Return of the Indo-Pacific

The concept of the “Indo-Pacific” has little resonance in New Zealand, which uses “Asia-Pacific”. (Photo: MFAT Images)

The concept of the Indo-Pacific has been slowly re-emerging in official documents and speeches internationally – most recently with the Trump administration using the term in favour of Asia-Pacific”.

Early days of the ‘Indo-Pacific’

The “Indo-Pacific” spans the Pacific and Indian oceans, with Southeast Asia at the centre. 

The two oceans are historically linked by trade and people movement. Merchants travelled through trade routes between India, Southeast Asia and China, and people-to-people exchanges of a social, political or religious nature also occurred along those routes. 

The first uses of Indo-Pacific were in a purely geographic sense, with early known usage in English dating to the 1840s. 

Indo-Pacific differs from “Asia-Pacific” – the favoured term in the region since the 1960s – due to the greater weight given to the Indian Ocean, and thereby to India.

Indo-Pacific also places more emphasis on maritime, rather than land-based, engagement between countries.

“Asia-Pacific is more about the land mass of Asia, specifically East Asia and Southeast Asia, than it is about the Pacific. This is probably not the emphasis the US now wants.

— Wayne Mapp, former New Zealand minister of defence (20082011)

‘Indo-Pacific’ as a strategic concept

International commentators began using “Indo-Pacific” in a strategic sense from about 2005.

By 2010–2014, the term was used directly in Indian, Australian, and US official documents and speeches.

For India, the Indo-Pacific has became a useful concept to encompass changes in India's naval policy and increased deployments in the region. It also asserts India’s importance in the region.

For Australia, the Indo-Pacific acknowledges the country’s geographic position. It also connects the country’s relationships with India and the US. The 2012 Australian White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century, said India’s growing economic and strategic weight would "increasingly influence the balance of power within Asia, and amplify India’s global influence. The wider regional construct of the Indo-Pacific, linking the Indian and Pacific oceans as one strategic arc that includes Southeast Asia, illustrates this influence".

While discussing the US relationship with Australia, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2011: “We are also expanding our alliance with Australia from a Pacific partnership to an Indo-Pacific one, and indeed a global partnership.” As with Australia, the term gives greater weight to maritime operations and partnerships with India.

The Trump administration repeatedly used “Indo-Pacific” in the months leading up to the November regional forums. At the ASEAN summit in Manila on 13 November, Trump said: “I'm here to advance peace, to promote security, and to work with you to achieve a truly free and open Indo-Pacific, where we are proud and we have sovereign nations, and we thrive, and everybody wants to prosper.”

Other countries have been quoted as using the phrase.

For Indonesia, the term reflects its position straddling the two oceans. Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s former minister for foreign affairs (2009–2014), said during a 2013 visit to Washington DC: “For Indonesia, given its geography, the future course of the Indo-Pacific region is in our profound interest.”

Japan's Abe government has been advocating for stronger links with India amid growing concern about regional security and China's assertiveness.

Balancing China

In strategic and policy circles, some view the Indo-Pacific concept as an attempt to contain or balance rising Chinese maritime activity.

China’s interests in the Indian Ocean are expanding. Routes from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean are critical, for example, for transporting oil to China. China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a part of the Belt and Road Initiative, seeks to link up ports along Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. 

The revival of the formerly-defunct Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US at the 2017 ASEAN Summit reflects concerns over China’s rise. India’s statement on the meeting used language advocating a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific”. 

New Zealand and the Indo-Pacific

In a 2016 research article, Mark Rolls, Director of the International Relations and Security Studies Programme and senior lecturer at the University of Waikato, wrote: "Indo-Pacific’s maritime dimension provides a very important link between India and New Zealand and effectively ties the opposite ends of the Indo-Pacific region together.”

New Zealand has an interest in the stability of the region, given that “the world’s busiest trade route passes through the Middle East, Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia”, Dr Rolls said.

Yet New Zealand still favours the term “Asia-Pacific” in official documents and policy.

Wayne Mapp, former New Zealand minister of defence (2008–2011), said he first heard “Indo-Pacific” used in 2009 by a Commander of the US Pacific Fleet.

“The reason the US Navy uses the term is because Pacific Command covers the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean; their interest being in the oceans rather than the land mass of Asia," said Dr Mapp. "It is also a way of elevating India, which is seen as a strategic naval partner and counter balance to China. Japan and Australia have also used this concept as a bulwark against China.

“Asia-Pacific is more about the land mass of Asia, specifically East Asia and Southeast Asia, than it is about the Pacific. This is probably not the emphasis the US now wants. Hence bringing in an old naval term to become elevated as a broader strategic concept.”

However, Dr Mapp said the idea was not prominent for New Zealand, despite a comprehensive India strategy.

“The view was taken that Asia did include India.”

– Asia Media Centre