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Turning the idea of the Indo-Pacific into reality

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China's Premier Li Qiang arrives at the 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, 6 September 2023. (Photos: Reuters/Mast Irham).

In Brief

Regions are not permanent entities — their names and boundaries change. The concept of the Asian region has evolved over time due to strategic, economic and cultural drivers, leading to its classification into different concepts such as 'Asia Pacific', 'East Asia' and 'Indo-Pacific', shaped by economists, culturalists and strategists respectively. Most recently, the Indo-Pacific idea has emerged, with a more culturally and politically diverse range than East Asia. But the Indo-Pacific idea's future depends on it becoming more inclusive, multilateral and non-hegemonic, moving towards a framework that allows regional benefit without dominance by any one country.

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‘Asia’ was built by nationalists, the ‘Asia Pacific’ by economists, ‘East Asia’ by culturalists and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ by strategists. To endure, the Indo-Pacific architecture would have to become more inclusive, multilateral and non-hegemonic. The idea of ‘Asia’ in the modern era was anchored on pan-Asianism. Earlier, Western imperial powers, Britain in particular, had called the region ‘Far East’. But Asian leaders wondered: ‘far from where? east of what?’ and coopted Asianism as a new identity.

While Japanese imperialists used the term to exclude Western powers, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, former Chinese president Sun Yat-sen and Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo promoted it as a cultural and anti-imperialist construct.

India’s efforts to lead pan-Asianism by convening two Asian Relations Conferences in 1947 and 1949 in New Delhi and establish a permanent political organisation — Asian Relations Organization — petered out after the 1962 China–India war.

Since then, the Asia Pacific idea has taken off. This occurred with the creation of a number of economic forums, such as the Pacific Basin Economic Council (1967), Pacific Trade and Development Conference (1968) and Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (1980). Economists, businesspeople and academic and think tank policy experts played the key roles in these forums. In 1989, governments stepped up by establishing APEC. In 1994, the ASEAN Regional Forum — the first Asia Pacific multilateral security group — was established in Bangkok. But neither APEC or the ASEAN Regional Forum were founded on shared culture and identity.

That changed with the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when the Asia Pacific idea was challenged by a turn towards East Asian regionalism. This was prompted in large part by resentment against the United States for its unwillingness to help crisis-hit Southeast Asia and its heavy-handed rejection of Japan’s Asian Monetary Fund initiative.

East Asian cooperation took on a culturalist undertone when analysts called it ‘East Asia minus the Caucasians’ — or for that matter, the Indians. The 2001 report of the East Asia Vision Group, set up by then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, described East Asia as ‘a distinctive and crucial region’ and called for ‘fostering the identity of an East Asian community’ based on ‘shared challenges, common aspirations and a parallel destiny’. Interestingly, these were almost the exact words in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s idea of a ‘Community of Shared Destiny’.

Another East Asia group emerged in 1997, when Japan, China, South Korea and ASEAN set up ASEAN + 3 to foster financial cooperation, leading to the Chiang Mai Initiative in 2000 — a bilateral and multilateral currency swap system.

Yet when the East Asia Summit held its first meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, India, Australia and New Zealand were allowed to join despite China’s objections, as Indonesia, Japan and Singapore sought to balance China with the participation of other powers. The United States and Russia joined the group in 2011. Here, security attempted to trump identity.

Unsurprisingly, the East Asia Summit was stymied by US–China rivalry. At this juncture, the Indo-Pacific idea came into vogue. The term was not new, a 2007 paper on India–Japan security cooperation by a retired Indian naval officer, Gurpreet Khurana, gave it contemporary policy prominence. But the term was initially sidelined in US policy, which under president Barack Obama was promoting ‘rebalancing’ or ‘pivoting’. But his successor president Donald Trump dumped the ‘pivot’ and embraced the Indo-Pacific. President Joe Biden has continued this embrace.

Regions are not named purely based on geography, but are often shaped by strategic, economic and cultural drivers. Thus regions are not permanent entities and their names and boundaries change. India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Pakistan — now considered South Asian states — were members of a group called the Conference of South East Asian Prime Ministers, which officially sponsored the 1955 Bandung Conference, along with Indonesia and Burma (now Myanmar) in the 1950s.

The Indo-Pacific is a particularly fragile idea. If it is not just two huge oceans, it is a region that encompasses more cultural diversity than Southeast Asia or East Asia but has economic links within the region are also weaker than those in the Asia Pacific or East Asia.

India is not well integrated into East Asia nor the trans-Pacific production networks that were crucial to the Asia Pacific idea. New Delhi is not an APEC member and pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations out of concern of competition with China as well as deep internal vested interests that resisted opening up the economy. India’s interest in the Indo-Pacific idea owes to security considerations, especially to counter China, geopolitical flattery and to achieve a geopolitical prominence that it cannot enjoy in the Asia Pacific or East Asia constructs.

While the Asia Pacific and East Asia are anchored on multilaterals — such as APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit — the Indo-Pacific rests on minilaterals, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, promoted by the United States, is another minilateral. The Indo-Pacific idea lacks the support of a vibrant track II community, like the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council or the Council on Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific.

ASEAN has been relegated from being in the ‘driver’s seat’ in the Asia Pacific to the ‘passenger’s seat’ in the Indo-Pacific. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is a limited response out to avoid being sidelined by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

The Indo-Pacific suffers from an aspirational gap — between the US idea of ‘free’ and ‘open’, terms meant to isolate China and China’s ‘inclusive’ vision of Indonesia and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. This leads to vastly competing visions of the Indo-Pacific idea.

These considerations are cause for caution. The historical Indian Ocean region before the arrival of European imperial powers was a thriving commercial and cultural region that no one country dominated but everyone benefited from. The future of the Indo-Pacific idea could learn from that experience.

Amitav Acharya is a Distinguished Professor at American University, Washington DC, author of Southeast Asia: Culture, Identity, and the Return of Geopolitics and co-author of Worlds in Contrast Hegemonic and Multiplex Orders in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean with Manjeet Pardesi.

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