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The ‘Indo-Pacific’ is nothing new

by Kuni Miyake

I was finishing up this column in the middle of a symposium held in Tokyo this week. The event, titled “Democracies and Alliances in the Indo-Pacific,” was co-organized by the Pacific Forum CSIS, Tama University’s Center for Rule-Making Strategies and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Unfortunately, I was one of the Session One speakers.

This means that I had to provide the audience with a Japanese perspective on the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” at the start of the conference. This jargon has been frequently used particularly since November 2017 when U.S. President Donald Trump referred to the “Indo-Pacific region” over and over again during his first tour to Asia.

How did the rest of the world view Trump’s remarks? A BBC correspondent then reported that Indo-Pacific is something to “define America’s new geopolitical view of Asia” but is only “a different way of labeling what we usually call Asia-Pacific, emphasizing the rise of India in the face of China’s growing global” challenges.

I don’t buy this argument, simply because the term “Indo-Pacific” is by no mean a re-labeling of “Asia-Pacific,” which we have been using for decades. The concept is not just emphasizing the rise of India or the threat from China, either. It reconfirms the increasing role in global security that India has been playing for the past decade.

Having said that, many in Japan, especially those in the government, claim that this seemingly “new” American concept is originally theirs. Many in Tokyo believe that the origin of Indo-Pacific concept was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” speech delivered at the TICAD VI meeting in Nairobi in August 2016.

Some of Abe’s supporters even assert that the origin could further date back to his December 2012 article “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond” in which he proposed “a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific.” In this article Abe referred to his speech in India 11 years ago, stating that “as Japan’s prime minister, I spoke of the ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ and now, as this new ‘broader Asia’ takes shape at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, I feel that it is imperative that the democratic nations” in the region work together.

Again I don’t buy this argument in Tokyo, either. There is no patent right to the term “Indo-Pacific” for many reasons. First, this is originally a biogeographic concept for a region of Earth’s seas, comprising the waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and those connecting the two oceans in the South China Sea.

Second, the strategic term “Indo-Pacific” seems to have first appeared in an article “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation” written by an Indian Navy scholar in a January 2007 issue of academic journal. Since it is “Indo-Pacific,” not “Pacifico-Indian,” the concept seems to be more Indian than Pacific.

It is also wrong to consider the concept of Indo-Pacific as a means to deal with and counterbalance the growing global challenges from China. If we try to use this for pressuring or containing China, we will definitely fail, simply because China is too big to contain and China has enough strategic depth to resist such pressures.

Then what is the Indo-Pacific? Although it has been transformed from a biogeographic concept into a strategic one, this is nothing strategically new because the area has been and will be covered by the USPACOM or U.S. Pacific (now called the Indo-Pacific) Command headquartered in Hawaii for seven decades.

The command’s area of responsibility encompasses the Pacific, including the territorial waters of Russia’s Far East, China, the Koreas, Japan and the ASEAN member-states and the Indian Ocean, including the territorial waters of India and its borders with Pakistan. This is not, however, the end of my story.

What is more critical for Tokyo is the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) which INDOPACOM does not cover. This includes the Arabian Sea and the energy export terminals in the Gulf region, whether you call it Persian or Arabian. For Japan, all of those SLOCs are equally vital and indispensable.

Although Japan must secure the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region, the concept may not be geographically sufficient to guarantee Japan’s survival. When it comes to Tokyo’s strategic interests, the Indo-Pacific is just one of the areas that need to be stable and peaceful all the way from Tokyo to the energy-rich Gulf region.

Ironically, the concept of the Indo-Pacific just reconfirms the reality that the United States may no longer be able to maintain the strategic status-quo in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The good news, however, is that more like-minded nations are willing to exert collective efforts to supplement the U.S. missions in this part of the world.

For Japan, what should come after the Indo-Pacific should be the new concept of the “Middle East-Asia.” The Middle East and East Asia are becoming one theater of operation and there should be no separate or independent regional policies any more. The world is shrinking and so are the distances between regions.

Nonetheless, intellectual compartmentalization remains. When I talk to Middle East hands in Washington, few have sufficient knowledge of Asia and its security environment. By the same token, when I talk to Asia hands in Washington, almost nobody knows what is really happening in the Middle East. This is both tragic and deplorable.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.