Pushing back on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ cliche

Many of the countries now lumped under this made-up rubric are wary of being drawn into a great power rivalry between the U.S. and China.

The U.S. aspiration to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is an exercise in dangerous overstretch that will strain an already overburdened Navy and distract from America’s core security commitments in East Asia at a time when U.S. strategy in East Asia needs to be more focused and less ambitious to secure U.S. and allied interests. 

Many of the countries that are now lumped together under the Indo-Pacific rubric are wary of being drawn into a great power rivalry between the U.S. and China, but up until now the U.S. has defined its approach to this combination of different regions mainly in terms of opposition to Chinese influence. Like the trendy “great power competition” catchphrase that it is often connected with, the Indo-Pacific concept is a buzzword whose implications haven’t been thought through very well. The Biden administration would do well to drop the new label and recognize that the most important U.S. interests and almost all our Asian allies remain in the Pacific.     

While the “Indo-Pacific” label was not originally coined by the U.S. government, Washington has adopted it in its official statements and has changed the name of what used to be Pacific Command accordingly. The long and unwieldy USINDOPACOM abbreviation itself reflects the overreach and excess that the concept represents. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy statement asserted rather absurdly, “The United States is and always will be an Indo-Pacific nation.” While the Pacific part of this formulation is obvious and undeniable, the other part frankly makes no sense. It is an attempt to pretend that two distinct regions are so interconnected that they have merged, and that the U.S. has vital interests in both. This would be the equivalent of shoehorning the Middle East and Africa together, or grouping Europe with South America because they are connected by the Atlantic, and it makes no more sense than those would.  

Van Jackson has made the strongest case against the concept in a March Foreign Affairs article: “The Indo-Pacific’s evolution from unfamiliar term to foreign policy cliché is not the product of rigorous policy debates or careful consideration. Rather, Washington’s national security establishment has unthinkingly internalized a Trump-era turn of phrase that is rife with unrealistic expectations and unvetted assumptions. The goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” may sound noble, but pursuing it will lead the United States astray.”  

Specifically, Jackson observes that the Indian Ocean region is of “debatable interest” to the U.S., and that increased commitment here would lead to military overstretch. To that I would add that one need only consider how overworked the Seventh Fleet has been in recent years to appreciate how unworkable a more ambitious strategy is. 

Jackson continues: “East Asia and the Pacific are not just subsets of a greater Indo-Pacific—they are the core geography of U.S. power and influence in Asia. Forsaking them for the latest geopolitical buzzword is an epic blunder in the making.” Scattering American resources and attention across these two regions is a good way of guaranteeing that the U.S. achieves its goals in neither and runs the risks of ruinous conflict in both. 

U.S. goals in the vast “Indo-Pacific” are too ambitious to be realistic and seem to be driven more by ideology and the fixation on exercising “leadership” than a sober assessment of U.S. and allied security needs. As Sebastian Strangio noted in a column on the Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific released near the end of the Trump presidency, the document shows both “the sweeping nature of the framework’s objectives… and the inevitable shortfall between intent and execution.” 

The “Quad” naturally looms large in any discussion of the so-called Indo-Pacific. The U.S. has adopted the Indo-Pacific rhetoric in imitation of Japan, Australia, and India, and this is the group that the U.S. has been trying to forge into an anti-China coalition. During the Trump presidency, there was some loose talk from top officials that the U.S. should try to turn the “Quad” into something more like NATO for the purposes of containing China. The interest in using the “Quad” as an anti-Chinese bulwark did not end with the departure of Trump. President Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, has continued to talk about making the “Quad” a more formal organization for military cooperation as well. 

The other “Quad” members are not likely to be interested in assuming the added burdens and costs that would come from a formal alliance. India is not going to fight for the Senkakus, and Japan won’t come to India’s defense over Ladakh, and Australia has no incentive to do either one. Meanwhile, framing the “Quad” primarily as a vehicle for opposing Chinese power makes it that much less likely that other states will want to participate in the group. South Korea has already signaled its unwillingness to join because of the risk of antagonizing China that comes with it, and China preemptively warned Bangladesh against even considering the option. The weakness and limitations of the “Quad” underscore the flaws in the Indo-Pacific concept. 

Another flaw in the concept is that the governments of Southeast Asia are not interested in being part of a U.S.-Chinese rivalry, either. To the extent that U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is premised on pursuing that rivalry, we will find few takers in the region where the two oceans meet. Dino Patti Djalal, Indonesia’s former ambassador to the U.S., recently explained the region’s opposition to taking part in a great power rivalry: “ASEAN countries do not want to be polarized, pulled in different directions by different powers, and see the cohesion of the ASEAN community undermined. ASEAN countries are hoping that the Biden administration will lower the temperature, tone, and tension of U.S.-China relations and keep the rivalry manageable.” This view is widely shared in other countries in the region, and it is reinforced by the longstanding U.S. habit of neglecting Southeast Asia.

There are other rumblings of discontent with the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy among Pacific Island nations. The outgoing head of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, recently complained about the redefinition of the region without considering the opinions or interests of the island nations: “I find it so offensive that all of a sudden the region that we all come from is defined by people who are great military powers, who have no consideration for the peoples in the region, or our governments in the Pacific, and the lack of deep consultations…I think that this redefinition of the world into Indo-Pacific with no conversation with the leadership of the region is almost like our countries are irrelevant.” There is concern among these nations that a U.S.-Chinese rivalry will subject them to greater outside interference and pressure to choose sides. 

Pursuing an ambitious Indo-Pacific strategy is the exact opposite of the more restrained strategy in Asia that the U.S. needs to have. Instead of reducing tensions and limiting the risk of great power conflict, an Indo-Pacific strategy will worsen U.S.-Chinese relations and make conflict more likely by creating more irritants and flashpoints between our governments. If the U.S. is going to have a more restrained foreign policy, it ought to look at paring back some of its existing commitments rather than looking for excuses to add more.

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