The Indo-Pacific ‘region’ and India; 29 November 2013
‘Indo-Pacific’ has recently entered security and international relations terminology. While the term means different things to different people—a formal map representing this amorphous ‘region’ does not yet exist—the concept basically seeks to tie the Pacific and Indian oceans into one arc or region. Significant trade passes through these two major world oceans. Most importantly, major energy supplies are transported from the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf, as some Arabs call it) region to North-East Asia. For China, Japan and South Korea, this makes both oceans, their strategic ‘choke’ points (entrances/exits), and the Indo-Pacific concept, significant.
For Australia, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ comprises the area between the western Pacific Ocean and the western Indian Ocean up to, and including, the entire east coast of Africa. For nations in North-East Asia, the Indo-Pacific stretches from somewhere in the Indian Ocean to the North Pacific Ocean. For the United States, the ‘region’ goes from Hawaii to the west coast of the Indian peninsular. This includes US territories, such as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands to the east of the Philippines, and coincides with the area of responsibility for US Pacific Command (PACOM), although this doesn’t include the strategically important Persian Gulf, which is CENTCOM’s responsibility. PACOM’s commander apparently uses the term ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’. This begs the question: what comprises Asia (which has varying definitions)? Equally, it may suggest the real purpose behind the concept: engaging or enticing India into an active maritime role in this ‘region’, possibly in relation to negating China.
One nation that is cleverly using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is Indonesia. While the ‘Indo’ refers to the ‘Indian’ in the Indian Ocean, it also could be short for Indonesia. Geographically, this nation, along with Malaysia and Singapore, sits astride the important Malacca Strait waterway linking the Indian and Pacific oceans. For Jakarta, the Indo-Pacific is ‘bounded by Japan in the north, Australia in the south-east and India in the south-west, notably with Indonesia at its centre’. For Jakarta, a major issue is how to keep this region ‘pacific’, given that it confronts a deficit of ‘strategic trust’, unresolved territorial claims, and the rapid transformation of regional states and their relationships.
The difficulty with the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is that it appears to be a Western construct. It supports the US’s ‘pivot’ of its foreign policy focus from the Middle East/South-West Asia area back more easterly to the Asia-Pacific. Australia particularly, which suffers from deep feelings of insecurity, appears to be pushing the term’s use, partly to ensure that its ‘great and powerful friend’, the US, remains actively involved in Australia’s area of prime strategic concern. Increasingly, this area includes the Indian Ocean, mainly because of the rise of India and this nation’s increasing maritime capabilities. India already has strategic reach because it possesses the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an offshore territory astride the western entrance to the Malacca Strait. It also is enhancing its ability to project maritime power by building a ‘blue-water’ navy. This includes aircraft carriers (which Australia had long ago) and nuclear-powered and/or nuclear-armed submarines (which Australia has never had). India’s increasing maritime capability makes Canberra nervous. Australia’s population is largely based on the eastern Pacific seaboard, with populations (Perth, chiefly) on, and territories in, the Indian Ocean. Australia therefore needs a two-ocean navy. Canberra doesn’t (openly) see any malevolent Indian intent in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, it is prudently watching India and trying judiciously to engage this increasingly important nation. Canberra is partially doing so through its pragmatic use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’.
This term, however, is problematic for China, particularly as a Melbourne-based body considers the ‘Indo-Pacific’ to be a ‘US-centric … regional security construction’ that omits China. Beijing is wary of China being encircled by hostile nations and dislikes the strong, ongoing, presence of the United States in the region. China will resist being contained in the way that the US achieved with the USSR. Beijing therefore is being vigilant as Washington attempts to rebalance US foreign policy to the Indo-Pacific. To maximise long-term regional security and make this body more inclusive, the Melbourne body suggests that the term should be made the ‘New Indo-Pacific’, in which China would clearly be a participant.
Nevertheless, because the ‘Indo-Pacific’ includes both the Pacific and the Indian oceans—which is one point of agreement for all users of the term—China effectively has been given permission for its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN; a convoluted term, if ever there was one) to operate in, and throughout, the latter ocean. This, conversely, gives India approval to operate in the Pacific Ocean, including the volatile South China Sea where serious territorial disputes involve China and some Indian friends, such as Vietnam. To placate all nations involved with this concept, the Indo-Pacific needs to be inclusive, transparent and open. Misunderstandings could be costly.
If India is serious about operating freely in the Indian and Pacific oceans—which aspiration is not certain, but which the US and Australia seemingly welcome—its ability to do so would be enhanced by India having settled land borders. The US enjoys this major advantage over both China and India. Settled land borders enables the US Navy to operate freely throughout the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans without the US having to ‘watch its back’ on land. Conversely, India has longstanding border and territorial disputes with China and Pakistan, against which nations, potentially, the Indian military may need to fight a two front-war. Should PLAN ever decide to attack a strategically over-stretched Indian Navy in the South China Sea, India might need to fight a three-front war. Similarly, China, which has a number of potential or actual inimical neighbours (Russia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, India;), plus the US Navy to deal with, might face a similar dilemma with PLAN in the Pacific or Indian oceans.
The faddish Indo-Pacific concept offers possibilities. Equally, more circumspection, and less circumlocution, is currently needed. Circumspice!
29 November 2013
 See H.E. Dr. Marty Natelagawa, An Indonesian Perspective on the Indo-Pacific, Washington D.C., 16 May 2013, available at http://csis.org/files/attachments/130516_MartyNatalegawa_Speech.pdf.
 Dennis Rumley, editor, The Indian Ocean Region: Security, Stability and Sustainability in the 21st Century, Melbourne, Australia India Institute, March 2013, pp. 13, 29