Indo-Pacific shift

Indo-Pacific shift

East and West are starting to adjust to a new way of looking at political and economic dynamics in Asia.

"Rules-based systems ... apply to all countries regardless of their size," says Georg Schmidt, the German ambassador to Thailand. JSIRAS

For most people, the term "Indo-Pacific" simply refers to the vast geographical area that spans the Pacific Ocean and the Indian subcontinent. But it has also come to represent a geopolitical concept, and a new way of looking at world power relationships.

For the administration of outgoing US President Donald Trump, Indo-Pacific has been the preferred term for the region since 2017. While former president Barack Obama famously declared a "pivot" to Asia a few years earlier, Mr Trump's advisers believed it did not go far enough in asserting US interests in the face of the growing influence of China.

In broader terms, the Indo-Pacific is growing so important economically and strategically that none of the world's major powers can afford not to be engaged with the region.

With over half of the world's population living in countries around the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, Asia has increasingly become the centre of the world economy, accounting for nearly 40% of global gross domestic product (GDP).

In April 2017, Japan declared an "Open and Free Indo-Pacific" as part of its regional strategy. India followed with an "Act East" policy that gave added purpose to its earlier "Look East" doctrine. The US outlined its "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" vision in its National Security Strategy in December 2017.

All three major powers have signalled that the concept of Asia-Pacific is becoming outdated, and that Indo-Pacific better fits the international order in the 21st century with its growing strategic competitions.

The change has not gone unnoticed in Europe, either. The German government recently released a policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific entitled "Germany-Europe-Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together". It underscores German interest in the region whether in terms of peace and security, open markets and free trade, digital connectivity, and the fight against climate change and pollution.

"It's an attempt by Germany to define what we want to achieve in the region," said Georg Schmidt, the German ambassador to Thailand, at a recent panel discussion held by the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS Thailand) at Chulalongkorn University. Other participants included envoys from the European Union, India and Asean.

Germany is the second European country to have produced guidelines tailored to the new Indo-Pacific reality, after France which bills itself as an Indian Ocean country by virtue of having more than a million French citizens living in overseas territories in the region including Reunion, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Germany felt growing urgency to address its position in a region that is increasingly important to the country, the ambassador said.

Given the growing economic and political power of China and India, Mr Schmidt noted that "if we don't engage in a very constructive way, there's no way that we can address any of the global challenges that we need to address".

The EU approach is more nuanced than that of other players because it favours "strategic autonomy", says Pirkka Tapiola, the European Union ambassador to Thailand. Photo: Somchai Poomlard

Berlin's Indo-Pacific guidelines, he said, emphasise multilateralism because that is something that really matters to Germany. As a strong proponent of a rules-based international order, Germany wants to support countries that share a similar view. "[It's] rules-based systems that shape all of us and they apply to all countries regardless of their size," he pointed out.

Mr Schmidt views the Indo-Pacific as a "very dynamic" region with China, Japan and India being major trading partners. "Our wealth is interlocked with the wealth and the development of the region."

And since its trade is mostly conducted by sea, the guidelines also highlight the importance of open access to the sea according to international norms and standards.

The US has also made freedom of maritime navigation a cornerstone of its more robust approach to the region. It has not been shy about calling out China by name for its encroachment on disputed areas of the South China Sea.

According to Mr Schmidt, the trade war and political tensions between the US and China have led to increased economic and political risks, which has implications for Germany. "We also want to see diversification," he said, encouraging the German business community to "not put our eggs all in one basket". Asean might benefit from a shift in strategy as a result.

However, diversification does not mean decoupling from a particular country, he noted.

Another focal point of the Berlin guidelines is climate change and marine pollution, which Mr Schmidt says are interlinked. Germany considers these crises as security issues for countries in Indo-Pacific.

The guidelines' aim, therefore, is "to affirm that Germany has really a shared resolve to engage even more actively as an actor and partner in the region", he said.

"The future is climate diplomacy," says Kasira Cheeppensook, deputy dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University. SUPPLIED


As the world's largest democratic nation with a population of 1.3 billion, India is expected to play a major role in Indo-Pacific strategy.

"Our own movement toward outlining our vision of the Indo-Pacific has been organic," said Suchitra Durai, the Indian ambassador to Thailand, pointing out that India has been committing to the region for the last three decades. starting with the Look East policy, which later became the Act East policy.

Not only should the region be free, open and inclusive, but also it should embrace a common pursuit of progress and prosperity, said Ms Durai. India's definition of the region's geographic reach, she said, includes all the nations from the Indian Ocean shores of Africa to the US, as well as those beyond who also have a stake in it.

India's Indo-Pacific strategy is a positive one and not directed against any one country, she added, since India also supports multilateralism and a rules-based order.

"We have talked about the importance of having respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and the fact that all nations, irrespective of their size, are treated equally and the need to uphold international commitments," said Ms Durai.

Freedom of navigation and overflight, maritime infrastructure, along with unimpeded commerce, an open and stable international trade regime, peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, as well as connectivity, are among Delhi's concerns.

"We have made it very clear that [connectivity] is not just about physical infrastructure. It's also about building bridges of trust," said Ms Durai, highlighting that such initiatives must be based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, on consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability.

Rather than placing nations under an impossible debt burden, the initiatives must empower nations, and India is looking upon cooperation, not competition.

Pirkka Tapiola, the European Union (EU) ambassador to Thailand, said that while EU did not have an official policy on Indo-Pacific, the German version brings a lot of European values to the table. "It's a very European paper," he noted.

In his view, Covid-19 has accelerated a pre-existing trend away from multilateralism and toward increased nationalism and protectionism.

"This is a cause for concern for all of us," Mr Tapiola admitted, adding that these trends go against what the EU stands for, including multilateralism, a rules-based international order, the strength of rule of law rather than the law of the strong, along with dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution

While many from the outset might see the Indo-Pacific concept as a containment strategy against China, however, "that's not in our DNA", the Finnish diplomat said about the EU.

The EU position, he said, is more nuanced than that of other players because "we have our own approach which is one of strategic autonomy". This describes the ability of a state to pursue its national interests and adopt its preferred policy without depending on other states.

"We do see China also as a systemic rival," he acknowledged, adding that Covid coping strategies have underlined the rivalry in terms of approaches to individual freedom, for example.

Despite their differences, China is still an important economic partner to the EU, as well as an essential player in addressing global challenges such as climate change, he stressed.

Suchitra Durai, Indian ambassador to Thailand Photo: Apichart Jinakul


Asean sits in the geographical heart of the Indo-Pacific since it lies between the two oceans. It features prominently in the strategic visions laid out by India and Germany.

Germany's guidelines underscore the potential for mutual benefits to Asean, said Kasira Cheeppensook, deputy dean for graduate studies and international affairs with the Chulalongkorn University Faculty of Political Science.

The guidelines emphasise a rules-based order and international cooperation, goals top which Asean also aspires.

Existing in a multipolar world, "we should not always be based on the law of the strong", said Ms Kasira.

In her view, Germany has the potential to tap into the existing regional architecture and strengthen regional cooperation by showing its willingness to increase engagement with Asean countries.

Since Germany is a strong advocate for environmental and climate issues, there is a case for Asean to embrace green growth, said Ms Kasira, adding embracing a climate-resilient and low-carbon economy might entail reform of infrastructure as well as some industries in the region.

"The future is climate diplomacy," she said, noting that the EU and Germany could work more closely with a key player like China, and Asean could benefit from cooperation such as green technology transfer.

Since the EU and Germany are seeking to enhance connectivity between this region and Europe, as well as closer cooperation in digital transformation, Asean might benefit from such cooperation.

To support cooperation in fields such as transport, energy and digital technology, "all appropriate infrastructure has to be there", she said. That means more than just building railways, but integrating all related infrastructure sustainably, something that is critical to China's Belt and Road Initiative as well.

"These [German] guidelines, I think, complement well what Asean stands for and what it intends to become as a community -- rules-based, caring and sharing," she added.

The US is unlikely to join the CPTPP after walking away from its predecessor, but might pursue more bilateral trade pacts in the region, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies. Supplied


For now, all eyes, in Indo-Pacific nations and elsewhere, are on President-elect Joe Biden's policies in the region, given how Mr Trump has pulled out of many multilateral agreements including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

"The temptation for the Biden administration will be first to reverse or undo what Mr Trump has done," said ISIS director Thitinan Pongsudhirak.

After four years of Mr Trump, he said, the United States no longer appears to have a multilateral trade strategy at all, but it is not clear whether that will change in the near term. In Mr Thitinan's view, the Indo-Pacific approach begun under Mr Trump will be maintained, since there is a consensus that neither of the two main political parties in the US wants to be seen as going easy on China.

By picking Antony Blinken, a high-ranking former Obama administration official and a committed internationalist as secretary of state, there is a sign that the Biden administration might rejoin international agreements President Trump left, for example, the Paris climate agreement, said Robert Fitts, a former US ambassador to Papua New Guinea.

"They are serious about resuming a leading role in Asia," Mr Fitts pointed out. "I don't think for political reasons in the US, they'll be able to resurrect a US membership in the TPP."

Mr Thitinan agreed, noting that coming up with a new platform would be very ambitious, and reentering the CPTPP would be problematic because of all the technicalities on the trade front as well as the law.

However, he thinks the US might attempt to pursue bilateral free trade agreements instead since it has been left out of Asia's growth and dynamism, including the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

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