Abe's Indo-Pacific vision is here to stay, but is it good for peace?

The strategy is hugely problematic if it is indeed aimed at containing China's rise

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, center, and Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, place their fists together during a trilateral meeting at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka, Japan, on Friday, June 28, 2019. The world's most powerful leaders are gathering in Japan for meetings that may set the direction for the global economy and make the difference between war and peace in geopolitical hotspots. Photographer: Carl Court/Pool via Bloomberg
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The late Shinzo Abe will be remembered for many things – not least the shocking manner of his death – but possibly the most consequential of his achievements was the popularising of the term “Indo-Pacific”. Until fairly recently, it was mostly the preserve of marine biologists and oceanographers. In geopolitics the word used for much the same region was “Asia Pacific”. Even four years ago, when we discussed it at an afternoon session at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, it was unclear whether the new term would catch on or would suffer the same fate as those official-sounding organisations that most people have never heard of (and if you do know all about the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation, I’m impressed).

Today, however, it is everywhere. The US has an Indo-Pacific strategy. So does the EU. So does Australia. The Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) has an “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”. Last year, the UK published a “defence tilt to the Indo-Pacific”. Even the Jean Monnet network of universities – which refers to the Asia Pacific on its website – is now going to investigate “the role of the EU in the Indo-Pacific”.

There have been various iterations of the idea. Those put forth among others by Australia, Indonesia, Asean and India in the past have not all been entirely the same, which is why I concluded after the conference discussion mentioned above that the concept was “clear as mud”.

But the version of the Indo-Pacific that appears to have won the contest of ideas is that associated with Abe. In 2007, he made a speech to India’s parliament in which he talked of a “broader Asia” taking shape “at the confluence of the two seas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans".

Asia Pacific served everyone very well for decades. Why change it in the first place?

“By Japan and India coming together,” he said, “this ‘broader Asia’ will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.” This is generally agreed to mark the beginning of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision later outlined by then prime minister Abe and of the Quad – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the four that Abe named – as Chitrabhanu Kadalayil wrote in these pages last week.

The Quad was initiated in 2007, but hit a pause when Kevin Rudd became prime minister of Australia. They “pulled a jenga piece out and the whole thing crumbled for a bit,” as Shahriman Lockman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia puts it. But it later resumed as key to Abe’s version of the Indo-Pacific in 2017. “Abe had good timing,” says Mr Shahriman. “He had a good relationship with [former US president Donald] Trump who subsequently adopted it.” The US Pacific Command was renamed the US Indo-Pacific Command in 2018, the same year the Department of Defence produced a report on the Indo-Pacific, later followed by the State Department’s “shared vision” of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

But this is why the term cannot be said any more to be a neutral replacement for the Asia Pacific. “If you were a major power, the hyphenation of the two largest oceans would make strategic sense,” explains Elina Noor of the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington. “They span not only Asia's maritime and land masses, but also encompass the Pacific islands and abuts the continental coasts of America, Africa, as well as Australia. But the geopolitical connotation of this term that came alive particularly during the Trump administration made some in Asia – long accustomed to the term Asia Pacific, instead – wary and nervous of its implications."

That’s a polite way of putting it. Not unfairly, China sees it as a way to contain its rise, and has complained vociferously about it. In May, the country’s foreign ministry put out a statement saying that “facts will prove that the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ is essentially a strategy for creating divisions, a strategy for inciting confrontation, and a strategy for destroying peace”, while Foreign Minister Wang Yi said it was “doomed to fail”.

The problem with an Indo-Pacific anchored by the Quad is that it will inevitably be seen as anti-Chinese. Attempts are sometimes made to sidestep this issue. More honest is the approach of Matt Pottinger, Mr Trump’s deputy national security adviser, who recently wrote of the Quad: “While not a military alliance, it has nonetheless become a marquee forum for addressing disinformation, supply-chain blackmail, debt-trap diplomacy, illegal fishing and other misconduct by Beijing.” Mr Pottinger, an Asia expert, believes that Abe’s vision of an Indo-Pacific was specifically to counterbalance China.

This is why some, including me, are very reluctant to use the term. Asia Pacific served everyone very well for decades. Why change it in the first place, and especially to something that is so undeniably loaded? But Indo-Pacific is going to be unavoidable, even more so after US President Joe Biden unveiled his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity this May. Member countries that would probably rather stick with Asia Pacific, such as Malaysia, will have no choice but to use the words when talking about this agreement.

This may suit hawks who secretly – or not so secretly – yearn for a clash between the US and its allies and China. For others, it is to be hoped that the Asean Outlook, which calls for “inclusiveness” and “an Indo-Pacific region of dialogue and co-operation instead of rivalry”, gains currency.

At the moment, however, it is Abe’s version of the Indo-Pacific that is in the ascendancy. Whether that will truly contribute to greater peace and security in the Asia Pacific and beyond remains to be seen. But for good or for ill, this aspect of his legacy is secure.

Published: July 12, 2022, 2:00 PM