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Asia-Pacific v Indo-Pacific: What's in a name?

Panel Presentation to Session The Age of Transformation? Asia-Pacific v. Indo-Pacific, Jeju Forum, Republic of Korea, 1 June 2023

I was involved from the outset, as Australia’s Foreign Minister in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, in the creation of all the early regional economic and security dialogue architecture – including APEC the ASEAN Regional Forum – that we still think of as being at the heart of the concept of the ‘Asia-Pacific’, and I have certainly always been very comfortable with that terminology.

It captured both the increasing integration economically, and like-mindedness politically, of most of Pacific-facing Asia - both North East Asia and South East Asia – along with Australia and New Zealand, both of us with strongly European histories but recognizing that our future lay much more with our Eastern geography than our Western history.

And it reflected the desire of all of us in East Asia and Oceania to maintain and increase the engagement of the mighty US economic engine in our region – and the desire of most, if not all, of us to maintain the military commitment of the US as well, as a perceived stabilising force.

There was plenty of comfort in bringing Canada and Mexico along for the ride; a little less so the other Latin-Americans on that far side of the Pacific Rim. But ‘Asia Pacific’ language certainly captured the mood of the time.

The idea of conceptualizing the geopolitical essence of our region as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been gradually gaining traction since the early 2000s: partly as a result of the growing visibility of India as both an economic and political player; partly in greater recognition of the critical importance of open Indian Ocean sea-lanes, especially from the Gulf, to the economic health of East Asia; and partly as a result of China increasingly visible, and increasingly assertive, willingness to expand its influence westward.

But it really took off after 2016 when Japanese Prime Minister made a speech referring to achieving a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ as a core national strategy; terminology which was enthusiastically embraced by the Trump Administration in the US a year later; and with Indian Prime Minister Modi in 2018 for the first time clearly articulating an Indian vision for the ‘Indo-Pacific region’. Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017 identified a ‘stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific’ as the most important Australian interest.

Since ASEAN in 2019 decided that it needed to accommodate itself to the concept, and protect its long-asserted ‘centrality’ in regional affairs, by developing its own ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ there has been no looking back. The reality is that the new language seems here to stay, and is more and more supplanting, rather than just living alongside, the older concept of ‘Asia Pacific’.

There are two basic ways of looking at this development – to be relaxed about it, or to be concerned. I have tended, like most of my fellow Australians on both sides of our political divide, to be in the former camp.

  • If one takes it as simply recognising the reality that India – which largely excluded itself from engagement with the building of the Asia-Pacific institutions as we now know them – is now really a major player, actually and potentially, both in security and economic terms, in this whole space, it is hard to argue with conceptualising the region more broadly.
  • Similarly, if one accepts, as I have always been inclined to, that ‘Indo-Pacific’ is not just a maritime but a land-based construct, embracing the whole of continental Asia (and very much including the Korean Peninsula), there is little reason for the region’s land-focused powers to be agitated about it.
  • And from an Australian perspective (and Indonesia’s too), straddling both oceans as we do, there is the attraction of being geographically at the fulcrum of the region as defined, rather than its margin – without this taking skin off anyone else’s nose.

But there is another way of looking at the issue which, I can well understand, gives more ground for concern - that articulated by, among others, our chair Moon Chung-in and the present Opposition in Korea and a number of respected thinkers in Australia and elsewhere:

  • That it is overwhelmingly maritime-focused and indifferent to the reality of continental Asia, and the issues which preoccupy its land-focused member states;
  • That the Japan-inspired terminology of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, with its implied enthusiasm for electoral democracy and unrestricted markets, is designed to isolate rather than include China;
  • That for the US, the ‘Indo-Pacific; it is all about security, military power, similarly containing China, and retaining primacy, and explicitly plays to its advantage as still the world’s most dominant maritime power;
  • That the military arrangements enthusiastically supported by the US, and focused far more on confrontation than finding avenues for cooperation – above all the Quad, but to some extent also AUKUS, are institutionally synonymous with the Indo-Pacific.

My bottom line I guess is this. The ‘Indo-Pacific’ is not an inherently problematic concept, and can be thought of simply as a rational conceptual accommodation to new economic and diplomatic realities, above all the emergence of India as a major player. But we can and should accommodate ourselves to this linguistic shift if, and only if – and these are three big qualifications – it does not carry with it:

  • an obsessive preoccupation with maritime security at the expense of everything else;
  • inherent antagonism to China, and an unwillingness to defuse tensions and search for common ground where that is possible; and
  • an embrace of American primacy in perpetuity, an unsustainable aspiration, and one destined to end in tears not only for the US, but our region and the wider world.

If we are able to think of ‘Indo-Pacific’ in these terms, subject to these conditions, then I think it is a concept not only in practice here to stay, but which deserves to be.