’s peace and stability, but other states will require a say. Even if these four powers could conceivably overcome mistrust and habits of unilateralism, and coordinate their policies to protect the maritime commons, regional stability would still require that other states were convinced that such an arrangement was in their interests. Yet, the disparities and distances among the great number of theoretically Indo-Pacific states mean that a fully inclusive regional organization is not the solution. It cannot be effective for practical matters such as crisis management or even rapid disaster relief. Asia’s paramount diplomatic institution, the EAS, is already in essence Indo-Pacific in character, as are its kindred ASEAN-centric gatherings, the ARF and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM–Plus). They all include India.

If the challenge is to devise ways and rules to manage China’s strategic entry to the Indian Ocean, and potentially India’s to the Pacific, an Indo-Pacific security order will need a third institutional layer between alliances and slow multilateralism: practical “minilateral” dialogues, exercises, or security operations among easy-to-coordinate coalitions of self-selecting partners. Sometimes these will include China—as with the anti-piracy patrols or the deployment of Chinese aircraft and ships (as well as Japanese, South Korea, US, and British assets, among others) to the Australian-led international search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean in early 2014. Sometimes minilateralism will not include China. This may simply be because of which participants happened to mobilize and coordinate in time (as in the 2004-2005 Indian Ocean tsunami relief operation and the early phase of the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan relief effort) or it may be based on wider strategic concerns amid a climate of mistrust.

In a large region where nations have such disparate capabilities and convergent as well as conflicting interests, a set of clearly understood principles for participation in minilateral security cooperation and dialogue efforts is required. The basic ground rules should be that participants in a functional minilateral initiative—that is, one designed to address a practical problem—comprise countries with interests at stake; significant relevant military capabilities and a readiness to use them; and willingness to help shape and abide by rules and norms for predictable, stable, and non-coercive behavior in the maritime domain. This third characteristic is important as a way to reduce suspicion that the projection of military capabilities to deliver public goods is actually cover for less altruistic purposes.

Given the size and complexity of the Indo-Pacific, it is not surprising that this is a region where countries will choose different security partners for different purposes. For as long as the region experiences armed tension, uncertainty and risk at sea – such as over contested islands in the East and South China seas – China will need to come to terms with the fact that US alliances and partnerships will strengthen in ways that the participants see as defensive.

In the final analysis, a defining characteristic of a region on the scale of the Indo-Pacific is that it dilutes the ability of any single country to unilaterally shape the strategic order. Attempts by any country to maintain an assertive unilateral approach to security across such a large area will be destabilizing as they will cut across the interests of multiple powers. Unilateralism is not an option, nor is inclusive multilateralism a realistic solution to all the Indo-Pacific’s serious security challenges. Given the region’s size, its littoral states, and extra-regional stakeholders are too disparate and numerous to be expected to achieve timely and practical multilateral solutions to a host of problems ranging from piracy to strategic mistrust. A third way is needed: a set of minilateral arrangements for feasible security cooperation among a small number of key players.

The shape of the most viable of new forms of practical security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific will depend on a duality characteristic of the dynamics of the new super-region. The economic and strategic interconnectedness of the two-ocean region translates into both mutual benefit, such as in the cooperative delivery of security public goods, notably in counter-piracy and disaster relief, and mutual vulnerability, such as the major Asian maritime powers’ heavy dependence on seaborne energy imports and their shared fear of disruption in times of crisis, conflict, or coercion. Regardless of what terminology analysts and leaders choose to use, a set of distinctly Indo-Pacific security dynamics—the ways in which states relate to one another on security—is thus beginning to emerge. Analyzing and shaping those dynamics should be a priority for all substantial powers with a stake in this two-ocean region and its future.


1. This essay draws on some of the author’s previous work including Rory Medcalf, “The Indo-Pacific: What’s in a Name?” The American Interest 10, no. 2 (November-December 2013), 58-66; Rory Medcalf, “Mapping the Indo-Pacific? China, India and the United States,” in Mohan Malik, ed., Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific: Perspectives from China, India and the United States (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and in particular, Rory Medcalf, “Redefining the region: The Indo-Pacific idea,” in Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment 2015 (London: International Institute of Strategic Studies),

2. Prime Minister of Australia, The Hon Tony Abbott MP, “Address to Parliament, House of Representatives, Parliament House,” Canberra, November 18, 2014,; “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Addresses Australian Parliament,”, July 8, 2014,; Marty M. Natalegawa, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, “An Indonesian Perspective on the Indo-Pacific” (Keynote address, Conference on Indonesia, Washington DC, May 16, 2013); Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011,

3. ASEAN–China Centre, “Speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Indonesian Parliament,” Jakarta, October 2, 2013,

4. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “Confluence of the Two Seas” (Speech, Parliament of the Republic of India, August 2007),; Rendl Witular, “Presenting maritime doctrine,” The Jakarta Post, November 14, 2014,

5. See for instance H.E. Yun Byung-se, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea, “The Middle East in Transition and Korea’s Foreign Policy toward the Middle East,” (Keynote speech, 11th Korea-Middle East Cooperation Forum, Amman, December 21, 2014); Ian Bowers, “The Republic of Korea and its Navy: Perceptions of Security and the Utility of Seapower,” Journal of Strategic Studies 37, no. 3 (2014),

6. Rory Medcalf, “The Indo-Pacific: What’s in a Name?” 58-66.

7. This parallels the idea of a regional security “supercomplex.” See Barry Buzan, “Security Architecture in Asia: The Interplay of Regional and Global Levels,” The Pacific Review 16, no. 2 (2003), 143–173,

8. Australian Government, Department of Defence, “Defence White Paper 2013,” 74,

9. The Pentagon’s 2014 report to Congress on Chinese military power noted that 84% of China’s oil imports transited the Indian Ocean. See US Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2014,” 18,; data presented by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative refers to 80% of Japanese oil imports as being from the Middle East, see; Yun Byung-se, “The Middle East in Transition and Korea’s Foreign Policy toward the Middle East.”,

10. C. Raja Mohan, Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).

11. “Maritime security issues in the region cannot be separated: Japan’s Vice Minister,” Observer Research Foundation website, June 12, 2015,

12. Donald Kirk, “South Korea delivers setback to Somali pirates and a warning to North Korea,” The Christian Science Monitor, January 21, 2011,; Ian Bowers, “The Republic of Korea and its Navy: Perceptions of Security and the Utility of Seapower,” Journal of Strategic Studies 21, no. 3 (2014),; “S. Korea sends special troops to UAE,” The Korea Times, March 3, 2015,

13. Australian Government, Department of Defence, “Defence White Paper 2013.”

14. Adelle Neary, “Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Jokowi Spells Out Vision for Indonesia’s ‘Global Maritime Nexus,”’ November 26, 2014, Center for Strategic and International Studies Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 24,; “Narendra Modi’s Speech to the Australian Parliament in Full,” The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2014,

15. C. Raja Mohan and Rory Medcalf, “The US-China Rivalry has Asia on Edge: Can ‘Middle Powers’ Create Stability?” National Interest, August 15, 2014,

16. Prashanth Parameswaran, “India, Australia, Japan hold first ever trilateral dialogue,” The Diplomat, June 9, 2015,,”australia-japan-hold-first-ever-trilateral-dialogue/.

17. Nick Bisley and Andrew Phillips, “Rebalance to Where? US Strategic Geography in Asia,” Survival: 97.

18. Dennis Rumley, Timothy Doyle and Sanjay Chaturvedi, “’Securing’ the Indian Ocean? Competing regional security constructions,” 11–12.

19. Karl Haushofer, Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean (1924; ed. and updated by Lewis A. Tambs, trans. by Ernst J. Brehm, New York, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002).

20.Rory Medcalf, “Mapping the Indo-Pacific,” 53.

21. “Proceedings of the seminar on Commonwealth responsibilities for security in the Indo-Pacific region, 1966,” March 1966, Australian Institute of International Affairs and Australian National University, Canberra,

22. Marty Natalegawa, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, “An Indonesian Perspective on the Indo-Pacific.”

23. Tony Abbott, “Address to Parliament, House of Representatives, Parliament House,” November 18, 2014.

24. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “Prime Minister’s address to Japan-India Association, Japan-India Parliamentary Friendship League and International Friendship Exchange Council,” May 28, 2013.

25. “Narendra Modi’s Speech to the Australian Parliament in Full,” The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2014.

26. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “‘Japan is Back,’ policy speech by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC,” February 22, 2013,

27. Marty Natalegawa, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, “An Indonesian Perspective on the Indo-Pacific.”

28. Adelle Neary, “Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Jokowi Spells Out Vision for Indonesia’s ‘Global Maritime Nexus.”’

29. U.S Department of State, “America’s Engagement in the Asia-Pacific,” remarks by Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, Honolulu, Hawaii, October 28, 2010,

30. US House Armed Services Committee, “Statement of Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command before the House Armed Services Committee on U.S. Pacific Command Posture,” March 5, 2013,

31. The White House, Office of the Vice President, “Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden on Asia-Pacific Policy” (George Washington University, Washington DC, July 19, 2013),

32. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Shared effort: progress for all,” US–India Joint Statement, January 25, 2015,

33. Dennis Rumley, Timothy Doyle and Sanjay Chaturvedi, “‘Securing’ the Indian Ocean? Competing regional security constructions,”

34. David Scott, “India and the allure of the ‘Indo-Pacific,’” International Studies 49, no.s 3 & 4 (2012): 2,

35. Rohan Ventaramakrishnan, “Obama visit helped Modi move the hyphen from Indo-Pak to Indo-Pacific,”, January 28, 2015,

36. See for example, Lü Yaodong, “Japan’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept another platform for containing China,” Global Times, October 13, 2014,; another Chinese scholar has claimed India is the “key” for a US “Indo-Pacific strategy” aimed at containing China and “balancing Beijing’s Silk Road push into the Indian Ocean.” See “Obama’s India visit aimed at containing China: Report,” Times of India, January 25, 2015,

37. For a range of Chinese views see: Qi Jianguo, “An Unprecedented Great Changing Situation: Understanding and Thoughts on the Global Strategic Situation and Our Country’s National Security Environment,” in James A. Bellacqua and Daniel M. Hartnett, “Article by LTG Qi Jianguo on International Security Affairs,” CNA China Studies, April 2013,; Kui Jing, “Welcoming the US into the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” Sohu, March 19, 2013,; Minghao Zhao, “The emerging strategic triangle in Indo-Pacific Asia,” The Diplomat, June 4, 2013,

38. Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “China’s oil security pipe dream: The reality, and strategic consequences, of seaborne imports,” Naval War College Review 63, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 90-91,–The-Reality,-and-.aspx.

39. See for example

40. Ministry of Defense, PRC: China’s Military Strategy, May 2015,

41. Liu Zongyi, “New Delhi-Beijing cooperation key to building an ‘Indo-Pacific era,”’ Global Times, November 30, 2014,

42. Mu Chunshan, “What is CICA (and Why Does China Care About It)?” The Diplomat, May 17, 2014,