The goal of having an open and peaceful Indo-Pacific region faces a number of challenges to the international community, according to a panel of experts at a recent symposium in Tokyo.

The conference, “A Free and Open Indo-pacific—Ensuring Peace and Prosperity in the Region,” brought together Japanese experts as well as senior journalists from the U.K., U.S. Asia and India to look at how the issues are perceived in various parts of the world.

“The Indo-Pacific region encompassing the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean is demonstrating tremendous potential as a growth center of the world. Ensuring free and stable maritime order in this region and maintaining the region as free and open is vital to the prosperity of Japan,” said Kiyotaka Akasaka, president of the Foreign Press Center of Japan, the organizers of the event.

“At present this region is facing complicated challenges including Sino-U.S. trade friction, disputes over the South China Sea, growing Chinese influence as exemplified by its Belt and Road Initiative, and more recently a military clash between India and China,” Akasaka said in opening the program.

Giving the keynote address, President of Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies Akihiko Tanaka said that China poses a number of challenges to other countries in the region.

“We should not expect China to launch major reforms of its current economic model or democratize any time soon. “Having said that, I think there are many potential projects where China and other countries concerned can cooperate for the purpose of the economic development of the Indo-Pacific region.”

“If you look at the map of this region there are still many countries or areas which are vulnerable in terms of political, environment or security,” he said. “We need to take measures to reduce these risks.”

From the U.S. perspective, President Donald Trump has stated that the U.S. needed to have a much more direct approach toward China than what was seen during the previous Obama administration but the actual policies are still somewhat confused, according to New York Times Beijing correspondent Steven Lee Myers.

“In practice it isn’t so clear exactly what the strategy is. I do think that both administrations shared an image for a strong American role in this part of the world.”

“I think ultimately that the Chinese have decided in the past few months, and we see this in the rhetoric, that the United States is implacably aligned against China now,” he said.

Myers said that “the central tension” spanning a number of U.S. administrations is how big a role the U.S. wants to play in the region and that this remains unresolved.

From an Indian perspective, the relationship with China has mainly deteriorated with a number of confrontations, according to Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, foreign editor with The Hindustan Times newspaper.

“India now believes it is in effect in a quiet struggle for influence in the Indian ocean with China, one that will play out over many years. “

He said that India is speaking with a number of countries but that relations have developed most fully with Japan.

“The country I would argue that the country that has so far done the most is Japan. Japan has emerged in the past five years as our No. 1 strategic partner,” he said in conclusion.

Ravi Velloor, associate Editor of the Straits Times in Singapore said that the security viewpoint from Southeast Asia has changed over the past decade. He said that there is a now a near common agreement that China poses the biggest strategic threat.

“We fear that we may be heading for a return of the Cold War,” he said. “Quite frankly we are not very comfortable with it.” He said that the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific forum is often met with skepticism among people in the Southeast Asia.

“We don’t want to choose sides. We know the cost of choosing sides. Our interests are in many directions,” Velloor said.

For Europe, the strategic threats in the Asia region is just now coming to the forefront of discussions, according to Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator at The Financial Times newspaper.

He said that regional issues both within European countries and in terms of relations with Russia and the Middle East had until recently dominated European security concerns.

He added that until recently, Europe had seen China mainly in economic terms but that “the Europeans are just beginning to wake up to the strategic dilemmas posed by the rise of China.”

“The Europeans have begun to see these economic issues in a broader strategic light, partly because of the way in which One Belt-One Road might be showing up in Europe. We are the end of the road,” he said.

He said that while Europe is likely to remain a bystander in the military sphere, it will be an important player in the contest for economic supremacy.

“If there is a new cold War, it will probably be fought on economic grounds, not actually by aircraft carriers. In that context, what Europe does, where Europe comes down, will be really crucial,” Rachman said.

India sees unclear strategies coming from both sides, Pal Chaudhuri commented. “Between these two great powers, going back and forth, without any real clarity of what they want to do, all the middle powers and the smaller countries in South East Asia all hedge,” he said.

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