Authors: Alan Chong and Shang-su Wu, RSIS
The idea of the Asia Pacific is as old as World War II. The tides of nationalist awakening connected the Indian anti-colonial movements, along with a handful of Arab nationalists, to Southeast Asia, China and Japan.
Initially, the anti-colonial solidarity that joined newly decolonised states and non-state independence movements was expressed through ‘Pan-Asianism’, the Asian Relations Conference and the Bandung (Asian-African) Conference. The onset of the Cold War rapidly compelled all the decolonised states of Asia to define their political identities and security alignments more clearly.
This momentum led to the Asia Pacific as we know it. Washington’s containment strategy against communism drove the United States to initiate the Central Treaty Organization and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Both groupings contained Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States — a sort of Indo-Pacific alignment.
SEATO ambitiously linked Pakistan to the Philippines and Thailand, excluding all of the pro-Western Middle Eastern states, while also including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France and the United Kingdom. Both of these Cold War ‘Asian’ alliances ultimately failed due to the divergences in strategic vision between the ‘outside powers’ and those located within the actual region.
The Asia Pacific developed incrementally as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and belatedly Singapore attempted various projects for Southeast Asian regional organisations, culminating in ASEAN’s establishment in 1967. From across the Pacific, the United States initiated its hub-and-spokes security system by signing the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, formally terminating the US post-war occupation of Japan and implementing a US–Japan security alliance.
The United States’ underwriting of regional security against communism through its bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines established the nascent Asia Pacific regional security architecture. This was followed by the ASEAN-driven process of setting up dialogues with the major East Asian and Australasian states.
Now, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is locating its ‘centre of gravity’ within the Asia Pacific region. Most of its projects take place within China’s southern and western neighbours’ territories. In this sense, the Asia Pacific has become China-dominated through the BRI while also being pluralistic and open to the inclusion of other Asian states.
The loudest reaffirmation of the Asia Pacific idea is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), also known as the TPP-11, taking in 11 of the original signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and leaving out the United States.
Notably, the CPTPP’s current membership of Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam ensures that the Asia Pacific will remain the ‘hegemonic’ diplomatic framework in the region for a very long time even if China is currently not a signatory.
The idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ represents the turn not taken in Asia after the end of World War II. Although some commentators have suggested that then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton employed the phrase Indo-Pacific in 2010 and 2011 to emphasise India’s importance to US interests, it was really US President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia in November 2017 that raised the term to prominence.
Trump’s speech and the comments made by his National Security Advisor and Secretary of State reaffirmed a distinct emphasis on redrawing Asia’s diplomatic geography.
The link between the Trump administration’s preference for the Indo-Pacific frame and the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, is obvious. The Quad comprises a coalition of powers that are either wary or ambivalent towards China and its BRI: Australia, India, Japan and the United States.
On several occasions in 2017, and again in early 2018, the Quad’s ministers postulated a vision of a ‘Free and open Indo-Pacific strategy’ based on respect for freedom of navigation on the seas, observance of international law and support for inclusive economic cooperation. In mid-February 2018, Quad officials even floated the idea that the four countries could offer to fund infrastructure projects across the Indo-Pacific and as far afield as African states bordering the Indian Ocean.
The United States and India have yet to burnish their credentials as either dependable or generous infrastructure builders for developing states on par with China’s efforts. The Asia Pacific idea boasts a proven track record while the Indo-Pacific is still in its infancy.
Over time, given the geographical scope of China’s BRI, the Asia Pacific might even become the Indo-Pacific through road, rail and maritime extensions. At the heart of the rivalry between these two ideas is a contest of credibility.
Alan Chong is Associate Professor in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies and Shang-Su Wu is Research Fellow in the Military Studies Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.