Category : Analysis
Author: Thomas Manch

EXPLAINER: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been travelling around Europe this past week talking about it. The United States has signed up New Zealand to an economic strategy for it. And it’s now a common feature of political-speak across the world.

But what is the “Indo-Pacific”?

New Zealand, a nation understood to be in the Pacific, and the Asia-Pacific beyond that, has been late to discover this seemingly new region.

Of course, the Indo-Pacific not new. This definition of the region has acquired a new meaning, however.

And, given you will be hearing more about the Indo-Pacific in the future, here’s an explanation of where it’s come from, and what it is.

How does ‘Indo-Pacific’ differ from ‘Asia-Pacific’?

The Indo-Pacific is, geographically, comparable to the more familiar term Asia-Pacific, which in itself is fairly self-explanatory.

The Asia-Pacific encompasses Asian and Pacific nations, including “Pacific Rim” countries in the Americas, including Canada, the United States, Mexico, Chile and Peru.

While India and Bangladesh are included, Central Asian countries are not. Russia, which stretches from Eastern Europe into the Pacific Ocean, generally is included.

David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, says the “Asia-Pacific” as a concept rose from the 1980s onwards, primarily used to reference economic connections in the region.

The 21-country Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, founded in 1989 and hosted by New Zealand last year, is the major regional institution that embodies this idea of the region.

“Whereas the Indo-Pacific is really more of a strategic concept,” Capie says.

By strategic concept, Capie means it’s used when describing the region with a "security lens” – less about economic ties, and more about political and military power.\

US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Tokyo, in May. The framework is a US-led economic initiative for the region (minus China).

The geography of the Indo-Pacific is more centred around the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Latin American countries are not included. Some views of the Indo-Pacific, such as Japan’s, can stretch the region all the way to East Africa.

Curiously, the United States’ definition of the Indo-Pacific includes Mongolia, a land-locked country in East Asia.

This was due to the United States’ renaming its Pacific Command, which had military responsibility for the region including Mongolia, to the “Indo-Pacific” command, hence it’s included.

The Indo-Pacific “means lots of different things to different people,” Capie says.

So where does the Indo-Pacific come from?

There are two uses for the term Indo-Pacific.

In the world of marine biology, it's used as a geographical designation for species which aren’t simply confined to the Pacific or neighbouring Indian Ocean. The University of Auckland is set to host the 11th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference in November 2023.

The geopolitical use of the term originated in pre-war Germany, with Karl Haushofer​, a German soldier and geographer who theorised about the region in the 1920s and 1930s.

The United Kingdom's carrier strike group, with US and Japanese vessels, sails to conduct multiple carrier strike group operations in the Philippine Sea in October 2021. Such displays of power have become important to countries wanting to stake their claim in the Indo-Pacific.

According to a paper on the origins of the Indo-Pacific in the journal Modern Intellectual History, published by Cambridge University Press, his conception of the Indo-Pacific was part of an effort to reinterpret the world for a Germany that wanted to reassert itself after the defeat of World War I.

The geographer’s view of the Indo-Pacific had only a “slim link” with subsequent Nazi Germany foreign policy, though Haushofer was a teacher to high-ranking Nazi Rudolf Hess.

For Haushofer, linking the countries and peoples of the Indo-Pacific, then a region colonised by Western powers, could “galvanize Asian anti-colonialism” and reshape the world order.


Beyond the term itself, Manjeet Pardesi​, a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University, says the Indo-Pacific has been a “strategic system” in the view of world powers for the past two centuries, except during the recent decades of the Cold War.

Pardesi argues the origins of the Indo-Pacific as a concept originated in pre-modern Asia, before European colonisation.

“If you really go into some of the deep history ... the biggest world trading system is actually maritime Asia, the region that connects China and India,” he says.

The Europeans understood this when they arrived in the region, he says, with the Portugese setting up throughout the Indian Ocean-China Sea circuit within decades.

When the British dominated the region, it fought the Opium wars in China, from 1839 to 1842, from its colony in India.

"The point simply is that in this very long history, depending on how one sees it, actually maritime Asia always went from the Indian Ocean into the China Seas.”

This conception changed with the dominance of the United States in the 1950s. The American approach to the world, he says, was to divide it up into South Asia, Southeast Asia, North Asia.

China’s rise puts the ‘Indo-Pacific’ on the map

But why has the Indo-Pacific, both in name and concept, now returned to common usage? As with so many questions in foreign policy, the answer is China.

“It made its comeback partly because there was an interest on the part of a number of core countries to come together to push back on a more assertive China challenging the status quo in the region,” Capie says.

Then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began talking about the “strategic diamond” of India, Australia, Japan and the United States in 2007, Capie said, but at the time such an idea seemed “too confrontational”.

But the Indo-Pacific has risen to the fore in the past decade, and picked up momentum since about 2016. And Abe’s notion of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific has taken hold, repeated by countries buying into the term.

In seeking to curb China’s growing might in the region, Indo-Pacific institutions have been built. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “The Quad”, is a strategic grouping of India, Australia, Japan and the United States that grown in importance.

The United States in 2019 produced a document detailing its view of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, subtitled Advancing a Shared Vision”.

The AUKUS defence pact, between Australia, UK, and US, is an Indo-Pacific grouping of countries. The pact will have Australia gain nuclear-powered submarines from the US and UK. The new submarines will replace the Royal Australian Navy's existing Collins submarine fleet.

However, China is generally not included in this vision.

"Some of these arrangements, if not explicitly, than implicitly, have the aim of managing China's rising power ... China sees them as essentially attempts at containment, or, your know, confrontation,” Capie says.

When countries talk about issues within the region, most are centred on China.

“Free and open” means the regional order and its rules aren't dominated by a major power (read: China), and is often used in relation to maintaining open seas. Among the routine concerns is China's claim to territory and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, which has contravened international rules.

Pardesi says that, while China dislikes the way other countries talk of the Indo-Pacific, it thinks of the region in the same way, strategically.

He says China began modernising its navy, almost a decade ago, to become a “two ocean navy”, a reference to the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Elsewhere in Asia, there has been some wariness. Southeast Asian countries, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have put out their own “outlook” on the Indo-Pacific that emphasises “dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry”.

"A lot of the countries of Southeast Asia ... want to avoid a choice between China or the United States, and so they're wary about concepts like Indo-Pacific," Capie says.

It’s not only within the region that the Indo-Pacific seems prominent.

The European Union and United Kingdom also adopted the terminology and created Indo-Pacific strategies. Canada are developing their own Indo-Pacific strategy to be rolled out in the coming months, Capie says.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gives a foreign affairs speech at the Standing in the Future conference held by the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs at Te Papa, in July 2021.

Where does New Zealand stand?

Ardern embraced the idea of the Indo-Pacific in a speech given at a foreign policy event in July 2021, saying New Zealand had “adopted this Indo-Pacific outlook”.

Capie says Ardern’s speech was the Government’s “stamp of approval from the highest level” for the view of the region.

But it came after years of wariness. (By way of comparison, Australia substantially outlined its view of the Indo-Pacific in a 2013 Defence White Paper.)

Capie said the Labour Government had started out, its first term, trying to juggle the various labels for the region depending on the context.

"New Zealand was wary about being seen to sign up to some of the sharper notions of Indo-Pacific, that were particularly tied to military strategies.”

Now, the Government uses the term in a similar fashion to the United States and Japan, talking of the need to maintain a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

But it also displays the wariness seen in Southeast Asia, insisting the Indo-Pacific can be inclusive (meaning: include China).

Ardern, in her speech, said New Zealand would not use the term Indo-Pacific as “subtext for exclusion”.

And what does it mean to me?

Nothing, in a literal sense. The geography of the region hasn’t changed, and you still live in Aotearoa New Zealand – a country in the Pacific, the Asia-Pacific, or the Indo-Pacific if you care to call it that.

The “Indo-Pacific” is one of many terms that have gained currency in the world of diplomacy. But understanding how countries use such language can help with decoding the meaning behind their message.

Capie says discussion of terms like the Indo-Pacific can appear arcane debates, or trivial differences. But when it comes to creating sharp lines, including and excluding countries, this can matter.

The co-operation arrangements between countries that hinge on the idea of the Indo-Pacific, like the Quad and the more recent AUKUS defence agreement, are increasingly being determined on the basis of trust and ideology, he says.

As these arrangements expand into new areas, such as trade, cybersecurity, and climate, there’s potential that new rules and standards will be set within the region. Capie says it will become “costly” for New Zealand not to be in the room for these discussions.

So New Zealand will be further drawn into the Indo-Pacific.


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