Democracies and Alliances in the Indo-Pacific

June 4-5, 2018
Tokyo, Japan

On June 4-5, 2018, Pacific Forum and the Tama University Center for Rule Making Strategies, with the support of the US Embassy in Japan, convened some 50 experts and officials from 10 governments for a robust discussion of Democracies and Alliances in the Indo-Pacific. Key findings from that candid and wide-ranging meeting include:

While the “Indo-Pacific” has been discussed for years and is consistent with the foreign and security policies of Quad governments (the US, Japan, Australia, and India), its precise contours and content remain unclear. Its geographic reach is contested: the general scope is “from Bollywood to Hollywood,” although some participants – primarily Japanese – argue that it should extend to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, given their centrality in Asian security.

Most simply, the Indo-Pacific is a geographic descriptor that refers to the joining of the Pacific and Indian Oceans in a single strategic space. This primacy focus of Indo-Pacific discussions is the maritime dimension, prompting concern that continental Asia is being ignored. An Indo-Pacific strategy must also go beyond security concerns and encompass the economic dimension of what is an increasingly integrated economic space as well. 

Conceptualization of the two oceans as a single strategic order reflects a perceived weakening of the US ability to maintain regional security, China’s growing power, and a desire to include India in strategic planning – an interest that Delhi seems ready to reciprocate. An Indo-Pacific strategy aims to dilute or balance against Chinese power by distributing the burden of doing so.

There is concern about US policy toward the Indo-Pacific, especially as the US is critical to the success of any Indo-Pacific strategy as regional governments cannot counter China without it. The decision to rename PACOM the INDOPACOM was applauded, as was Defense Secretary Mattis’ remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue, but participants cautioned against confusing rhetoric with policy. Regional governments do not want the US to assume China is an adversary, but they also worry about its readiness “to accommodate” China.

China’s growing economic and military power is central to any Indo-Pacific strategy. Regional governments will take Beijing’s money, but there is growing discomfort with living in a region “led by China.” There is no consensus on calling out China as a source of regional uncertainty and instability, but there are growing doubts about the value of silence.

China claims to prefer the existing international order, but changes that Beijing seek are fundamental. China is hostile to democracy and aims to undermine governments that support it. Instead, Beijing promotes an order based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence and uses geoeconomics and the Belt and Road Initiative to make it real. That narrative must be countered. A frank conversation with domestic publics about the nature of “the China challenge” is required.

While India appears more ready to pursue strategic cooperation with Quad governments, participants dampened expectations of the Indian military’s role of the Quad. Sovereignty concerns, as well as balancing between the US and China, limit Delhi’s engagement and its capacity for economic contributions remains constrained. Southeast Asians noted that Delhi’s emphasis on strategic autonomy aligns with the region’s emphasis on nonalignment.

Geography puts ASEAN at the heart of any Indo-Pacific strategy, although Southeast Asian governments are uncertain about the concept, their role, and how it can work for them. Only Indonesia, which straddles the Pacific and Indian Oceans, is considering a more expansive maritime role. As always, they want to maintain ASEAN cohesion and centrality, gain strategic space, and promote economic opportunity. They want to avoid forcing member states to choose between China and the US (and its partners). Talk of values remains problematic for ASEAN states.

There is no consensus on putting values at the core of an Indo-Pacific strategy, although some participants forcefully argued that the Indo-Pacific was, at its heart, a normative vision. There was disagreement on values to promote: good governance was favored.  Support for a “rules-based order” was challenged as lacking precision and clarity about the “rules.”

There was pitched debate about flexible v. fixed architecture. A majority backed “letting 100 flowers bloom.” Governments should commit to specific principles and then employ a variable geometry of issue-specific coalitions. Form should follow function. Hard lines must be avoided to ensure as many countries as possible join this effort. The counter argument was that specific mechanisms were needed to sustain momentum and motivate often inertial bureaucracies.

An Indo-Pacific strategy worthy of the name must be operationalized. While all participants recognized the need for and value of flexibility, governments must identify shared red lines and bottom lines. The region’s larger powers must support smaller states: high-quality infrastructure investment and trade liberalization are critical tools in this effort.

Another vital area is digital policy and cybersecurity. The growing centrality of information systems to economic development and national security demands that regional governments make them a priority. China has launched programs to put itself at the forefront of critical future technologies. The diverse applications of those technologies – from the internet of things to surveillance to promoting resilience and sustainable development – require that like-minded governments promote transparency and open systems as an integral part of any Indo-Pacific strategy.

For more information, please contact Brad Glosserman. The views expressed are those of the conference organizers and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants.