Assessing the Trend of the Indo-Pacific Strategy

After the U.S. has put forward its Asia-Pacific strategy in 2017, many commentators believed that the concept was artificial and lacking in political foundation, concluding therefore that it would not take off. However, contrary to this prediction, the development of the Indo-Pacific strategy in recent years shows a trend of strengthening, and this trend is likely to continue in the near future. On the whole, the factors driving the Indo-Pacific strategy forward are clearly stronger than the constraints.

Prospects for the Squad-based Indo-Pacific

The political will of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia to foster the Indo-Pacific cooperation is increasing rather than weakening, which is the most important basis for further progress of the Indo-Pacific. Although the concept and objectives of the Indo-Pacific strategy of the four countries are not exactly the same and cannot be equated, and the Indo-Pacific has not yet produced tangible security effects and economic benefits for its participants, the four countries have a consensus on promoting cooperation within this framework, with this consensus becoming increasingly consolidated. With the interest of all the four participants, it is natural for the Indo-Pacific to continue to grow—though the extent of this remains uncertain.

At the same time, the relations between the four countries with China are in decline, and there is no possibility of directional improvement in the near future, which is also an important background for the future of the Indo-Pacific strategy. This situation will stimulate the four countries to get closer, thus naturally contributing to the development of the Indo-Pacific. Among these, the change in China-India relations has a greater impact. The relations between China and the United States, Japan, and Australia have been subject to strategic tensions, so the impact of them as variables is relatively consistent. India has been abiding by its non-aligned policy and pursuing diplomatic independence and balance in great power relationship. It has been cautious to join a group with an obvious anti-China intention.

However, the Galawan Valley conflict between China and India, which took place in June 2020, has brought China-Indian relations to a new low, while others see this as a turning point in the Sino-Indian relations, where India is likely to adjust its balanced and cautious policy to take advantage of the Quartet’s role for its security. One sign of this realignment may be the joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in November 2020 of India, the U.S., Japan and Australia.

Towards cementing Quad

The Indo-Pacific is likely gradually moving from intangible concepts to concrete formal or informal mechanisms. In this process, Quad, the dialogue mechanism of the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia, will play a key role. Each of the four has their own ideas about the Indo-Pacific, but this is only a conceptual closeness, and the Quad is the link that connects them together. Without the Quad, perspectives of the four nations on the Indo-Pacific would have been scattered, and it was the Quad that made them a whole.

Originally unrelated to the Indo-Pacific strategy, the Quad was set up as a dialogue mechanism between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia to coordinate relief efforts after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but it fell silent after only one meeting in 2007. With the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy emerging, the Quad was reactivated as the Quad 2.0.

Since 2017, the frequency of Quad activities has increased, with one or two ministerial dialogues held almost every year. It has broadened its agenda to include issues relating to security, democracy, economy, international order, cyber and infrastructure and so on. In March 2021, it has been upgraded from the ministerial level to the level of heads of state, which is a sign that Biden, far from abandoning Trump’s diplomatic legacy, intends to make it stronger and bigger.

With the close inter-relationship between the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, further development of the Quad almost equals the process of institutionalization of Indo-Pacific. The more Quad develops, the more the institutionalization of Indo-Pacific progresses. In the future, it is quite possible for the Indo-Pacific to form its mechanism framework on the basis of Quad, but to what extent is another question.

NATO in Asia?

Much attention has been paid to whether Quad will become “Asia’s NATO.” No doubt, the U.S. would like Quad to go along this trajectory. But in today’s international political environment, the possibility of establishing a NATO-style international military alliance is no longer likely. Not being “Asia’s NATO” does not mean that Quad will have no security and military function.

Without being a formal military bloc, it can still act as a mechanism of security coordination. However, building a large-scale hostile and overtly multinational military alliance is more difficult, especially since its target is almost public: China. For America and for China, military security is of particular importance, however it would be too narrow to see Quad from a military perspective only. The significance of Quad is beyond purely military and security considerations, its influence and functions are much broader.

The United States already has military allies, such as Japan and Australia, so the key to Quad’s transformation into a military bloc lies with India. For India, setting up a military alliance is a significant and fundamental issue relating to its basic political, diplomatic and security policies. Security cooperation is one thing, and joining a military alliance is another. To form a military alliance for India implies tying itself to a chariot that it can’t fully control. Taking this step may be very difficult for India unless there is a massive war threat.

Indo-Pacific as a global point of interest

The Indo-Pacific has the possibility to expand, that is, to draw new countries into the Indo-Pacific strategy, with South Korea, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries as the main objects. If successful, this will expand the Indo-Pacific’s scope and provide it with a new impetus. The expansion of the Indo-Pacific may take the form of absorbing new members, that is, new countries will join the Indo-Pacific, and thus Quad will be enlarged. It may also take the form of Quad Plus to form a flexible dialogue with other countries. In fact, low-level Quad Plus track-two communications have been in place for years. These may be lifted to a ministerial level or even higher.

Europe is also formulating and implementing its own Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is an additional stimulus for the development of the Indo-Pacific. The French Ministry of Defense published the French Indo-Pacific Defense Strategy in May 2019. In April 2021, France announced that it was joining the Indo-Pacific Initiative (IPOI) proposed by India in 2019 and sent its sole aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, into the Indian Ocean to participate in joint exercises with India. The German government issued policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific region in September 2020, entitled “Germany-Europe-Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together.” At the same time, the UK has also decided to make the Indo-Pacific the focus of its future diplomacy and security, making a strategic shift to the Indo-Pacific. This has been reflected in the document published in March 2021 with the title “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.” Like France, Britain has sent its only operational aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, on a tour to the Indo-Pacific. Most importantly, in April 2021, with the push of France, Germany and the Netherlands, the EU launched its own Indo-Pacific Strategy, called the “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”. This signifies that moving towards to Indo-Pacific has also become the common strategy of the 27 EU countries.

Although there are many differences in the Indo-Pacific strategies between the EU and the United States, they also have important commonalities and inherent closeness. This is particularly evident in two aspects: geo-strategically, they all take China as the main target and aim at curbing the rise of China’s strategic influence. Ideologically, they both insist on cooperation based on Western values—the U.S. version is adherence to the liberal values; the EU version is cooperation with “like-minded” people. Due to its geographical location and traditional influence, the EU’s Indo-Pacific also includes the Arab and African regions, which greatly expands the geographical span of the Indo-Pacific. It can be expected that the Indo-Pacific of Europe and that of the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia will form some sort of a connection, so that the Indo-Pacific is likely to be promoted to a higher level, and its scale and influence will go global.

Economic considerations

Finally, with globalization and regional cooperation deepening, the economic connection of the Indian and the Pacific Ocean regions will naturally go further. Meanwhile, the role of these oceanic regions has been growing in world politics, economy and security, turning them into the world’s political and economic center of gravity, attracting players from both inside and outside and making the regions a major arena of international cooperation, competition or confrontation.

Located between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, Southeast Asia nations, Australia, New Zealand, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka are countries of the two Oceans. They have a natural interest in being involved in regional economic cooperation in both the Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions. The agenda of the Indo-Pacific covers wide areas, alongside with the geostrategic content, it is also exploiting economic cooperation and trade, environmental protection, infrastructure construction, regional connection, scientific and technological innovation, service, education, digitalization, anti-pandemic cooperation and so on. Although this cooperation could be used for geopolitical purposes by the U.S., for the regional countries concerned cooperation in these practical areas could be of interest, even if they do not necessarily share the anti-China goal and do not like to take sides between the U.S. and China. All these factors are favoring the connection of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions, particularly in economic terms, though it does not justify the confrontational nature of the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States.

From our partner RIAC

Zhao Huasheng
Zhao Huasheng
Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, Expert of the China Forum