As the Indo-Pacific becomes more strategically and economically important, countries around the world are developing new policies to strengthen their reach in the region, while countries in the region try to manage this renewed interest.
The growing strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific
Major strategic shifts have occurred recently in the area within and around the Indian and Pacific Oceans, a zone broadly referred to as the Indo-Pacific. These shifts are largely the result of China’s economic and military expansion. Examples of such expansion are China’s illegal seizure and militarization of contested islands in the South China Sea; its rapid military build-up and modernization programme, including opening a base in Djibouti; Beijing’s increasingly direct calls for ‘reunification’ with Taiwan, including large-scale military exercises overtly designed to train for an invasion; Chinese rapprochement with countries across the region, including Nepal and Sri Lanka; and an increase in incursions by Chinese troops into India along the border in the Himalayas. In places, Beijing’s expansion has overlapped with its region-wide projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with strategic implications.
Countries and their partners affected by these strategic shifts are increasingly resisting the expansion of Beijing’s comprehensive national power. Such resistance began before COVID-19 emerged but has accelerated subsequently. As a result, the Indo-Pacific has become the dominant global strategic focal point. At its most basic, the region is where China’s expansion is coming up against growing economic, political and military resistance from the US, India, Japan, Australia and others. However, those countries’ resistance is not uniform, despite growing efforts to create and reinforce alliances and partnerships. This research paper aims to understand the dynamics behind those efforts.
The paper first outlines the importance of understanding differing national strategic perceptions, before describing the reasons for choosing the six countries examined in addition to China, the methodology, and cross-cutting themes based on the research.
Six in-depth country reports follow, presented in the chronological order in which the field research was completed: the US, the UK, France, India, Tonga and Japan. Each country report begins with an overview of the state of that country’s Indo-Pacific policy development, followed by a summary of the in-country field research. Each country section ends with an analysis of findings. There is also a standalone box summarizing the findings of the field research in China.
The paper concludes with a summary of strategic changes in the region since the field research ended, including the cascading effects of COVID-19, and how the themes identified in the introduction seem to be evolving. It then makes recommendations on how to enhance effective and sustainable Indo-Pacific partnerships, in light of the perceptions uncovered in the field research and the current strategic environment.
The importance of perception
One of the impediments to strengthening partnerships is that the strategic community in a given country sometimes lacks a nuanced understanding of the strategic perceptions of other nations involved, even close partners. Understanding convergences and divergences in perception is important for making partnerships more effective. It allows countries to cooperate, collaborate and coordinate where there are convergences while mitigating or managing differences. This research paper studies perceptions in six countries in the region, with a view to identifying possible pathways towards deeper, more effective partnerships.
The six countries
The six countries were chosen based on their current or potential future role in the Indo-Pacific. They vary in size, presence and depth of engagement in the region so as to better examine levels of disparity among potential partners.
At present, the US is the dominant military power in the region and is involved with much of the defence architecture in other key countries, such as Japan and Australia. It is also a driving force behind the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a strengthening partnership between the US, India, Japan and Australia. While the Quad currently has a largely strategic focus, it may expand both in terms of members and scope. Already the four members have announced their intention to work together on new technologies, climate change, and manufacturing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines to countries in the region, including those in Oceania.
The formulation of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy is underway. Regardless of the outcome, the UK has long-standing and potentially extensive reach in the Indo-Pacific. It is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network (along with the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand), is a G7 country, a core node of the Commonwealth, and a global centre for finance, banking and insurance. It is included in this research to see whether the UK perceives itself as having a strong and/or growing role in the Indo-Pacific – and whether others perceive this to be the case.
Of all the European Union countries, France is by far the most present in the Indo-Pacific in terms of politics, defence and geography. It has the second-largest exclusive economic zone in the world (after the US), and more than 90 per cent of that is linked to French territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It also has several thousand military personnel, 1.6 million French citizens and major defence, energy and infrastructure sector interests in the region.
The country’s size, location and role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean puts it firmly at the core of the Indo-Pacific. Its economic and strategic directions will be pivotal in the future balance of power in the region. Some in India’s strategic community are openly reassessing its stated ‘non-aligned’ posture and, especially since the Chinese incursions on its border in 2020, it has become increasingly interested in strengthening partnerships.
Kingdom of Tonga
Oceania covers a vast stretch of the Pacific part of the Indo-Pacific. The economies and societies of the strategically important nations of Oceania vary considerably. Tonga was chosen as a focal point for a range of reasons. Its population of around 100,000 makes it a medium-sized country by Oceania standards. Having never been colonized, it has long-standing and experienced foreign policy expertise. As the last surviving Polynesian kingdom, Tonga has a strong regional soft power network. The royal family also gives Tonga international soft power, as it interacts with other royal and imperial households, including in the UK, Japan, Thailand and the Middle East. Additionally, it is one of three Pacific Island countries with a military (the other two being Fiji and Papua New Guinea).
As one of the initiators of the modern Indo-Pacific strategic construct, Japan is actively trying to embed new approaches, including economic levers, to foster regional partnerships that are less dependent on China. It has a long-standing, deep strategic alliance with the US, is growing its economic and defence relations with India, and sees itself as a conduit into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for ‘outside’ partners such as the UK and France.
Perceptions of the Indo-Pacific
The six countries have varied operational realities, priorities and perceptions. As an example, the term Indo-Pacific is itself perceived differently depending on the country. India officially views it as meaning the area from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of the Americas. Some in the US military take it to mean the area under the purview of US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), so roughly only as far west as the Maldives. Japan tends to put the emphasis on what the Japanese former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), framing it in terms of political and economic systems. Some, such as those in the French policy community, want the term more clearly defined. Others, such as those in the Indian policy community, see benefits in ambiguity. However, all agree, to some degree or another, that the primary driver of increasing interest in the Indo-Pacific is China’s growing economic and strategic expansion.