The Concept of the Indo Pacific in the Geostrategic Discourse

Map of Indo Pacific

In order to create a collective space for discussion and thinking on the Indo-Pacific, CERI and GIGA , two long-term European partners, have set up a joint research group, the Franco-German Observatory of the Indo-Pacific. This group is intended to be a hub for research, one at the intersection of international relations and area studies.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific is today structuring the geostrategic discourse, not only of many countries in the region (starting with Japan and Australia its original birthplace), but also of several Western countries. The United States has already changed the title of the United States Pacific Command into United States Indo-Pacific Command. In the European Union, France was one of the first member states to make the Indo-Pacific one of its geopolitical priorities, as shown by Emmanuel Macron's speech on 2 May 2018 at Garden Island (Sydney). Since then, Germany has formulated its own vision for the zone in October 2020, followed shortly afterwards by the Netherlands. The United Kingdom needs to be added to this list of European states, because it is also seeking to turn to Asia, notably to cushion the consequences of Brexit.

In the Western world, the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy oscillates between two poles. For Donald Trump’s United States, it was mainly a question of building a coalition committed to a policy of “China containment”, a coalition whose hard core was to be the “Quad” (the United States, Australia, Japan and India). For France and Germany, although this objective is sometimes mentioned, it is officially a question of ensuring—in a so-called inclusive manner and without declared hostility towards Beijing—that international law is respected in the region. In particular this means defending freedom of navigation and promoting broader multilateralism and, therefore, a multipolar world. At the European level, however, there are sometimes very strong differences. France favours a strategic-military in which the arms contracts it has been awarded in India and Australia are not incidental. Germany has a more economic and trade-oriented vision of the Indo-Pacific. And while France relies mainly on India and Australia, for Germany, Southeast Asia is the geographical centre of gravity of the Indo-Pacific. Paris and Berlin are nevertheless increasingly converging on one point: they wish to Europeanise their policy—if only to mutualise certain costs—by encouraging the EU as a whole to become involved.

For Asian leaders in the Indo-Pacific, placing their nation-state in such a framework is not a neutral undertaking. In the past, the most commonly used formula—Asia-Pacific—was more a reference to an encompassing identity. Today, the Indo-Pacific is a more open notion because it is purely geographical: it refers to the area stretching from one ocean to the other, where non-Asians can, apparently, play a legitimate role. However, this reference does not erase nationalisms. In Indonesia, for example, during the 2014 election campaign, President Joko Widodo was able to link this notion to references to his archipelago’s golden ages of the kingdoms of Majapahit and Srivajaya

This tension between regional integration and nationalist withdrawal or instrumentalization is also found in the economic sphere. While the Asia-Pacific, as embodied in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) from 1989 onwards, aimed to bring together the region’s heavyweights—from the United States to Japan, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan—Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—the centrepiece of Obama's pivot towards Asia—has left the field open to China, the architect of the Regional Economic Cooperation Partnership (RECP). The fact that some countries in the region—such as an increasingly protectionist India—have refused to join the RECP reflects clear fears about China’s rising power.

In order to further discussion and thinking on the Indo-Pacific, CERI and GIGA , two long-term European partners, have set up a joint research group, the Franco-German Observatory of the Indo-Pacific. This group is intended to be a hub for research, one at the intersection of international relations and area studies. On the one hand, it will deal with power relations, coalitions (especially of an anti-Chinese nature), and joint military manoeuvres. On the other hand, it will explore the historical, sociological and cultural dimensions underpinning the concept, which are essential to our understanding of the “Indo-Pacific project”.

This research project seeks to not only define the geographical contours of this multi-faceted concept of the Indo-Pacific, but also position it in relation to China. The weight of economic, commercial and industrial (inter)dependencies will be analysed in detail, as will the infrastructures (ports and others) already constructed or in the making, as the stakes of connectivity are so high in the zone. Another theme addressed will be the forms of military cooperation, from arms sales to joint manoeuvres and interoperability issues. The expectations of the countries in the region towards the West will also be examined, in order to understand how far they want the Americans and Europeans to become involved, and in what way.

The podcast of the group’s inaugural webinar (8 April 2021) is available here.

About the seminars/webinars

The Franco-German Observatory of the Indo-Pacific invites every month a speaker from the Indo-Pacific region to present the vision, or visions, that key actors in the region – from policy, military strategy, and business – seek to promote. The presentations will be designed, first of all, to understand how the ‘Indo Pacific’ is locally conceived as a region and/or a geo-strategic construct and what place China takes therein. Secondly, questions of economic dependence and independence will be a focus of particular attention encompassing not only trade and investment links but, also, industrial cooperation and the building of infrastructure. Finally, the Observatory will seek to tease out the expectations in the countries of the Indo-Pacific towards the ‘West’. To what extent do actors in the Indo-Pacific seek involvement from the US and from Europe? And what form should this involvement take?

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