Is the Indo-Pacific eclipsing Asia-Pacific?

Is the Indo-Pacific eclipsing Asia-Pacific?

Asean leaders link hands on stage during the 34th Asean Summit in Bangkok on June 23 when they launched the 'Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific' (AOIP). PATTARAPONG CHATPATTARASILL
Asean leaders link hands on stage during the 34th Asean Summit in Bangkok on June 23 when they launched the 'Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific' (AOIP). PATTARAPONG CHATPATTARASILL

Thailand and the smaller states in its neighbourhood will miss the Asia-Pacific era. It is not as if the Asia-Pacific has gone away or disappeared in any sense. But its role as a cradle of prosperity linking larger and small economies around the Pacific Rim may have passed its peak. In its place is the Indo-Pacific, which thus far lacks a trade-liberalisation and economic growth component so integral to the Asia-Pacific.

If Asia-Pacific was all about prosperity, the Indo-Pacific is shaping up to be mostly about security. This paradigmatic shift from prosperity to security reflects the broader geopolitical contest and geoeconomic tensions that are taking place within and beyond Southeast Asia.

To be sure, we know that the Asia-Pacific will not simply vanish because it has a big bureaucracy behind it by way of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec). Currently with 21 member economies, Apec coalesced in 1989, thanks to the leadership of Australia, although Asean was given a central organising and convening role from the outset. Headquartered in Singapore, the Apec secretariat overseeing work plans, research projects, and myriad meetings ensures that this trade-promotion body will not go away.

In addition, the Asia-Pacific era has benefited its littoral economies immensely. China, for example, harboured average annual economic growth of 9.9% from 1979 to 2010, much of it from trade and investment within the Asia-Pacific region. The same is true of all Asean economies, some reaching middle-income status over the same period. By the early 2000s, Apec saw early challenges from regional security priorities. After the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Apec was oriented away, relatively, from trade liberalisation toward security promotion.

When President Barack Obama took office, the Asia-Pacific was given new impetus during 2009-16. Mr Obama's geostrategy was to "pivot" and "rebalance" America's heft and priorities from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The "rebalance" was instrumentally complemented by a trade-liberalisation vehicle -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership among 12 Asia-Pacific nations finalised in 2016 and noticeably excluding China. Its seemingly competing pro-trade platform was the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which features China but excludes the US.

But geoeconomic winds have been blowing in a different direction over the past two years. President Donald Trump set the tone when he visited Southeast Asia in late 2017 for Asean-related meetings. His early espousal of the Indo-Pacific has now been extended in all directions. By December 2017, the US codified the Indo-Pacific -- formally called the "free and open Indo-Pacific", or FOIP -- into its National Security Strategy. A month later, the FOIP became central to the US National Defence Strategy. In both cases, China (and Russia) were identified as rivals to be handled by US geostrategic ways and means.

Apart from the US, additional peddlers of the FOIP are Australia, Japan and India, comprising the so-called "Quad" of Indo-Pacific proponents whose four-way strategic cooperation dates back more than a decade. While Australia's posture appears in sync with Washington's FOIP view, Japan's is distinct in drawing out its international role across Asia to Africa. India's Indo-Pacific take is similarly autonomous and tied to its broader "Act East" geostrategy, not confined to the US Indo-Pacific strategy.

All the same, whether the focus is the Indo-Pacific or the more official and US-led FOIP, the undertones and implications constitute a response to China's rising assertiveness and its Belt and Road Initiative. China sees the FOIP as no less than a strategy and campaign to check its geopolitical ascent through containment and encirclement by four major states that have had contentious issues with Beijing.

Yet the Indo-Pacific era is catching on. In March 2018, the Honolulu-based US Pacific Command (Pacom) was renamed to the US Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom). In the autumn, in 2018, the US Air Force inaugurated the first edition of its new academic publication, called The Air Force Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs. More recently, the US Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which mentions the Indo-Pacific 146 times and the Asia-Pacific just four times, two in reference to Apec and the other two to the Asia-Pacific Centre Security Studies.

Earlier this year, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade set up an Indo-Pacific branch as a separate division. India's Ministry of External Affairs has taken a similar measure.

The Indo-Pacific is so much the geopolitical rage that Asean has been compelled to respond to it. After grappling with it for several years, led by Indonesia, Asean recently launched the "Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific" (AOIP) at the 34th Asean Summit in Bangkok. The AOIP brought up the Asia-Pacific six times and the Indo-Pacific 28 times. This is understandable because the AOIP addressed the challenges and issues within the Indo-Pacific framework but the lack of focus on the Asia-Pacific was unmistakable. As Asean's rice bowl, the Asia-Pacific region should have received more emphasis.

Ironically, the two countries that still frame their geographical engagement as the Asia-Pacific are China and Russia. In their recent joint military exercises, both countries mentioned the Asia-Pacific as their theatre of threat perceptions and military preparedness.

The Indo-Pacific lacks a trade and investment component. If it develops an economic pillar, much like the TPP was to Mr Obama's "rebalance", the FOIP would be a less hard sell to the Asean governments. China's BRI, after all, is geopolitical and geoeconomic at the same time, offering infrastructure development to countries across the Eurasian landmass all the way to Africa. The US's "BUILD" and Asia Reassurance Initiative laws are a bid to resource the FOIP but pale in comparison to the BRI.

For smaller states such as Thailand and those around its milieu, the US-China superpower rivalry and competition are alarming as they have intensified. The AOIP is Asean's smart way of disarming and neutralising both sides by insisting on openness and inclusivity. It should behove the two superpowers not to go too far and to see the AOIP's utility and efficacy as a buffer, broker and bridge for regional peace and stability.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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