How Indo-Pacific Strategies Are Entering a New Stage
The United States, Japan, and other like-minded partners must boldly enter the new Indo-Pacific stage by joining forces to keep their region free and open.
U.S. president Joe Biden paid a surprise visit to Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelenskyy in Kyiv on February 20, 2023. Speaking together at the Mariinsky Palace, Zelenskyy said, “Right now, in Ukraine, the destiny of the international order based […] is decided.” He rightly emphasized that “a common, joint task for all the countries” is their defense of the rules-based international order. From Kyiv to Taipei, and from Warsaw to Tokyo, we are entering a new geopolitical stage that encompasses both terrestrial Eurasia and the maritime Indo-Pacific.
Although Russia’s war in Ukraine gravely threatens the international order, the most acute international security problem emanates from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The October 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy, for instance, pointed to the PRC as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order.” Half a world away, Japan’s National Security Strategy, released in December 2022, spelled out the threats associated with “historical changes in power balances.”
During the 2010s, the “Indo-Pacific” emerged as a geography of strategies, a commensurate response awakened by a gnawing sense of systemic unpredictability. Democratic powers—what we term Indo-Pacific lynchpins—have begun conducting flanking maneuvers to counter China’s revisionism. The Quadrilateral (Quad) cooperation of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States―an informal grouping of the lynchpin Indo-Pacific states―stands in China’s way and erodes its political momentum.
The Quad’s collective actions may have borne fruit, but questions hang over its capacity to build a larger coalition. It certainly does not yet dominate the Indo-Pacific “great game,” but rather assures, importantly, the meaningful balance of power. What the Communist leadership in Beijing may not yet realize is that these Indo-Pacific strategies have now entered a new stage which, in part, have stemmed directly from the Zeitenwende of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Of course, Chinese policymakers are aware of the meaning and implications of the “Indo-Pacific”—a vast region stretching from the eastern shores of Africa across the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia and ending in the eastern Pacific. Essentially, it is a geographized political reality, one that encapsulates the gravity generated by political realities. Yet, the Indo-Pacific is also a lodestar, a guiding normative geostrategy, and it is in this sense that China and its rivals in the Quad fully understand it.
Nevertheless, it engenders very different words and actions from the competitors. This vast area has, therefore, become the geographic “ground zero” of China’s attempts to revise the international order and others to protect it. Accordingly, proponents of the latter, led by the Quad states, often couch their words and actions by referencing the term “Indo-Pacific.” China does not.
These Indo-Pacific ideations espouse what we call a “principled regionalism,” one based on the values and norms of international law. In particular, the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, first advanced by Japan, has become the inspirational source of narrative and response for the Quad’s members. This conceptual framework, because it speaks directly to the national security concerns of Indo-Pacific states, has engendered the quartet’s vigorous dynamism.
Since 2021, for example, the Quad has held several foreign ministers and summit meetings, underscoring its substantial stake in world affairs. In May last year, Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida welcomed his Quad peers, Anthony Albanese, Narendra Modi, and Joe Biden in Tokyo. The four leaders reaffirmed the Quad-led international cooperation and partnership ranging from maritime domain awareness, fellowship, coronavirus relief, climate change, critical technologies, cybersecurity, and space exploration to infrastructure. But the unspoken aim—the elephant in the room—remained China.
In part to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)―President Xi Jinping’s flagship whole-of-government program―significant resources have been made available to national bodies such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation or the Japan Bank of International Cooperation. These are being used for a variety of projects across the Indo-Pacific. Contrary to the China-led BRI, the quality infrastructure and investments provided in the name of the Indo-Pacific respect local priorities and debt-managing capacities.
In terms of security cooperation, when the Quad states conduct naval drills, among themselves or with varying partners, the stage setting is the Indo-Pacific, whether to the west of India in the Arabian Sea or the Philippine Sea. Security and defense cooperation, led by the individual Quad members or in concert with other like-minded states, are also flourishing across the Indo-Pacific.
All is not rosy in the Indo-Pacific, however. The ongoing U.S.-China competition occurs in a highly fragmented, multipolar world. Many states in the political South increasingly claim autonomy vis-à-vis both Washington and Beijing, and equidistance, whether in Southeast Asia or the Arab Middle East, is a familiar posture. As such, alignment competition has become a subject laden with implications for the outcome of great power competition. Engaging with numerous “middle players” and building a wider coalition of states thus remains critical for the Quad members if they wish to build a collaborative and highly robust Pax Indo-Pacifica.
Looking at the big picture of global alignment, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drastically changed the strategic landscape and added much-needed clarity to Indo-Pacific strategies and perspectives. These cataclysmic shifts were also engendered by China’s domestic difficulties laid bare during the coronavirus pandemic. This, more than anything else, contradicts the conventional, albeit deeply flawed views of China’s unstoppable “rising” power. Let us be specific.
Traditionally, European leaders have not considered the threat of China as their problem. When the European Union (EU) issued its Indo-Pacific strategy in September 2021, the EU’s approach to the PRC was still influenced by an equidistance mindset between Washington and Beijing. Apart from its emphasis on normativity, Brussels’ posture was rather similar to that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Even after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Strategic Concept released by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in June 2022 did not go so far as to regard China as “the most significant and direct threat” in the way Russia was.
Yet, a sea change is occurring. The United Kingdom had already moved from its pro-China stance to taking a hard line as early as 2020. Some states in Central and Eastern Europe have also distanced themselves from China in favor of Taiwan. A chorus of European leaders began voicing their concerns about authoritarian China as did NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, when he visited Tokyo and Seoul in January 2023.
Nevertheless, states taking a hardline against China like Lithuania are the minority within the EU. Germany, which maintains huge business interests in China, maintains an equivocal stance. Like Germany’s shift in support for Ukraine against Russia, we assess an increasingly harsh stance on China by European governments, in turn, will result in their favor of the Quad’s initiatives, projecting a “Euro-Indo-Pacific” or “Atlantic-Pacific” dynamism.
The Ukrainian War also clarified the Quad’s operational scope. India’s alliance with Russia and refusal to condemn Moscow’s territorial aggression were problematic vis-à-vis the Quad’s emphasis on universal norms. However, India’s actions by no means fatally undermined the Quad. Instead, New Delhi led the charge, perhaps inadvertently, to ensure that the four-member grouping remains focused on China, not Russia. Although some may lament India’s pro-Russia stance, crisis scenarios in the Indo-Pacific can now be envisaged more realistically.
For these reasons, and the inherent limitations of the informal Quad, the United States, and Japan, along with Australia, must explore other architecture to address warfare scenarios in East Asia, in which Russia siding with China is plausible. With this “Quad Minus” situation in mind, the U.S.-Japan Alliance, the AUKUS alliance of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the G7, and other relevant partnerships must be considered to effectively counter Chinese attacks.
This does not mean, however, that India is not needed. On the contrary, India’s participation is indispensable for any Indo-Pacific grand strategies. Delhi’s political, economic, and military leverage along with its geography on China’s southern flank is essential for the Quad’s efforts to deter China. In addition, India’s inclusive and all-directional Indo-Pacific strategy has been put to good effect by Delhi to encourage broader support from non-Western states for the Indo-Pacific.
All these elements, however, may not be as disruptive as the shift coming from China itself. In contrast to the trajectory of Indo-Pacific cooperation, China has encountered strong headwinds. China’s appetite for territory in its near abroad has resulted in something of a backlash from its neighbors, who have tightened their guard. China’s rapid over-expansion of its BRI has resulted in a number of intractable problems: unpayable and insoluble debts, environmental degradation, project failures, corruption, and local resentment. What can be termed “BRIgret” has surfaced among recipient governments. The BRI’s current stagnation, exemplified by decreases in funding from Beijing, contrasts starkly with China’s ascendancy on the world stage in the 2010s.
China’s structural, domestic challenges have grown and tarnished its cherished “Chinese Dream.” The country has entered a period of demographic decline and economic stagnation. Although the PRC was supposed to supersede the United States by the end of the 2020s, this prospect is unlikely. As China’s decline comes into view, it is unclear whether it can marshal enough power and influence to challenge U.S. primacy.