Some may not have noticed when it happened but Julie Bishop, after becoming Australian Foreign Minister in September 2013, directed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to use the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of the traditional ‘Asia Pacific’ which has now been in use throughout the world for more than forty years. According to some, Bishop was not initially wedded to ‘Indo-Pacific’ but she seems to have become a convert, although she still occasionally uses ‘Indo-Pacific/Asia Pacific’. However, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is now spread across the DFAT website, in place of, and occasionally as well as, ‘Asia Pacific’.
But is ‘Indo-Pacific’ really meaningful as the new strategic term of choice for the region? To what extent, if any, is the term accepted elsewhere? What are the precise reasons for and against using ‘Indo-Pacific’? Partly, the reason seems to be the present Australian government’s aversion to the concept of the ‘Asian Century’ espoused by the previous government — but there is also hostility towards ‘Asia-Pacific’.
The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was first widely used in the 2013 Australian Defence White Paper, presumably at the direction of then Defence Minister Stephen Smith. But the usage in the White Paper was neither casual nor indiscriminate: it was used either as an anticipatory strategic concept, acknowledging that ‘as a region’, the Indo-Pacific was still evolving; it was also used in the White Paper as a simple geographic term. Using ‘Indo-Pacific’ in defence strategy might help, retrospectively, give strategic justification for Australia’s Persian Gulf naval deployments.
‘Indo-Pacific’ seems to be a term that also carries some ideological baggage, however, in the sense that those using are often trying to prove a political point. Indeed, one particular problem of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ terminology is the different purposes that would-be protagonists see in having an ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy. For India, and for Indians, ‘Indo-Pacific’ might provide comfort and a (perhaps false?) sense of greater relevance for them in a wider world, namely the Asia/Pacific. In India it also sometimes serves as a parochial elaboration of India’s own — at best — partially successful ‘Look East’ policies. However, it is not apparent on the basis of national interests why India would want to adopt such an overtly anti-China and anti-Japan posture. India is not excluded from any ‘Asia-Pacific’ grouping: indeed, it is included in all such groupings.
‘Indo-Pacific’ has not yet been widely embraced as a useful term, either internationally, or by the wider Australian community — despite the best efforts of a few Western Australia-based politicians (including Smith, Bishop, and more recently the current Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston). The term has become popular with some Australian commentators who have substantial exposure to Indian thinking on security issues. But it is hard to find wider support for the term outside these groups.
The only other country where the term Indo-Pacific has been used regularly is Indonesia, where Foreign Minister Natalegawa used it during 2013. He argued for a region-wide treaty mechanism to overcome the ‘trust deficit’; manage unresolved territorial claims; and manage change, including reforms, economic transformation, and above all promoting a ‘dynamic equilibrium’, through an Indo-Pacific treaty of friendship and cooperation.
In other countries in the region, no such debate or reservations about terminology are to be found, apart from in Japan. That the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ should have been used in India in 2007 by Japanese prime minister Abe during his first (failed) prime ministership is not surprising. Ever the opportunist, Abe likes to play with ideas without necessarily injecting much substance. It is noticeable that other Japanese commentators, other Japanese ministers or the Japanese Foreign Ministry have not been using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’: it is only used by officials working directly for Abe. In reality, Abe and his Japanese cohorts have been talking about expanding Japan’s long-neglected links with India, not necessarily developing new institutional arrangements or strategic thinking as such.
‘Indo-Pacific’ is most unlikely to be endorsed with any sincerity by China or Japan, the key countries in Asia. They are hardly likely to accord this term ‘equivalence’ with Asia-Pacific, with which they and others have long become comfortable. Indeed, the main problem with the phrase ‘Indo-Pacific’ is that it deliberately seeks to downplay, and to reduce, the ongoing role and importance of China and Japan.
What value ‘Indo-Pacific’ might serve the United States is also not clear. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the term but this does not necessarily signify wider acceptance by normally geographically-challenged Washington DC policymakers (who still see Australia as part of ‘Asia’). The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ certainly gained some traction in US State Department parlance earlier this year — ahead of and after the May 2014 Indian elections — but it remains to be seen whether this will really take hold. For example, will Clinton still use the term if she becomes President? (John Kerry’s more recent use of ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a means of including Myanmar rhetorically in a regional framework for the US pivot to Asia might have left Myanmar wondering!)
For Australia, ‘Indo-Pacific’ might hypothetically be a way to improve its engagement with India. Earlier attempts by Australia to strengthen relations with India were not too successful, largely because of the difficulty of getting India to reciprocate Australia’s keenness; simply using this term can hardly be a better approach than previous substantive policies.
But the absence of substantial strategic, economic or other interests along the western rim of the Indian Ocean means that ‘Indo-Pacific’ cannot serve as a more logical or plausible term. Adding genuine ballast to ‘Indo-Pacific’ relationships also remains as challenging as ever.
Trevor Wilson is Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political & Social Change, The Australian National University.