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A New Geopolitical Landscape?

The gradual emergence and evolution of a quadrilateral alliance based on a new “Indo-Pacific” strategy could have a long-term impact on the geopolitical landscape of the region

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Mar.10

In recent months, a major development in the geopolitical landscape of the Asia-Pacific region has been the official adoption of the “Indo-Pacific” concept by the administration of US President Donald Trump, and the re-emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the US, Japan, Australia and India.  

Since last October, the concept has been promoted during trips made by Trump, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to the region. US leaders and official government documents have comprehensively replaced the term “Asia-Pacific” with “Indo-Pacific” when referring to the region.  

Given the geopolitical connotations and suspected anti-China agenda underlying the Indo-Pacific concept, adopting the new phrase is far more than a semantic tweak. It has major strategic significance. Although the short-term impact may be limited, it could ultimately catalyze a seismic shift in the regional geopolitical landscape.  

Origin and Development 
Most analysts agree that the origin of the concept can be traced back to Shinzo Abe’s first term as Japanese prime minister. In 2006, Abe unveiled the phrase “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity,” to refer to Japan’s expanding diplomatic horizons. In a keynote speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007, Abe raised the idea of the “confluence” of the Pacific and Indian oceans, and called for India to take more responsibility in the “two seas,” along with other “like-minded democracies” in the region.  

The same year, Abe initiated a dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. Following the dialogue, the four countries held joint naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal, expanding a previously bilateral India-US engagement. 

Despite Australia’s withdrawal from Quad under the administration of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the Indo-Pacific concept had taken root in strategic circles, with the four nations continuing to deepen their cooperation through various bilateral and multilateral arrangements in recent years. In 2012, after returning to power, Abe refined his theory, calling for the establishment of an “Asian Democratic Security Diamond” between the four countries.  

In the meantime, the Obama Administration of the US launched its “Pivot to Asia” and dramatically increased its military assets in Australia. Signing a 10-year defense framework agreement with India in 2015, the US designated India as the US’s first “major defense partner” in 2016. India also increased its security ties with Australia and Japan by signing various security agreements with the two countries over the past couple of years.  

With an emphasis on cooperation between “like-minded democracies,” the Indo-Pacific concept is widely considered an initiative that aims to exclude, if not contain China, as China’s economic and political influence in the region has been on the rise.  

But as China was still officially considered a “strategic partner” by the Obama administration, the four countries avoided making quadrilateral arrangements and explicitly declaring China their target.  

But under the Trump administration, long known for its harsh criticism of China, Quad has been reborn, with officials from the four nations meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit on November 11. The group’s anti-China rhetoric has become increasingly explicit in the past months. 

When Tillerson first championed the Indo-Pacific concept in his speech on US-India relations last October, he highlighted threats posed by China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its “predatory” infrastructure building in the region.  

In his speech to the APEC summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, in November 2017, Trump described his vision for the region as an “Indo- Pacific dream,” stressing that the US would no longer “turn a blind eye to violations, cheating, or economic aggression,” rhetoric clearly aimed at China. “Those days are over,” he said.  

In a US national security report released last December, China topped the list of challenges faced by the US, which explicitly labeled China a “revisionist” power seeking to challenge the US-led international order in the Indo-Pacific region.  

During the Raisina Dialogue held in India in late January, four navy chiefs from Japan, India, the US, and Australia held a special session, during which Admiral Harry Harris Jr, commander of the US Pacific Command, labeled China “a disruptive transitional power,” while lauding US-India military cooperation. 

To many analysts, many of the Quad nations’ concerns over Beijing’s “disruptive” role focus on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As China’s flagship global project, the ambitious initiative aims to connect China with almost all major countries in the Eurasian region and across the world by building infrastructure such as ports, roads, highways and telecommunications infrastructure. With its rapidly growing influence, the project has been increasingly viewed by Washington as a tool to advance China’s geopolitical ambitions.  

Speaking at the 2017 Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation Forum on December 12 last year, Rex Tillerson explicitly said that the Indo-Pacific policy was launched out of concerns over China’s Belt and Road Initiative. “China’s economic development, in our view, should take place in the system of international rules and norms,” he said, adding that the Belt and Road Initiative “seems to want to define its own rules and norms.” 

Indeed, during Trump’s visit to Japan in November, when Tokyo officially launched the “Indo-Pacific strategy,” an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative was at the top of both leaders’ agenda. The meeting resulted in two agreements to “offer high-quality United States-Japan infrastructure investment alternatives in the Indo-Pacific region.”  

China’s Response 
Despite the harsh anti-China rhetoric of recent months, China’s response has been rather restrained. When asked about the renewed quadrilateral meeting on November 13, Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that any proposal raised in the region should be “open and inclusive and conducive to enhancing win-win cooperation,” and “politicized and exclusionary [policies] should be avoided.” Other than that, Chinese officials and diplomats appear to be avoiding talking about the Indo-Pacific concept at all.  

This contrasts sharply with the situation a decade ago when Quad first launched. Back in 2007, China made diplomatic representations to each of the four countries prior to the meeting, seeking to understand the purpose behind their meeting. Today, so far at least, China appears to be rather aloof about the rebirth of the quadrilateral mechanism.  

China’s reaction may be tactical, following its overall approach to the Sino-US relationship – that is to emphasize cooperation while downplaying conflict. But for many Chinese experts, China’s apparent aloofness also stems from its confidence that the adoption of the Indo-Pacific proposition will not pose a serious threat to China’s role in the region.  

Wu Zhenglong, a research fellow at the China Foundation for International Studies, argues that the quadrilateral mechanism will not be sustainable. The November 2017 meeting was only attended by officials of lower ranks and resulted in no joint statement and the four countries have not reached consensus regarding the connotations of the Indo-Pacific concept, he said.  

While Japan has been actively promoting an Indo-Pacific “strategy,” the US has not endorsed a “strategy” per se, and has only used the phrase “Indo-Pacific” to refer to the region. In the meantime, India and Australia appear to have taken an opportunistic approach to the concept. As a result, Wu said the quadrilateral meeting had been largely without substance.  

Wu also said that it is now “too late” for the quadrilateral mechanism to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as it has “received widespread welcome” and “produced benefits in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Central Asia.”  

Wu’s argument was echoed by Sun Chenghao, an assistant research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. According to Sun, the Indo-Pacific proposition is in direct conflict with the Trump administration’s “America First” policy. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its attempt to renegotiate the US-South Korea trade agreement is contrary to the idea of “a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” Sun said.  

Qu Caiyun, assistant professor at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences shares the same view. According to Qu, the fact that China has become the biggest trade partner for all of the four countries in Quad in the decade since it was initiated in 2007 means there is a limit on how far the mechanism can push if it indeed has an anti-China agenda.  

But despite the confidence and optimism of many Chinese experts, the adoption of the Indo-Pacific concept at the government level in almost all four countries and the rebirth of the quadrilateral security mechanism may still have a long-term impact on the region’s security landscape.  

A New Geopolitical Map? 
The Indo-Pacific proposition may have started to have a spillover effect on the region’s security stability already. Almost at the same time as the Trump administration started to promote the Indo-Pacific concept and court India to play a bigger role in the security matters in the region, it dramatically distanced itself from Pakistan, India’s perennial foe and a nation with close ties to China. Not only has Trump openly criticized Islamabad for its “lies and deceit,” the US has suspended $2 billion in military aid to Pakistan.  

In response, Pakistan has terminated intelligence sharing with the US and has openly vowed to move closer to Russia and China. Coinciding with the strained relationship between Islamabad and Washington was a surge in border conflicts in the contested Kashmir region between Pakistan and India in recent months, leading some analysts to fear an all-out war between the two nuclear powers.  

Given the Trump administration has explicitly identified China as the top threat to the national security of the US, many regional countries, such as South Korea and ASEAN countries will face greater pressure to pick a side between the US and China under the Indo-Pacific proposition, something they have been trying very hard to avoid. Even how to refer to the region – using “Asia-Pacific” or “Indo-Pacific” – has become a delicate issue for regional countries.  

As the Quad group appears to be gaining momentum, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s visit to Indonesia and Vietnam in January, and the high-profile India-ASEAN summit held in India in late January, are seen by Chinese analysts as a coordinated effort to incorporate the ASEAN countries into the Indo-Pacific proposition, which could further complicate geopolitical interactions in the region.  

Zheng Yongnian, a professor and director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore, argued in an online article that the emergence of the Indo-Pacific concept reflects the fact that the West-dominated international order is in decline. Zheng said with the relative decline of US supremacy, the Indo-Pacific proposition is an effort by the West to maintain its dominance by including India in the club and having mid-sized Western powers such as Japan and Australia play a bigger role.  

Zheng said as world powers, including the US, Russia, China and India, all aspire to have a major say in the rule making of the international order, the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific region may enter a new era when multiple orders coexist at the same time.  

If that’s the case, the emergence of the Indo-Pacific proposition may mark the beginning of a new geopolitical map in the region.