Indo-Pacific Strategies


Will the Indo-Pacific become the next battlefield for US-China rivalry? How will China, ASEAN and the Quad cope with the US ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) strategy? Is the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea also viable for rule making in the Indo-Pacific? Economic development as an 'anchoring practice' is a condition for peaceful coexistence, but should not imply to set aside international arbitral awards based on international law (of the sea) - the PCA South China Sea Arbitration (12 July 2016) between China and Philippines.

Will the Indo-Pacific become the next battlefield for US-China rivalry, where tensions in the South China Sea are still smouldering? How will China cope with the US ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) strategy? If Great Powers are the key makers of regional order, then the FOIP can be understood as America's effort to determine the shape and role of the Indo-Pacific—even as China appears to be doing likewise with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). How will other regional actors respond to the US-China strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific? What are the strategic implications of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept for regional order transformation?

Several major players in the Pacific and Indian oceans have in one way or another announced their Indo-Pacific visions and strategies. The first group includes the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad): Australia, India, Japan and the United States. China and ASEAN are also major stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific construct.


The term ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) started to dominate the headlines after Donald Trump's repeated use of the term during his first trip to Asia as US president in late 2017. In June 2018 the US Navy renamed its Pacific Command the Indo-Pacific Command. The shift in terminology indicates a potential extension of the US strategic vision from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. According to the United States, the region spans ‘a vast stretch of the globe from the west coast of the United States to the western shores of India’. American geopolicy in the Indo-Pacific has two key components: (1) an increasingly powerful India as an important strategic counterweight to China; and (2) the Quad as a forum for military cooperation and networking among ‘like-minded’ partners with a view to maintaining maritime order in the region. The US Indo-Pacific strategy report goes further, defining strategic competition in the region as ‘geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions’, and China as ‘a revisionist power’.

National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017 mentions that China's ‘dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific’.

December 31, 2018, President Trump signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which focuses on US relations with China, India, the ten ASEAN member states, and its allies Japan and South Korea. Where south-east Asia is concerned, the ARIA devotes particular attention to the South China Sea, where it calls on the US to support the ASEAN nations as they adopt a code of conduct in those maritime commons with China.

The FOIP vision and strategy are largely based on maritime security, with the South China Sea as the focus of strategic contestation and power rivalry, and the testing ground for the political will and intention of major stakeholders.Washington also views China's aggressive land reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea as unlawful and inimical to the freedom and security of the seas. If Trump's FOIP strategy is to succeed, it will need to gain the support of its allies and partners. Indeed, it cannot be assumed that the other Quad members, let alone other regional countries, are prepared to go along with the Trump administration's hardening stance towards China.


Japan was an early proponent of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) was originally proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, building upon the successful cooperation between the American, Australian, Indian and Japanese militaries in the aftermath of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Japan, for its part, has resisted twinning the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) with the Quad 2.0 and has emphasized its economic dimension. Japan's primary objective of the FOIP strategy is to shape and consolidate regional order in the Indo-Pacific region based on the existing rules-based international order.


Next to India's primary interest in economic linkage, an effort to foster closer cooperation with Asian economies to its east in the ASEAN, India's primary objective in the Indo-Pacific is to prevent China from dominating the region. In a major foreign policy speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly invoked the principle of the equality of all nations. ‘We see the assertion of power over recourse to international norms,’ he said, in another reference to China's assertive behaviour in its neighbourhood, and called for a ‘common rules-based order for the region … that must apply to all … [based on] sovereignty and territorial integrity’. India's approach to the Indo-Pacific is much more directly designed to counter China's growing power and expansion into South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

New Delhi worries about China's expansion into the south Asian region, which India has long regarded as its own backyard. India is also concerned about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, on which it relies for trade links, and it has repeatedly drawn attention to this issue. Thus the evolution of the concept from simply ‘Indo-Pacific’ to the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, with an emphasis on international law and norms, fits well with India's concerns. Moreover, Indian officials have expressed concern about Chinese naval forays into the Indian Ocean, some under the cover of anti-piracy patrols. This concern goes back several years, to the time when China started to build naval bases in the region (Djibouti) and deploy ships and submarines (Sri Lanka) there. India's Indo-Pacific policy is a way to balance against these threats together with other countries that are also concerned about China's actions and intentions.

In his article "Evasive balancing: India's unviable Indo-Pacific strategy", Rajagopalan characterizes many of the regional responses to China's rise—including India's—as evasive balancing, which he defines as a policy of balancing while attempting to reassure the target that one is not doing so. "Evasive balancing includes elements of both balancing and reassurance. It is a response to an overwhelming threat that needs to be balanced amid uncertainty about the feasibility of such balancing and fear about the consequences should such balancing efforts be ineffective. Therefore, states attempt both to balance against the threat and also to reassure the threat that they are not balancing."

India's reassurance strategy towards China is built upon repeated declarations that India has no interest in containing China, unlitarelal measures and diplomacy aimed at convincing Beijing that its policy is not to attempt to join a coalition against China. New Delhi has constantly sought dialogue with China, despite the periodic difficulties in the relationship. Last but not least, India's apparent hesitation about the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), in which it joined with Australia, Japan and the United States, could have potential negative security consequences. The likely end result is that India will neither please China, nor satisfy its own new partners, nor achieve a stable, non-hegemonic Indo-Pacific. This outcome is completely opposite to the two key components of US Indo-Pacific geopolicy, mentioned above.


In 2008 when Australia left the Quad out of concern that participation might jeopardize its economic ties with China. With a fresh view of the Quad as an important piece of the regional architecture to facilitate economic, military and strategic cooperation in the region (Indo-Pacific), Australia returned and developed into one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the resurrected Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad 2.0), which (re)convened for the first time on the sidelines of the November 2017 EAS in Manila.The United States and Australia have openly and regularly referred to the Quad and the FOIP together, at times interchangeably. It has been argued that Australia should follow Japan's and India's example of providing the region with economic alternatives to China's BRI.

In the South China Sea dispute (China vs. Philippines), following the Permanent Court of Arbitration's decision of July 2016, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urged all parties to abide by the ruling and described it as ‘an important test case for how the region can manage disputes peacefully’.


ASEAN has undertaken efforts—known within regional circles as ‘ASEAN plus one’ arrangements—to enhance practical bilateral collaboration with China and the United States respectively. ASEAN states are likely to work selectively with China and the United States, rather than siding entirely with one or the other.

Ironically, many of the express principles of the FOIP—freedom of navigation, rule of law, respect for sovereignty, open markets and the like—are in fact attractive to many ASEAN member states. However, they hesitate to lend their full support to the concept, owing to their fears about the potential damage to the centrality of ASEAN. To put the matter simply, reducing the FOIP not just to a ‘China only’ matter but presumably even to a ‘containment of China’ strategy is not likely to garner full support from all south-east Asians. What could prove problematic, as some have pointed out, is the litany of issues—the hardy nature of illiberalism in south-east Asia, ASEAN's impotence vis-à-vis the South China Sea conflicts, and its inability to deliver on its own promised agenda of regional integration and community formation, among others—which potentially undermine ASEAN's case for centrality in the FOIP and render it difficult for democratic leaders in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra to accept it in that role.

The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific envisions ASEAN at the centre of the Indo-Pacific discourse. This includes the South China Sea region as well. The Outlook outlines ASEAN’s goal of maintaining regional peace and security with greater adherence to international law and principles, such as the protection of navigational routes and overflight in international waters. These objectives can be buttressed by introducing regional instruments that could help contribute to the formulation of a cohesive Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. The CoC can provide a good vehicle and some best practices for resolving disputes, expanding common interests and making rules for the Indo-Pacific regional order.


China seems to be reluctant to identify itself as part of the Indo-Pacific. So far, no Chinese official document has used the term. In practice, China's economic and strategic ambitions have moved across both the Pacific and the Indian oceans, as we can see from the extensive scope of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese leaders believe that the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy aims to contain China's rise. Whether justly or not, the Quad has come to be seen by the Chinese and others as an anti-China coalition.

China and the Philippines: relaxation of disputes in the South China Sea

In July 2016, China declared the award rendered by the arbitral tribunal established at the unilateral request of the Philippines was ‘null and void’, and that China neither accepted nor recognized it.

Why was there a turn towards calm in the South China Sea in 2016?

  1. In 2014, all ASEAN countries accepted a new approach: ‘relevant disputes [were] being addressed by countries directly concerned through friendly consultations and negotiations and in a peaceful way, and peace and stability in the South China Sea [were] being jointly maintained by China and ASEAN countries’. China's support and advocacy of the approach signalled a pragmatic turn from refusal to discuss South China Sea disputes in any multilateral forum to acknowledgement of the necessity of such discussions within a specific multilateral framework.
  2. On the South China Sea disputes, newly elected Philippine President Duterte believed that the United States would not come to aid the Philippines should conflict break out, and that geography required the Philippines to coexist in peace and cooperate with a rising China. In March 2017, the Philippines and China signed a six-year economic cooperation plan to boost trade and investment for sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development in both countries.
  3. The practices of China and the Philippines anchored by economic development significantly contributed to producing peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Conclusion: Developmental peace in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific construct

By adopting an ideological and confrontational posture toward China, the Trump administration risks creating a pointless Cold War with Beijing. What Asia needs instead is a far more constructive regional approach grounded in a stable balance of power and in mutual compromise.

Building on practice theory, Wei in her article "Developmental peace in east Asia and its implications for the Indo-Pacific" suggests that economic development can serve as an ‘anchoring practice’ in embodying and enacting the constitutive rules and basic norms for a broader set of practices in regional processes, including peaceful coexistence and non-interference. A continuing practice of mutually reinforcing development and security makes up and consolidates a community of developmental peace in east Asia. The primary hypothesis of developmental peace is that the more states prioritize economic development, the more likely they are to reduce or even resolve their conflicts in terms of security interests. When disputes and conflicts do arise in the security realm, they tend to be managed in such a way as to minimize the damage to overall cooperation for the purposes of economic growth. Therefore, the more regional processes are anchored by economic development, the more challenges and conflicts in the security realm are likely to be reduced or even resolved. The 'developmental peace' test on the change in China–Philippines relations over the South China Sea dispute is one example. Wei's constructivist approach seems to suggest a more optimistic future for the Indo-Pacific construct, in which economic development, infrastructure cooperation and the ASEAN (draft) Code of Conduct in the South China Sea can serve as vehicles and best practices to facilitate the building of a rules-based order in the region.

In my opinion, the development-security nexus in combination with the 'anchoring practice' of economic development should not result in ignoring or not recognizing (future) international arbitral awards based on international law (of the sea) about international disputes in the Indo-Pacific region. Alongside the Code of Conduct process, ASEAN, China, the United States and other stakeholders should keep communication channels open to each other on the South China Sea issue.

Related titles on Indo-Pacific in Peace Palace library catalogue

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