THE recent uptick in rivalry between the Trump-Abe supported idea of the “Indo-Pacific” region and the status quo diplomatic circuit popularly embraced as the “Asia-Pacific” merits analysis as to what it means for the future of Asian security.
In the past few weeks, an aspiring constellation of middle and great powers, namely the United States, India, Japan and Australia, who call themselves the Quad, have thrown down the gauntlet to the Asia-Pacific order by indirectly challenging China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
What does the rivalry between these two templates of trans-Asian regionalism foretell?
The idea of the Asia-Pacific is as old as the Second World War.
This war had left the Indian subcontinent relatively untouched. But the tides of nationalist awakening nonetheless connected the Indian anti-colonial movements, along with a handful of Arab nationalists, to Southeast Asia, China and Japan.
Initially, an anti-colonial solidarity, that joined newly decolonised states and non-state independence movements was expressed through “Pan-Asianism”, “Asian Relations Conferences” or the “African-Asian Conference”.
The onset of the Cold War rapidly compelled all the newly decolonised states of Asia to define their political identities and security alignments more clearly.
This momentum led to defining the Asia-Pacific as we know it. The needs of Washington’s containment strategy against communism drove the Americans to initiate the Central Treaty Organisation (Cento) and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (Seato).
Both contained the overlapping memberships of Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the US, rendering these two regional projects the closest manifestation of an “Indo-Pacific alignment”.
Seato ambitiously linked Pakistan to the Philippines and Thailand, excluding all of the pro-western Middle Eastern states, while the rest of Seato comprised US, Australasia and two European powers.
Both Cold War “Asian” alliances failed ultimately due to the divergences in strategic vision between the “outside powers” and those contiguously located within the actual region.
The “Asia-Pacific” was born incrementally after Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and belatedly Singapore, attempted various projects for Southeast Asian regional organisations that culminated in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)’s establishment in 1967.
From across the Pacific, the US had in any case initiated what has become known as the “Hub-and-Spokes” security system with the signing of the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, formally terminating the US post-war occupation of Japan and the implementation of a US-Japan security alliance.
These two “buds” of regionalism, that is, the US “underwriting” security against Communism through bilateral pacts with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines, spearheaded the nascent Asia-Pacific regional security architecture, followed by the Asean driven process of setting up dialogues with the major East Asian and Australian states.
Today, we see this reality manifested in terms of the assortment of Asean’s special dialogues with China, South Korea, Japan and the US, with a sole extension to India within South Asia, plus a purely economic-centred Asean-Closer Economic Relations dialogue with Australia and New Zealand.
China’s ambitious infrastructure-driven plan titled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can be understood to be locating its “centre of gravity” within the Asia-Pacific region since most of its start-up projects such as dam building, road building, residential construction and high speed railway construction take place within China’s southern and western neighbours’ territories.
In this way, the BRI may even be said to reopen an Indo-Pacific rail route by stealth with rail termini based in China.
Additionally, the loudest reaffirmation of the “Asia-Pacific” idea is the January 2018 announcement of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), taking in 11 of the original signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and minus Trump’s USA.
Notably, the CPTPP’s current membership of Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam ensures that the Asia-Pacific will remain the “hegemonic” diplomatic framework for a very long time even if China is currently not a signatory.
Moreover, the link between the Trump Administration’s preference for the Indo-Pacific frame and the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, is obvious.
The Quad comprises a coalition of powers that are either wary or ambivalent towards China and its BRI: Australia, India, Japan and the US.
On several occasions in 2017, and again in early 2018, the Quad’s ministers postulated a vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” based on respect for freedom of navigation on the seas, observance of the rule of international law, and support for inclusive economic cooperation.
In mid-February 2018, Quad officials had even floated the idea that the four countries could offer to fund infrastructure projects across the Indo-Pacific and as far afield as African states bordering the Indian Ocean.
However, with the exception of Japan, both Trump’s US and Modi’s India have yet to burnish their credentials as either dependable or generous infrastructure builders for developing states on par with China’s efforts.
Therefore, the “Asia-Pacific” idea can boast a reliable path dependence while the “Indo-Pacific” is merely taking baby steps.
Over time, given the geographical expanse of China’s BRI, the Asia-Pacific might even assimilate the “Indo-Pacific” into developmental goals through road, rail and maritime extensions.
At the heart of this rivalry, which can only benefit all of Asia’s development, is a contest of credibility.
Alan Chong is associate professor in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies and Wu Shang-Su is research fellow in the Military Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.