The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s new Cold War alliance in Asia is dangerous

Gurpreet S. Khurana, who first used the term “Indo-Pacific” a decade ago, is a maritime strategist and executive director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI — On his recent tour of Asia, U.S. President Donald Trump offered the world a first glance into his formative geopolitical strategy. Both in Vietnam at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and at his earlier meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, he spoke of the “Indo-Pacific” instead of the “Asia-Pacific,” the term used most often by previous American administrations.

The new term changes the mental map that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War and since China’s “reform and opening” policies in the 1980s. “Asia-Pacific” invoked an image of a community of interests that linked America and East Asia. “Indo-Pacific,” as Trump uses it, implies a new configuration in which India and America, along with the other major democratic nations in Asia — Japan and Australia especially — join to contain China’s growing influence in an updated version of the Cold War.

In a speech on Oct. 18, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made this explicit: “The Indo-Pacific — including the entire Indian Ocean, the western Pacific and the nations that surround them, will be the most consequential part of the globe in the 21st century,” he declared. “The United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence. Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy. We share a vision of the future.”

As a captain in the Indian Navy and a maritime strategist who first coined the “Indo-Pacific” term in a 2007 essay, I find that this twist of the concept departs significantly from its original meaning and intent. My intention was to re-conceptualize how Asian nations are actually linked together from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, and I wanted to emphasize the overarching goal of preserving global and regional stability through commercial and strategic maritime cooperation. It was not meant as the opposite — a geopolitical framework that divides Asia into friends and enemies.

What does “Indo-Pacific” mean?

The rationale behind the term “Indo-Pacific” arose from economic and security developments in the area spanning the entire maritime underbelly of Asia, from the East African littoral to Northeast Asia. The term “Indo-Pacific” owes much to India’s rise at the turn of the 21st century: its impressive economic growth in the 1990s and, later, its nuclear weapons program and growing military presence in the Indian Ocean. During the Shangri La Dialogue in 2009, India’s former naval chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, highlighted the conceptual contradiction in the term “Asia-Pacific”: “As an Indian, every time I hear the term Asia-Pacific, I feel a sense of exclusion, because it seems to include Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, and it terminates at the Malacca Straits. But there is a whole world west of the Malacca Straits.”

The “Indo-Pacific” construct helped to overcome this conceptual exclusion by incorporating India into the affairs of maritime Asia, even though the “Indo” stands for the Indian Ocean, not India. That is a significant distinction because the Indian Ocean region is a key maritime conduit for the oil and gas that fuel the economic prosperity of the western Pacific littoral countries. In the context of China’s economic rise that led to its enhanced military power and assertiveness, this linkage represents Beijing’s strategic vulnerability and an opportunity for deterring Chinese aggressiveness. Approximately 80 percent of China’s energy imports come through the Straits of Malacca.

Ironically, China’s strategic vulnerability was expressed by Hu Jintao, the former Chinese president, during a speech in November 2003 when he said that “certain powers” were bent on controlling the strait. The reference to India was implicit. For the Chinese leader, the interconnectedness of the two different realms of the Pacific and Indian Oceans was quite clear. 

The origin of the “Indo-Pacific” idea

In the mid-2000s, Japanese and Indian strategic analysts intensified their discussions on strategic and maritime cooperation. It was obvious that for both countries, China’s insecurity in the region could be leveraged to restrain its assertiveness against its neighbors. Like China, Japan was vulnerable due to its heavy dependence on seaborne energy and food imports that traversed the Indian Ocean. Around 90 percent of Japan’s crude oil imports come from West Asia. Tokyo sought an enhanced maritime security role in the area through cooperation with India. Japanese and Indian analysts eventually agreed that the Indian Ocean region and the western Pacific could not possibly be treated separately, neither for maritime security nor in geopolitical terms.

The notion of the “Indo-Pacific” began to gain momentum. A few months after I first used the term in 2007, during his first term as Japan’s prime minister, Abe spoke to the Indian Parliament of the “confluence of the two seas … a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” in “broader Asia.” By 2010, the American government was using the term. Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested “expanding our work with the Indian Navy in the Pacific, because we understand how important the Indo-Pacific basin is to global trade and commerce.” The term had spread to Australia by 2013: a white paper released by its Department of Defense that year highlighted Canberra’s “ongoing economic strategic and military shift to the Indo-Pacific.”

China’s response to this new strategic orientation was not surprising. In November 2014, for example, an analyst at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies wrote an article that cautioned India against the “Indo-Pacific” concept, arguing it was scripted by the U.S. and its allies “to balance and even contain China’s increasing influence in the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean.”

A new Cold War?

How all this plays out in the future is as yet unclear. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and India’s Act East policy could contribute substantially to the economic integration of the Indian Ocean region and the western Pacific. At the same time, greater economic prosperity throughout the region is likely to be followed by increasing stakes in the maritime domain. The hitherto dormant maritime disputes — largely where the western Indian Ocean meets the Persian Gulf and Mozambique Channel — could become more active.

Furthermore, the Belt and Road Initiative could be accompanied by China’s invigorated efforts toward enhanced naval deployments to fully realize its “two-ocean strategy.” Its intensified naval presence in the Indian Ocean region will increase the likelihood of acrimony. It may also cause the Chinese navy to increase its activities in the maritime zones of Indian Ocean countries, which could result in unintended encounters with the naval forces of other established powers.

In such a scenario, the “Indo-Pacific” concept would be essential to manage the regional developments and integrate China into the established norms of conduct in an area of growing strategic salience in the 21st century. Indeed, a holistic treatment of the “Indo-Pacific” as one integrated region is the most useful conceptual frame within which to address the fault lines among the great powers. The aim ought to be building common prosperity in these linked regions. Otherwise, the region will become yet another theater of the “Thucydides Trap,” in which rising and established powers fight to impose their dominance.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.