The "Indo-Pacific" is the geopolitical referent for the Trump administration’s foreign policy toward Asia – East, Southeast and South – and the Pacific. Since it was first articulated in November 2017, the concept has taken on a more normative tinge and is now an integral part of the larger "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”. As much is implicit in the phrase as is explicit, however, and those assumptions are perhaps even more important.
Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the first Trump administration official to employ the phrase in a November 2017 speech to a Washington DC think tank and has since been used in key policy documents and by all US officials when discussing the region. In fact, the idea of an "Indo-Pacific" was first articulated by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in his first term in office in an August 2007 speech to the Indian Parliament. It was also adopted by the Obama administration to define the geography of its "rebalance to Asia." US officials acknowledge that the concept has a long provenance and it has guided US policy since the end of World War II.
That Tillerson spoke at an event hosted by the Washington think tank’s India chair was revealing. While the "Indo-Pacific" is a geographic concept, its use signals much more than that. It marks the administration's belief (like that of its predecessor) that the Indian and Pacific Oceans constitute a single strategic space, a fact that is ever more apparent in a globalized economy. The sea lines of communication that link the dynamic economies of East and Southeast Asia to energy suppliers in the Middle East and final markets in Europe and the Americas traverse both bodies of water.
It builds on work begun in the George W. Bush administration to establish stronger US-India relations and assumes the inclusion of India in a larger strategic design. For Americans, India shares values – it is a democracy – and it is reforming a long-autarkic economy and moving toward a more open and capitalist economy. India is an especially valuable partner for Americans because it is also considered a regional counterweight to China. Only India can match China in population and its booming economy could allow it to catch up with and counter growing Chinese economic influence. India is a regional power capable of shaping developments not only in South Asia but increasingly in Southeast Asia too. India's suspicion of China – the two countries have had three border skirmishes; four if we include last year's standoff over the Doklam Plateau – is thought to reinforce alignment with the US and other likeminded countries.
There are dangerous assumptions. For all the rhetoric, it is too ambitious to assume that Washington and Delhi agree on a vision and course of action for the Indo-Pacific. For all their commonalities – a belief in democracy, alignment with Japan and Australia, and a shared suspicion of China – it is by no means clear that they permit the two countries to coordinate action in a meaningful way. India zealously protects its sovereignty, which could oblige Delhi to forego cooperation – even when in its own interest – if there is the apprehension of a compromise of its neutrality or nonalignment.
When US officials discuss the Indo-Pacific, they do not mention China or instead note that "it is not just about China." Yet the new formulation – that of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy" – makes it impossible to miss the anti-Chinese intent. Those officials explain that "free" means "free from coercion" and the only capital that seems – from the US perspective - ready to limit the choice of other countries is Beijing. In addition, the stated desire to seek greater freedom for regional countries – in terms of governance, fundamental rights, transparency and anticorruption – is a counterpoint to the limits imposed by the Chinese political model. So too, when US officials explain the meaning of "open" – abiding by rules, not forcing technology transfer, not favoring national champions, not stealing intellectual property – the only reasonable target is China. Finally, the national security thinking of the Trump administration, as explained in the National Security Strategy and other documents, emphasizes the return of "great power competition" between the US and Russia and China, and notes that "a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region."
The maritime roots of the Indo-Pacific encourage a security-oriented mentality that has been operationalized in the Quadrilateral Dialogue, or "the Quad" that includes the US, Japan, Australia and India. This is problematic as well. First, the "Quad" has been tried before and it failed, falling apart as members had different approaches to China and feared that the initiative was being cast as an anti-China project. Second, it is not clear that all members of the "Quad" share the US (and Japanese) formulation of the "free and open Indo-Pacific", nor agree on its definition. And third, the "hard core" of the Quad has created confusion among nonmembers about their place in the Indo-Pacific: are they partners or targets? Must they choose between partners and take sides in the intensifying regional competition?
To their credit, US officials acknowledge the importance of connectivity and infrastructure investment to building an Indo-Pacific community, but US efforts are thwarted by the Trump administration’s economic strategy. It seeks to 'Make America Great Again' by rectifying trade imbalances, even though no reputable economist equates US economic woes with its trade balance. More significantly, the bottom line for US policy is to suck money out of the region to redress years of "exploitation" by trade partners. China instead proposes massive investment programs in China’s periphery through the Belt and Road Initiative. That is the most significant factor shaping regional perceptions of China.
Ultimately the success of the Indo-Pacific as an organizing principle for foreign policy will depend on the degree to which it becomes more than just a slogan and is implemented in concrete terms. That demands a consistency and coherence to US policy that has not been evident in recent years – and even predates the Trump administration.