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Japan and new power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific

By Marianne Péron- Doise
Associate Research Fellow of the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS)
April 28, 2023
Although the Indo-Pacific covers diverse realities in the vision of very different actors, the growing number of State’s strategies linked to this concept over the past ten years underlines its importance and its power of attraction. The Indo-Pacific is thus widely mobilized by a myriad of governments, but also by regional actors such as ASEAN and the European Union, EU, as an organizational principle reflecting their position in the future world order. Indeed, it could be called a marker of power if one were to judge by the number of states that are joining it, perhaps with the ambition of having their status and their foreign policy recognized on the international scene.

For Japan, which has been at the origin of the spread of the concept, this popularity may come as a surprise. However, this craze must be judged in the long term. Indeed, it is still too early to judge the depth of the transformative effect of the Indo-Pacific on the balance of power in the region.

The Indo-Pacific, a crowded and plural space

Since its popularization in 2007 by Shinzo Abe, then Prime Minister of Japan, in a speech at the Indian Parliament, the concept of the Indo-Pacific has been increasingly used as a new power nomenclature by policymakers and academics alike. However, the actual meaning of the term is unclear, and the strategies associated with it are still uncertain. The first confusion arises from the geographical definition of the Indo-Pacific. In its most widespread acceptation, the term designates a maritime zone that is coherent because it combines the Indian and Pacific Oceans “the confluence of two seas” as described by Shinzo Abe. Increased economic activity and geopolitical competition in this vast ocean area are seen as the rationale for conceptualizing the Indo-Pacific as a distinct region. According to this view, the new geopolitical realities of the 21st century - the rise of India and China - are best understood from these two oceans, the islands they contain and the countries that border them, as a whole. The centrality of ASEAN and geographically of South-East Asia, are invoked in almost all the Indo-Pacific policies listed. It is embodied in the emergence of Indonesia, an emblematic archipelago state that its growth dynamics, its policy of non-alignment and its maritime location place at the heart of the Indo-Pacific.

This predominantly maritime interpretation is far from unanimous. Some argue that the neologism Indo-Pacific is a discursive construct, rooted in the concerns of some countries about China's growing power and influence. Rather than a natural product of the shift of global power and wealth from the Atlantic to the East, the term Indo-Pacific is seen as a way to provide a concept around which a strategic response to China's assertiveness could be organized.

It is true that much of the literature and political commentary on the Indo-Pacific to date has focused on the changing balance of power between Washington and Beijing and what this means for the region. But while this great power dynamic is a key feature of the region, it is far from comprehensive. Less attention has been paid, for example, to how other Indo-Pacific states, particularly those on the East African or Oceania coasts, are responding to the opportunities and challenges presented by the profound transformations taking place in the region. There is an urgent need to broaden the debate on the Indo-Pacific by adopting a much more diverse set of perspectives and approaches to analysis. Japan, which has long-standing and trusting relationships with many African countries and micro island states in the South Pacific, could help to further integrate these countries into the overall Indo-Pacific discussions and dynamics.

Debates about the usefulness or even the ontological basis of the Indo-Pacific concept are likely to continue for some time. Nevertheless, the policies adopted by the region's key actors - states and policy-making organizations - will also have a powerful constitutive effect on the shape of the Indo-Pacific. The dynamism of the region, including the overall rate of economic growth and the resulting share of global power, accounts for the rapid transformations it is undergoing. While the Indo-Pacific accounts for 40% of global power today, by 2040 the IMF predicts that it could account for nearly 50% of global GDP and its markets 40% of global consumption.

Strengthening regional an sub-regional poles

This new world embodied by the Indo-Pacific has many unknowns. It encompasses disparate constellations of power: large to medium powers, small to micro-states. More fundamentally, there are states that support the current global governance structure and others that wish to replace or reshape it because it is perceived as too unequal. But there are also states that, while questioning their place, do not wish to be drawn into a great 'scholastic' debate on the Indo-Pacific.

These questions, which are expressed in varying degrees of adherence to or rejection of the Indo-Pacific concept, have accompanied the gradual shift of economic power and resources from the West to the East. At this stage, they question the resilience of the organizations and forums for dialogue and regional cooperation that have been set up, notably ASEAN and its enlargements: from the initial format with the ten South-East Asian states in 1967 to that of ASEAN plus three in 1997, which saw the addition of China, Japan and South Korea. The ASEAN Regional Forum, established in 1994 and dedicated to security issues, has grown beyond the ten ASEAN countries and three East Asian countries to a 27-member format with the United States, Russia, the European Union and North Korea. South Asia is under-represented with only India and Pakistan. So is Oceania, which is limited to Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Despite its "centrality", which is often mentioned by the proponents of the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN alone cannot embody and contain the political and economic dynamics at work in this vast space. It can, however, provide a model with the “ASEAN way” and its concern for consensus and neutrality, which can also be found in the “Pacific Way” of the Oceanian countries.

This is why it is important to pay attention to and strengthen the integrative capacities of sub-regional organizations such as the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in South Asia or the Pacific Community and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Oceania. Japan, present in all these entities as a member, associate member or observer could usefully work to strengthen their resilience. It could cooperate to this end with other partners such as France a resident power of the Indo-Pacific which is already very active in these bodies. In a context of economic competition and tensions over resources, thinking globally about the Indo-Pacific by organizing bridges between these different entities and other inter-state cooperation forums could greatly contribute to the energy transition of this vast basin and beyond.

Changing norms, loyalties and affiliations

Whatever one thinks of it, the “China parameter" has gradually emerged as the element from which many states understand and make choices about the merits of a still fuzzy but different world order, embodied by China, and an order more or less represented by the United States but no longer satisfactory. The fact that the latter no longer really inspires confidence, especially after the Trump presidency, does not mean that some powers are turning away from it because the status quo brings relative stability. It is under the general "threat" of a rising China that the position of some players has begun to change. In the Indo-Pacific, this shift has manifested itself in normative statements on "law based order", respect for "freedom of navigation and overflight" or "security of the SLOC". This has increasingly led to a combination of hard and soft power and the emergence of a coordinated approach comprising a superpower, the United States, a technological and economic power, Japan, and two pivotal powers, India and Australia. These four states, while developing very different perspectives, have thus formed the core of what former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has termed a 'free and open Indo-Pacific' strategy that has been embodied in QUAD, which has become increasingly important since 2016. However, this emphasis on the defense of an international order guaranteed by law and the reminder of the use of maritime spaces in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are also found in the discourse of many states, including China. But they have a different reading of the UNCLOS principles.

The various reactions of UN member states to the General Assembly vote on 2 March 2022 on the war in Ukraine revealed the international community's divergence on notions long taken for granted. Of the 193 members, 141 approved the text condemning Russia's use of force, 5 opposed it, including North Korea, and 35 abstained, including two key Indo-Pacific powers, China and India. While the two countries have very different rationales in their refusal (to question their relations with Russia), the episode has revealed the existence of an anti-Western bloc and the existence of a China-Russia-North Korea front. The destabilizing impact of the latter is already being felt in Northeast Asia with the acceleration of North Korean ballistic missile launches.

It should be noted that the rising powers of the Indo-Pacific area , China, Russia, India and Indonesia, are questioning to varying degrees the current regional order. Some of them want to overturn it to their advantage as they perceived it as a vestige of a multilateral system outdated because inherited from the Second World War. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), implemented since 2013 can be seen as an initiative to transform this regional order. It proposes a global strategy focused on connectivity and infrastructure, the main axes of which are in the Indo-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific and the BRI thus appear to be two competing frameworks with on one side a liberal-oriented Asia including a strategic orientation and on the other side a "sinicized" Asia including an economic orientation.


The Indo-Pacific concept does not fully take into account the complexity of the dynamics underway in the region and their inclusion in a long-time frame and on a supra-regional scale. For the time being, the future of the concept seems to lie between approaches that reveal a desire for "containment" of revisionist countries which immediate effect is to polarize the region, and approaches that are more cooperative and inclusive as those of Japan.

While the Indo-Pacific's upward trajectory is leading it to become increasingly important in world affairs, it remains difficult to predict what the consequences will be for the region's interstate relations. Will the Indo-Pacific become an area of open tension between established and rising powers? Could the contestation over maritime boundaries from the China Seas to Taiwan turn belligerent? How will small powers and island states facing the existential threat of climate change cope without the implementation of trans-regional cooperation? This very uncertain future should encourage a stabilizing power like Japan to work more with like-minded partners in order to prevent tensions and crisis and promote a prosperous and stable Indo-Pacific.

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