The U.S. Department of Defense has renamed the Pacific Command the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Adoption of this analytical framework aligns the United States with Japanese thinking, as Tokyo had first articulated the concept over a decade ago. Still, the intervening 10 years have not clarified the content of the “Indo-Pacific.” It is incumbent on governments in Tokyo, Washington, Canberra and New Delhi to do just that if the concept is to have any real significance.
While the Indo-Pacific sounds new, it has a long provenance. The idea was first broached by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a 2007 speech to the Indian Parliament. It was adopted by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama as it defined the geography of its “rebalance to Asia,” and Australian diplomatic and defense officials have used it as their organizing framework since 2012.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump adopted the term in a speech last October by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and it has since been used in key policy documents and by all U.S. officials when discussing the region. Adm. Harry Harris, head of the Pacific Command until last Wednesday, liked to say his area of responsibility stretched from “Bollywood to Hollywood, from polar bears to penguins.” Renaming PACOM is merely catching up with that description.
The Indo-Pacific Command is one of six “geographic combatant commands” (three others are functional in nature). As such, it is responsible for using and integrating all U.S. military forces in its area of responsibility. The Indo-Pacific Command is the largest of all the combatant commands, covering 36 countries, over 3,000 languages and more than half the world’s population. The combatant commander oversees 375,000 military and civilian personnel.
Announcing the change, Secretary of Defense James Mattis explained that “relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability,” and that the new name recognizes “the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific oceans.” This description underscores an important point about this “region”: It is maritime in nature and emphasizes naval deployments and related infrastructure. A core element of Indo-Pacific security mechanisms will be naval exercises and the protection of freedom of navigation, which is essential to the security of sea lines of communication that are the lifelines of regional economies. The Malabar exercises, of which Japan, along with the U.S. and India, is a permanent partner, is perhaps the most important such drill.
The new name recognizes the increasing role that India places in U.S. planning, as well as that of its allies. Perhaps no other country has embraced India more than Japan. Both Tokyo and Washington see New Delhi as a counterweight to China and both have intensified relations with India as it has tried to stretch its influence beyond South Asia. Adm. Philip Davidson, the new head of Indo-Pacific Command who replaced Harris on May 30, spoke for many when he said India’s relationship with the U.S. is “the potentially most historic opportunity we have in the 21st century and I intend to pursue that quite rigorously.”
Integrating India into Japanese and U.S. security planning makes sense, but New Delhi is a sensitive partner. It has zealously safeguarded its neutrality and will be cautious about joining any arrangement that even appears to compromise its nonalignment. While it competes with China, it cannot be assumed to be its adversary.
This alignment of interests promotes a tendency to confuse the “Indo-Pacific” with “the Quadrilateral Dialogue,” which includes those three countries and Australia. The Quad has become a mechanism for military coordination, but it is a loose arrangement and does not address the range of interactions a real Indo-Pacific strategy demands.
Japan has tried to do that with its High Quality Infrastructure Initiative, which seeks to fill the yawning gap in infrastructure — estimated at more than $1 trillion a year — that the region needs to develop, and which China is addressing with its “Belt and Road” initiative. It is a start but only that: Much more is required.
The competition over infrastructure initiatives highlights a core element of the Indo-Pacific construct: concern about China’s rise. For Tokyo, Washington, Canberra and New Delhi, China is challenging the status quo, and steps must be taken to ensure it is not a force for instability. At the same time, those governments must not, in the fashioning of a solution, create instability themselves. In other words, China is a competitor and a potential adversary — and worried governments should not themselves turn that potential into reality. Forcing governments to choose between competing alignments is the surest way to make that happen. An initiative designed to connect two great oceans must not draw a line through the region.