In the last few years, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has become the new buzzword in international politics. It has gained traction at every global discussion and major multilateral and bilateral organizations. Conceptually, the term Indo-Pacific describes the combination of parts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Geographically, the region extends from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India in the US’ conception of the region, as outlined in the 2019 Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR).
The term has been used by the United States leadership and policymakers frequently in their security discourse centered on the erstwhile Asia-Pacific and indicates a major shift in American outlook towards Asia. The United States’ strategy to pivot to Asia served as a strategic precedent for its Indo-pacific strategy. If one were to analyze the evolution of this term, it is evident that it was coined to look for alternative security architecture to the existing one. The terming of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as a ‘single strategic arena’ by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in October 2017 gave the term Indo-Pacific further traction. To add to this, the persistent reference to this term by the President of the United States, Donald Trump in his remarks at APEC CEO Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam in November 2017, was, in many ways, the beginning of the institutionalization of the term.
One senior White House official has argued that the Indo-Pacific concept juxtaposes the rise of India with the US goals in Asia and also underscores the growing India-US relations.1 The concept of free and open Indo-Pacific has been gaining support, and it is backed by other countries such as Japan and Australia. The renaming of the U.S. Pacific Command to ‘US Indo-Pacific Command’ has also made China apprehensive.2 The basic tenets of the Indo-Pacific strategy, like its belief in freedom of navigation and respect for sovereignty, indicate that the Indo-Pacific is a strategy against China.
On the other hand, New Delhi’s stand on Indo-Pacific has always been of an inclusive and open nature. This was asserted by the Indian Prime Minister during his keynote speech at the Shangri La dialogue in 2018. He said, “India stands for open and stable international trade regime. We will also support rule-based, open, balanced, and stable trade environment in the Indo-Pacific Region, which lifts up all nations on the tide of trade and investment”.3 The speech underscores the argument that New Delhi is not looking at the Indo-Pacific region as a closed region but hopes that every country will participate with the idea of free and open space.
However, the Chinese reaction to the term has been quite cautious and, at times, negative. The general Chinese perception on the Indo-Pacific has been one of containment by the United States and also as a strategy that is intended to limit China’s rise.
Since this term has been in use, China has been very unwelcoming and has expressed apprehensions. The release of the US National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017, which included the Indo-Pacific, further aggravated Chinese concerns. To add to this, June 1, 2019, Report Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region released the United States Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. It further antagonized China on a number of levels. Not only it called Taiwan a country, 4 the report argued that5:
As China continues its economic and military ascendance, it seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and, ultimately, global preeminence in the long-term. China is investing in a broad range of military programs and weapons, including those designed to improve power projection; modernize its nuclear forces; and conduct increasingly complex operations in domains such as cyberspace, space, and electronic warfare operations. China is also developing a wide array of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, which could be used to prevent countries from operating in areas near China’s periphery, including the maritime and air domains that are open to usage by all countries.
Beijing has perceived the Indo-Pacific as a way by which the United States wants to counter and control China, and its primary aim is to counter and limit Chinese development aspirations, though no official statement arguing the same has been made. The Chinese have consistently argued that China has never countered the idea of ‘free and open seas’.
The important position in which the concept of Indo-Pacific extends to India also irks the Chinese. It also runs counter to the Chinese arguments that the Indian Ocean is not only India’s ocean.6 Furthermore, the concept of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia further complicates the notion for Beijing. The Quad has mostly been considered a military and strategic precursor to the Indo-Pacific. In March 2018 the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had called Quad, “headline-grabbing” developments with a life span of “sea foam” .7
The debates within the Chinese media are a good point to gauge how the Chinese people perceive the concept of Indo-Pacific. These debates also run in tune with the idea that the primary goal of the Indo-Pacific strategy is to curtail the Chinese influence.
Some Chinese scholars argue that “the Indo-Pacific strategy is a preliminary idea for the United States to connect the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region, to constrain China’s rise from a geopolitical perspective, and to safeguard its own leadership and interests in the region”.8 Chinese thinkers believe that the United States is not ready to accept the increasing importance and role of China in the region. The whole idea of Indo-Pacific is a construct to give strength to the United States’ claim as the major player in the region. The inclusion of Indo-Pacific in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) further underscores this argument for the Chinese media.9
As per the Global Times, “The Indo-Pacific strategy will also hamper the Belt and Road initiative in that it causes countries along the routes to take a wait-and-see attitude, drives a wedge between China and Indian Ocean countries, and dampens their confidence about contact with China” .10 This highlights the link between the Indo-Pacific and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The sea trade routes which will flow under the BRI can be countered by the stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific and hence, the general apprehension that the concept of Indo-Pacific is directly aimed at countering the BRI.11 However, Beijing has welcomed the remarks by US Vice President Mike Pence that the United States is willing to contribute around 60 billion dollars for development along the Indo-Pacific, but with a lot of caveats.12 Beijing is confident that the amount promised by the United States is too little, and the clauses which Washington has for extending loans will hamper the region’s growth. After this announcement, there were reports which were highly critical of the United States approach. The Global Times clubbed this announcement with the Quad and argued in an article that, “Our [China] suggestion is, instead of being the loudest in the room, why doesn’t the Quad complete a mega-infrastructure program of its own that differs from the BRI they repeatedly denounce?” 13
Even though New Delhi has always argued that it believes in open access Indo-Pacific, the Chinese media has been critical about the role and importance are given by Washington to India. India-China relations have never been smooth despite the growing economic connections. The total bilateral trade stands around 80 billion dollars. However, refusal of India to become a part of the BRI has dampened this relationship further in addition to the 79 days standoff in 2018 between the two armies at Doklam. The growing Chinese inroad in South Asia is also affecting its relations with India. Thus it is no surprise that an article in the South China Morning Post argued, “The “Indo-Pacific” label broadens the region’s concept, moving focus away from China – the key actor in “Asia-Pacific” – to emphasize India and the Indian Ocean” .14 To add to this, the Global Times in an article cautions New Delhi to not align with the United States agenda of curtailing the rise of China but should be focussed on cooperating with Beijing as it can help India to grow better,15 hinting that it is in India’s interest to align with China, rather than the United States. Similar sentiments were expressed by a visiting delegation to New Delhi in July 2019. Yang Yanyi, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the 13th CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) National Committee and leader of the visiting Chinese delegation to New Delhi had argued that “Indo-Pacific should be about addressing issues like poverty alleviation and connectivity, not about creating divisions” .16 By these arguments Beijing is trying to push for the idea that New Delhi and Beijing have a lot to gain if they cooperate as they are both developing economies. Both sides should also try and not play into the hands of the larger political game developed by the United States.
These Chinese statements also stem from the security dilemma faced by Beijing in the Malacca Straits. Around 80 percent of Chinese oil imports cross through the Malacca Straits. It’s because of this that Beijing has always been concerned about the security as well as free use of the Indian Ocean region. The idea of Indo-Pacific directly hits at the Chinese dilemma, as post-Indo-Pacific, there is a growing notion within China that the United States may use its closeness with India to put pressure on China for disrupting the Malacca Straits. This will definitely affect Beijing’s supply of energy requirements adversely. As a result, the term is being associated with the hegemony of the United States. An article in China Daily argued, “The US Indo-Pacific strategy seeks to use political (emphasizing democratic values), economic (exclusive institutional economic and trade arrangements), diplomatic (strengthening bilateral alliances and sowing discord between China and other countries), military (joint military exercises and arms sales) and other means to co-opt China’s neighboring countries to undermine China, contain China’s rise, and ultimately maintain US hegemony” .17
In May 2019, the navies of the United States, Philippines, Japan, and India participated in a drill in parts of the South China Sea. This naval exercise was also criticized by the Chinese media. In an article, the CGTN argued that the primary aim of this exercise was to send an ‘unfriendly’ message to China. It further discusses how economically it is feasible for the member states to continue to be closer to Beijing than the United States.18
The role of the United States, India’s role, and the future of the BRI are three levels at which the Chinese are concerned about the Indo-Pacific. Beijing perceives the new policies of the United States, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, as an effort to curtail the natural rise of China. It is an accepted idea that the United States does not want China to become a strong and influential country. Keeping in view the ongoing trade war between China and the United States, the increasing emphasis on Indo-Pacific further strengthens Beijing’s apprehensions. The rise of antagonism between Beijing and Washington will complicate this idea further. China continues to believe that Washington can go to any extent to counter Chinese growth and stability and has never been happy about the warm relationship between Taiwan and the United States.
The BRI, which is the flagship project of Xi Jinping, is seen as a sign of a Chinese global presence. With this, China is keen to provide to the world an alternative to the existing growth models and also push for the ‘win-win’ agenda where China and the partnering countries benefit together. If the United States starts building ‘alliances’ on the basis of Indo-Pacific, it may affect the Chinese plans of BRI. Some reports are also critical of the way the United States has termed the Indo-Pacific as a strategy, while Beijing preferred to call the BRI an initiative.19 The same has been underscored by Jia Wenshan, an expert on China’s foreign policy at the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization. He argues that “China needs to as soon as possible deal with the Indo-Pacific alliance, as it is absolutely in conflict with Belt and Road” and “Behind Indo-Pacific you have Japan’s economic support, India’s development speed and Australia’s fears of China, these are all strategic realities” .20
With time, Beijing has started paying more attention to the Indo-Pacific discussions. After eight years, the Chinese defense minister participated in the 2019 Shangri-la Dialogue21 underscoring the notion that at some level, China is paying attention to this new concept. Indo-Pacific, coupled with the Malacca Dilemma and the fear of BRI failure, has given birth to growing unease in the Chinese mind about being secluded, and it has the capacity to complicate Beijing’s relationship with other countries of the region.
Despite extreme statements by Beijing, it can be argued that China is not in a position to ignore the Indo-Pacific concept, and Beijing can and should get more involved in the overall development of this vast region. Once China discards the negative attitude towards the concept, it can actually help the countries in the region and also promote cohesive growth.
*** The author is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) ***
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