What is the Indo-Pacific? The New Geopolitics of the Asia-Centred Rim Land

Sub Title : From the Chinese view point the idea appears to be to keep the US in, lift India up and keep China out of the Indian Ocean

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 2 May/June 2019

Author : Captain (Dr) Gurpreet S Khurana

Page No. : 45

Category : Geostrategy

: May 25, 2019

The term Indo Pacific combines the Indian and the Pacific oceans into a singular regional construct. Viewed from Beijing, the idea of the Indo-Pacific appears to be to keep the US in, lift India up, and keep China out of the Indian Ocean. The concept has, therefore, received a frosty reception in China

Since 2010, the “Indo-Pacific” concept is gaining increasing prevalence in the geopolitical discourse, and is now being used worldwide by policy-makers, analysts, and academics. The term combines the Indian and the Pacific oceans into a singular regional construct. Since the two regions are vastly dissimilar in the geo-economics that shape geopolitics-and even in terms of the security environment – “Indo-Pacific” seems to be a conceptual ‘aberration’. Notably, this ‘anomaly’ did not exist up until to the 18th century, when India and China had vigorous economic and cultural interactions via the sea, and the two together contributed to more than half of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). On such basis, in 1920, a German geopolitician, Karl Haushofer, wrote the IndopazifischenRaum, an academic work that examined the historical narratives of the Chinese and Indian civilizations, with the aim of predicting how the power equations between the two would emerge when they rise again as independent Westphalian states in the “Greater

Indo-Pacific Ocean”.

The contemporary “Indo-Pacific” idea seems to be a reincarnation of the erstwhile spirit, though with new geopolitical realities. A 2011 report of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), titled “Asia 2050: Realising the Asian Century” predicted that by 2050, Asia would nearly double its share of global GDP to 52%. Notably, in the past half-century, the countries in the “maritime underbelly” of Asia have developed more rapidly than the rest of the world. An analysis undertaken at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) indicates that the combined GDP (in PPP terms) of the 36 countries of “maritime Asia” already constitutes 48% of the global GDP (2017). For all 74 countries of the entire Indo-Pacific region (including the Americas) the proportion is nearly 72% of the global GDP. This indeed makes the “Rise of Indo-Pacific” – rather than the “Rise of Asia” – a more appropriate maxim.

However, the ADB Report also says, “Asia’s rise is by no means preordained, and is fraught with multiple risks and challenges”. The process could be disrupted by a multitude of challenges to preserve a maritime security and order, including in terms of the adherence to established international norms. In this context, it is important for the regional countries and other stakeholders in the region to comprehend these new geopolitical realities. Accordingly, this article seeks to examine the Indo-Pacific concept in terms of its genesis, drivers, and the geopolitical interests and approaches of some key actors. Based on current trends, the analysis also presents a policy-relevant prognosis on the future relevance of the “Indo-Pacific” concept.

Early Usage of “Indo-Pacific”

Since the work of Karl Haushofer in 1920, “Indo-Pacific” was often used in oral discourse, largely in Australia, which was largely premised on Canberra’s two-ocean geo-strategic imperatives. Nonetheless, until

the beginning of the XXI century, there was rare, if any, formal academic articulation on the “Indo-Pacific” concept. In 2005, however, the concept began to catch on once again with the establishment of the East Asia Summit (EAS), whose constituent membership stretched from East Asia eastwards to include India. In 2005, Peter Cozens wrote a paper on “60 years of maritime developments in the Indo-Pacific region”. With his thoughts triggered by the EAS, he spoke about the “Indo-Pacific” as representing the “non-Atlantic view of the world”, thereby rejuvenating the views of Karl Haushofer.

Contemporary Revival

In contemporary geopolitics, the “Indo-Pacific” idea achieved traction following the “Confluence of the Two Seas” address of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Indian Parliament (August 2007). His address was based on the emerging geo-economic imperatives of the Asian rim-land, but more importantly, the attendant need for maritime good order and strategic stability. The backdrop was the growing strategic convergence between India and Japan against China’s increasing politico-military assertiveness. Consequently, Japan sought to enhance the security of its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean. India was also wary due to the imminence of Chinese strategic presence in the Indian Ocean in the form of “String of Pearls”, perceived as potential Chinese military bases in India’s ‘backyard’.

Against this backdrop, interactions between Indian and Japanese think tanks had intensified by 2006. During a dialogue held in New Delhi in October 2006 between India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) and the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA), the author represented the IDSA as a maritime expert. The discussions began with the two sides noting the long-prevailing geo-economic linkages between the Indian and Pacific oceans. However, the emerging “security-connect” was a new development, which was largely premised on China’s emerging two-ocean strategy. Both sides noted with concern the 2006 induction of China’s first Type 093 new-generation nuclear attack submarine (launched in 2002-2003), optimized for distant operations in the Indian Ocean. The increasing Chinese naval footprint in the Indian Ocean was also leading to worries about the emergence of an unfavourable regional balance of power for both India and Japan.

Logically, the discussions veered into China’s strategic vulnerabilities. Ironically, these were expressed in 2003 by the then-Chinese President Hu Jintao as the “Malacca Dilemma”, wherein “certain major powers” were bent on controlling the strait. The reference to India was implicit, yet undeniable. The “Indo-Pacific” idea was thus proposed by the author to showcase the Indian Navy’s ability to choke China’s jugular, and thereby dissuade its growing assertiveness. This led to the publication of his January 2007 paper titled “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation” in the IDSA’s Strategic Analyses journal. The paper began by introducing the Indo-Pacific region, and stated that “although military threats to SLOCs have receded globally, exceptions persist in the Indo-Pacific region”. While highlighting the vulnerability of Japan’s SLOCs, the paper sought to send a subtle message to China: given the Indian Navy’s focus on SLOC-security and the “measures to facilitate the monitoring of mercantile traffic in the Indian Ocean”, China’s own SLOCs could be targeted if Beijing continued to assert its politico-military power. Thus, China should reconsider its approach.

A few months later in August 2007, as indicated earlier, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian Parliament. Speaking on the “Confluence of the Two Seas”, he proposed the formation of “the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” in “the broader Asia”, comprising “an immense network… enabled by a “Strategic Global Partnership of Japan and India” located at the bookends of the Indo-Pacific region…(which) will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely [because], as maritime states, both India and Japan have vital interests in the security of sea lanes (emphasis added)”.

The Inadequacy of the “Asia-Pacific” Concept

The coinage of “Indo-Pacific” has much to do with the increased eminence of India at the turn of the XXI century. In 2006, Donald Berlin wrote that the “rise of India” is itself a key factor in the increasing significance of the Indian Ocean. India could no longer be excluded from any geopolitical or security reckoning in the Asia-Pacific. For example, India was an obvious choice for inclusion in the EAS in 2005. However, to many analysts, India never belonged to the Asia-Pacific. During the 2009 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, India’s former naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash highlighted this contradiction, saying, “As an Indian, every time I hear the term Asia-Pacific, I feel a sense of exclusion, because it seems to include Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, and it terminates at the Malacca Straits, but there is a whole world west of the Malacca Strait…”. The “Indo-Pacific” concept helped to overcome this dilemma by incorporating “India” in the affairs of “maritime-Asia”, even though the “Indo-” in the compound word “Indo-Pacific” stands for “Indian Ocean”, and not “India”.

A nation’s geography is never perfect. One cannot alter geography but can modify its geo-strategic orientation, which India attempted through its 1991 Look East Policy. In 2006-07, the Indo-Pacific concept was also a subconscious effort to give wind to India’s languishing easterly geo-strategic reorientation (which later gained strength in 2014 through India’s Act East formulation). India’s strategic rationale was largely driven by its geo-economic objectives. Towards this end, New Delhi sought to ensure a benign environment in its extended maritime neighbourhood, but that was not all. India also sought to stretch its ‘geostrategic frontiers’ eastwards to reinforce ‘strategic deterrence’ against China. Nonetheless, during his address at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised a few key facets reflecting New Delhi’s policy perspective on the

‘Indo-Pacific’, which included “inclusiveness,” “openness”, “ASEAN centrality”, and the fact that the concept was not directed against any country. These are indicative of the Prime Minister’s policy guidance that “strategic deterrence” needs to be reinforced in tandem with more “gentle” persuasive and dissuasive pressures upon China.

Conceptualisations of Other Key Actors

United States

Between 2009-2010, the US began to realise the inadequacy of the “Asia-Pacific” to meet its geopolitical objectives in Asia. Ostensibly, the key reason was China’s expanding military-strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean. This led the US to seek India’s proactive role in the pan-Asian security architecture, as evidenced by the statement made by the Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in his address at the 2009 Shangri-La Dialogue. He said that the US looked to India to be a partner and “net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond”. In 2010, as mentioned earlier, the US officially recognised “Indo-Pacific” for the first time through the address by then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, until 2011, the US conceptualisation remained confined to the “Asia-Pacific”, which, unfortunately for Washington, was tied to President Obama’s “Rebalance to Asia”.

The US geostrategic reorientation began in 2012, leading to the dilation of the “Asia-Pacific” formulation to “Indo-Asia Pacific”. In 2013, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the US PACOM Commander, referred to his area of responsibility as the “Indo-Asia-Pacific”. As Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt explains, “Indo-Asia-Pacific was necessary to make sure that India was ‘connected’ to a traditional Asia-Pacific policy orientation (and) to have the policy organs of the U.S. government better adapted to the contours of a more integrated Asia to manage US interests in the region’s future”.

During his Asia tour in November 2017, however, President Trump further altered the “Indo-Asia-Pacific” formulation to “Indo-Pacific”, making repeated mentions of the newer term and contextualising it with the “partnership” with India, which was expected to play a more active security role. Analysts claimed that President Trump had implied a new “alliance”. Whether or not it was a reincarnation of Obama’s “Rebalance to Asia”, the tone and tenor indicated a desire for an anti-China partnership, thereby polarising the “Indo-Pacific” region and distorting the original “Indo-Pacific” idea, which, in the author’s view, was not constructive. This led to his op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Trump’s new Cold War alliance in Asia is dangerous”. The write-up expressed concerns that the original “Indo-Pacific” idea had drifted away from the original “constructive” India-Japan proposition of a geopolitical amalgamation of the Indo-Pacific towards regional stability.

Within days from President Trump’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ articulation, Australia, India, Japan, and the US held their first joint-secretary level meeting of the “Quadrilateral Dialogue” (Quad). This may have been timed to enhance the pressure on Beijing, but contributed further to constricting the strategic options of the regional countries.


Consequent to the US President’s articulation of the “Indo-Pacific” idea, and its temporal coincidence with the revival of the Quad, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a whole has been averse to it. From ASEAN’s perspective, this will force smaller countries to take sides, leading to a weakening of the ASEAN. Some key ASEAN countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore, driven by their respective national interests, are already “on board” on the Indo-Pacific construct. This is amply indicative of the lingering fault-lines in the ASEAN. This led the US to go into damage-control mode. To assuage the ASEAN, during the ASEAN+ Foreign Ministers’ meeting in August 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasised that the ASEAN countries would be central to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

The European Union

The reaction of the European Union (EU) has been similar to that of the ASEAN, though its focus has been on the Quad. From the EU’s perspective (as one German analyst puts it), “a strategic alignment of the Indo-Pacific ‘Quad’ is tempting, but involves a quasi-military alliance, which would run counter to the EU’s approach of strengthening regional solutions and cooperation”. Therefore, the concurrent launch of the Quad has added to the region’s polarisation. However, alike a few ASEAN countries, some major European powers like France and the UK are more amenable to strategic partnerships in the region under the rubric of the “Indo-Pacific”.


China was silently circumspect about the “Indo-Pacific” idea since it was first noted by Beijing in 2012. Australian writers Nick Bisley and Andrew Phillips remarked, “Viewed from Beijing, the idea of the Indo-Pacific appears to be to keep the US in, lift India up, and keep China out of the Indian Ocean. The concept has, therefore, received a frosty reception in China”.

A year later, Chinese analysts prodded Beijing to integrate within the “Indo-Pacific” to secure its own national interests. In June 2013, Minghao Zhao wrote,

“A power game of great significance has unfolded in Indo-Pacific Asia. The US, India, Japan and other players are seeking to collaborate to build an “Indo-Pacific order” that is congenial to their long-term interests. China is not necessarily excluded from this project, and it should seek a seat at the table and help recast the strategic objectives and interaction norms in China’s favour”.

However, other Chinese analysts had opposite views. Zhao Zebian set forth his analysis of the “Indo-Pacific” concept in a Mandarin article: ‘Indo-Pacific concept and its implications for China’. He avers that the new concept “lifts India up” to the detriment of China. In December 2014, the People’s Daily ran an exercise in strategic communications, saying: “Mr. Modi wants a peaceful and stable periphery that will allow him to concentrate on domestic economic structural reform and infrastructure building… The Indian government and scholars have not endorsed the Indo-Pacific geo-strategy scripted by the United States and Japan to use India with the aim to balance and even contain China’s increasing influence in the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean”.

The concern among Chinese analysts rose palpably after President Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” articulation in November 2017. In its article: ‘Don’t talk about

‘‘Asia-Pacific’’ and talk about ‘‘Indo-Pacific’’: What is hinted before Trump’s visit to China’? The People’s Daily analysed this as a reincarnation of the US “rebalance to Asia” strategy to “restrict China and weaken its influence in Asia-Pacific”, wherein India would be the strategic “pillar”. The analysis also alluded to the Quad, saying that, “the US is actively promoting India’s Act East policy, which is deeply integrated with the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US and Japan, and gradually forms the Asian security architecture dominated by the United States, India, Japan, and Australia.”

Interestingly, however, Chinese thinking seems to have undergone a major transformation since then, turning “adversity” into “opportunity”. As the Chinese saying goes, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. Accordingly, Beijing has capitalized upon the Indo-Pacific concept by reinforcing its geopolitical connections with the IOR countries. Chinese academic literature has been referring to China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative as “Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics”. The MSR is coupled by the Hainan Free Trade Zone and Port, which seen by Chinese analysts as the “Indo-Pacific gateway”. Indirectly, the Indo-Pacific concept has also enhanced the legitimacy of the Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean.

In sum, the key countries endorsing the Indo-Pacific concept – Australia, India, Japan, and the US are thereby victims of their own conceptualisations.


Undeniably, China has been the key actor in the contemporary revival of the “Indo-Pacific” concept about a decade ago. However, there lies a nuanced – albeit important – difference between the original conceptualisation of “Indo-Pacific” in 2006-07, and the current one envisioned by President Trump in 2017. In the mid-2000s, China’s increasingly assertive behaviour was causing anxieties both in India and Japan. For the Japanese, the “Indo-Pacific” provided a notional assurance from India as an emerging power in the wider “maritime” Asia. On the other hand, India was seeking Japan’s help to make its own strategic assessments on China. Also, following futile efforts by New Delhi to persuade Beijing to adopt a conciliatory approach, India was compelled to scale up its outreach to Japan in order to moderate China’s behaviour through “dissuasion”.

In contrast, President Trump’s re-interpretation of the “Indo-Pacific” construct amounts to partnering with India to create a China-specific alliance, and its temporal coincidence with the revival of the “Quad” is not very helpful for shaping a benign and stable environment in the wider region.

Notwithstanding the above, as trends indicate, the Indo-Pacific concept is likely to increasingly gain acceptance, even while differences persist among the key players in terms of their respective geostrategic interests and the attendant geographical scope. However, the effectiveness of “Indo-Pacific” in meeting its original objective of freedom and prosperity will depend much on how the regional structure is fleshed out at the political and functional levels to enable cooperation among the regional countries and the key stakeholders.

Towards this end, two key imperatives will need to be factored. First, moderating the behaviour of China is only a ‘way-point’, not the overarching ‘end’ of the

‘Indo-Pacific’ concept. Hence, the emphasis of ‘Indo-Pacific’ cooperation would need to be laid on geo-economics, maritime safety, good order at sea  including adherence to established principles of international law- rather than military focus premised on exclusivity. Second, even though ASEAN centrality is valuable for Indo-Pacific multilateralism, and should be upheld, the lead role of EAS would need to be supplemented by the Quad scale-up geopolitical pressures upon China as circumstances may dictate.