INDO-PACIFIC STRATEGY; Why it matters to this region and the rest of the world


March 11, 2019 The Daily Star

ANM Muniruzzaman

The strategic theatre for the interplay of the sovereign states’ interests has traditionally stood resolutely on solid ground. However, seismic shifts are beginning to displace this deeply entrenched worldview, triggered by the rising significance of the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). The IPS is a novel geostrategic (relating to the strategy required in dealing with geopolitical problems) construct in which strategic space is looked at in maritime terms, in the context of the confluence of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as a single geostrategic space.

The term “Indo-Pacific” first appeared in modern strategic thinking as recently as 2007. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referred to the confluence of the two oceans as “the dynamic coupling of the seas of freedom and prosperity.” It first appeared in official strategic discourse in Australia’s “Defence White Paper 2013” and, thereafter, became entrenched as a prominent frame of strategic thinking when the US officially adopted the phraseology “Indo-Pacific” in its policy narratives under the Trump administration, describing the Indo-Pacific as a priority region in its National Security Strategy in 2017.

From its inception as an abstract geospatial concept, the IPS has come to be underpinned by particular norms and a distinct strategic vision. In broad normative terms, the IPS aims to establish and maintain a new international and economic maritime order. The strategy is thus intended to be a security, economic and rule-based system through strategic investment and economic cooperation.

The strategy is premised on the US commitment to the overarching principle of the rule of law and seeks to ground the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific region on the value system that defines the Western structure of the international order. As the self-proclaimed custodian of the Western politico-moral regime, the US has devised the IPS specifically to ensure that maritime governance in the Indo-Pacific is conducted according to its diktats. Furthermore, it transcends all national borders in the oceans to allow open lines of communication and airways, freedom of navigation, open logistics, open investments, private enterprises and open markets.

As the progenitor and vanguard of the IPS, the US is certainly at the forefront of the efforts to propel the strategy forward. This new strategic paradigm is being co-designed by Australia, India and Japan, partners of the US in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). Although a charter for the Quad is yet to be formulated, its principal components are likely to be the fortification of the regional rule-based system, freedom of navigation, the establishment of a liberal regime for trading, and pledging reciprocal security assurances.

However, it is not all smooth sailing for the IPS. China views the strategy as a ploy to rein in its expansion and is responding likewise. Despite the magnitude of the American hard and soft power presence in the region, the ascent of China affects the interests of every potential US security partner. Against this backdrop of multipolar regional geopolitics, the prospects promised by the IPS can be appraised against the obstacles that beset its path. If actualised, the IPS can offer regional trade a colossal boost, enable extensive regional connectivity, generate private sector-led growth and infrastructure-based development, and undergird all this economic and strategic bounty with internationally respected values.

There is also vast untapped potential for regional connectivity. Both the foreign and security policies of states in the region require maritime cooperation. Efforts are already underway in the form of cooperation in natural disaster management. A principal driving force in the implementation of the strategy is intended to be private economic investment and development, as distinct from the “strategic pivot” that was sought by the Obama administration. While the US has committed to invest USD 113 million, the chief source for infrastructure financing is to be the private sector.

The model of regional connectivity advanced by the IPS centralises the development of infrastructure.The erstwhile dominance of Western politico-morality is seriously imperilled by alternative strategic visions. The IPS provides the much-needed reaffirmation of the fundamental norms on which the international order stands, realigning the moral and political compass of states in the Indo-Pacific to pursue liberal democracy and development as mutually compatible, and indeed, mutually dependent, goals. 

The IPS faces several serious challenges. Despite the currency the IPS has gained, the ambiguity that shrouded its intention and objectives since inception continues to persist. There is to date no single coherent policy document from the Quad stating in precise terms what the IPS is. Therefore, there are critical concerns regarding the uncertain geographical scope of the strategy and the ambiguous content of the concept. This translates into the lack of an actionable articulation in the form of a policy plan, implementation framework, resources and budgeting.

The question of the strategy’s inclusivity is highly controversial, posing yet another impediment towards advancing its implementation. A dominant perception of the IPS is that it aims to rein in China’s advance.The divergent interests of the members of the Quad are another focal point of contention. Chinese prosperity is an important source of sustenance for the Australian and Indian economies—both of which rely heavily on exports of raw materials to China. In addition, Japanese exports to China exceed those to the US and this economic dependence is likely to intensify given Japan’s ageing and dwindling population. Hence, as the Quad members’ strategic commitments are undercut by their economic interests, this poses a serious predicament for the future of the IPS.

Finally, there are serious concerns for smaller states in the region regarding whether they ultimately have to align along one of the two axes of the Quad and China. In the words of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, these states would “not want to end up with rival blocs forming” to constrain China’s ascent. The strain this will likely place on regional relations will be inimical for all.

The IPS is still in its nascency and a definitive pronouncement on its probable lifecycle in regional geopolitics would be premature. However, looking to the future, the strategy possesses immense potential, provided it is inclusive and can benefit all states in the Indo-Pacific.

Major General ANM Muniruzzaman ndc, psc (retd) is the president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS).

The article appeared on the Daily Star Bangladesh on 11 March 2019