During the recent Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), which brought together defense officials and experts from across the globe, participating nations advocated for competing visions of an ideal order across the Asia-Pacific.
In particular, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the event’s keynote speaker, effectively inaugurated the arrival of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ era. In a well-composed and confident speech, he marked the emergence of India as a global power and, crucially, a pillar of the Indo-Pacific theatre, which straddles the vast Indian and Pacific oceans. He presented India as a regional pivot state, committed to free market economics and political freedom at home, while deploying its naval prowess to preserve freedom across international waters.
Modi touted India’s long tradition of strategic non-alignment by underscoring New Delhi’s deft ability to navigate geopolitical fault lines and transcend superpower competition. He celebrated the “extraordinary breadth” of U.S.-Indian relations, the “maturity and wisdom” of Sino-Indian relations, and India’s “special and privileged” strategic partnership with Moscow.
The Indian leader advocated a vision whereby the middle powers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea — collectively preserve a “free and open” Indo-Pacific order in the region. In Modi’s strategic paradigm, despite the vicissitudes of American influence in the region, liberal values of openness and freedom will continue to prevail, thanks to the existence of likeminded democratic partners. Even the ASEAN, which is composed of mostly authoritarian regimes, is founded on the liberal principles of dialogue, consensus, free trade, and political openness.
Thus, the world may be entering a post-American era, but the Indo-Pacific region won’t necessarily be dominated and defined by the other global superpower: China. Modi’s middle- powers-driven vision of shared order and collective prosperity, however, is just one of the three main narratives which are competing for political currency in the Indo-Pacific.
The New Cold War
Despite rapid advances in technology, much of the world’s trade is still conducted through the seas. Rising powers, ranging from Iran to India to China, are located across the Eurasian “Rimland,” where there is precious access to the Indian and Pacific oceans. It’s precisely this region — the Indo-Pacific — that is fast becoming the future engine of global growth.
Yet, the word “Indo-Pacific” isn’t only an innocuous and objective geographic descriptor. As Australian strategist Rory Medcalf perspicaciously noted earlier this decade, the Indo-Pacific is also a strategic project, a subtle way to “dilut[e] China’s profile” and its “impact in a larger ocean, in a wider regional context.” The maritime element of the Indo-Pacific paradigm makes it a perfect counterpoise to China’s land-based march across Eurasia; a campaign that has been boosted by President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
While China remains dominant across Central Asia and over the coming decades will likely become a central player in West Asia and Eastern Europe, America remains dominant in the Indian and Pacific oceans. As China pursues Mackinder-like primacy from Urumqi to Budapest, America seeks to maintain its Mahan-like naval dominance across vital sea lines of communications that stretch from the South China Sea to the Suez Canal.
To the Trump administration, the heart of the Indo-Pacific paradigm is a U.S.-led Quadrilateral Alliance, also known as the “Quad”; a group made up of the U.S., India, Australia and Japan, to balance against China. Harry Harris, former chief of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), has been a key advocate of this strategy. According to this more muscular conception of the Indo-Pacific, China is “dividing and conquering” the ASEAN using a mixture of coercion and diplomatic “carrots,” and major regional powers should step in to check Beijing’s revisionist ambitions in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific overall, but particularly in the East and South China Seas.
In both the National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) papers, the Trump administration embraced this second narrative for the Indo-Pacific. As the U.S. government currently sees it, we are leading up to a new Cold War, with China as the U.S.’ chief geopolitical rival.
An Inclusive Paradigm
During the Shangri-La Dialogue, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis painted China as the main threat to the Indo-Pacific order. He criticized “China's militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea” through the “deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and, more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island [in the Paracels].”
He also reiterated America’s indispensable role as the anchor of stability and prosperity in the region, particularly through ensuring “freedom of navigation for all nations” across the Pacific and Indian Oceans by leveraging U.S. naval might.
Though divergent in many ways, Modi’s and the Trump administration’s conceptions of the Indo-Pacific have one crucial thing in common: they both view China as a threat to a “free and open” regional order. New Delhi would prefer to rely on democratic middle powers to ensure collective security, while keeping a wary eye on China without turning down economic engagement with its neighbor. Meanwhile, Washington is keen on assembling an anti-China alliance of regional powers to preserve its maritime primacy in the region.
Yet, Indonesia has put forward a third vision, which places the ASEAN at the center of action while also recognizing China as a pillar of the Indo-Pacific order. For Indonesia, a perennially non-aligned nation, the ASEAN values of consultation, consensus, and peaceful exchanges of ideas and goods should continue to guide relations among regional states, including the great powers.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi recently unveiled a more inclusive version of the ‘Indo-Pacific,’ which promotes an “open, transparent and inclusive” order based on “the habit of dialogue, promoting cooperation and friendship, and upholding international law.” For Indonesia, and much of the ASEAN, China is simply too big and important to be realistically excluded from any regional order.
Only time will tell which of the three conceptions of the Indo-Pacific will prevail. What is clear is that China’s strategic behavior remains, and will continue to be, central to the ongoing debate.