Chinese fortification on disputed small islands [CSIS satellite imagery].
JOURNAL / Fernando Delage
[8-page document. download in PDF].
The idea of the "Indo-Pacific" has burst into the discussion on International Office in Asia. For a little over a decade now, different governments have used the term as the framework of reference letter in which they formulate their foreign policy towards the region. If the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began to popularise the expression in 2007, Australia formally adopted it in its 2013 Defence White Paper, a year in which the Indian government also resorted to the concept to define the regional environment. As US Secretary of State administrative assistant , Hillary Clinton similarly used the term in 2010, although it was not until late 2017, under the Trump administration, that it became Washington's official name for the region.
Although related, "Indo-Pacific" has two different connotations. It represents, on the one hand, a geographical reconceptualisation of Asia; a re-mapping of the continent as a consequence of the growing interaction between the two oceans and the simultaneous rise of China and India. The idea is also linked to a strategy designed in response to China's rise, the most visible instrument of which is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), an informal group comprising the United States, Japan, India and Australia. This is why Beijing is wary of the term and prefers to continue to use "Asia-Pacific" to describe its neighbourhood, even if its actions also respond to this new perspective: as Australian analyst Rory Medcalf has pointed out, the Maritime Silk Road is nothing more than "the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics".
The prominence of the major powers in the origin and use of the term seems to have relegated the role of ASEAN and its member states. Despite their lesser economic and military weight, they are not without relevance. In addition to being located at the intersection of the two oceans - Southeast Asia is, in fact, the centre of the Indo-Pacific - disputes over the South China Sea place the sub-region in the midst of the rivalry between China and the United States. While the former extends its influence through economic diplomacy while unsettling neighbouring states over their maritime claims, the Trump administration has chosen to directly oppose China's increased economic and military power. ASEAN does not want to be caught up in the confrontation between Washington and Beijing, nor does it want to be marginalised in the ongoing reconfiguration of the regional structure. Its member states want to benefit from the opportunities that China provides for their development but also want external support to act as a strategic counterweight to the People's Republic. Although these circumstances explain its reservations about a concept that puts its cohesion and identity as an organisation at risk, ASEAN ended up adopting its own 'Indo-Pacific Perspective' in 2019, an official document that reveals its efforts to maintain its independence.