The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
On his first phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping after taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden stressed that “preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific” was one of his top priorities. He made a similar point to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, promising to “promote a free and open Indo-Pacific,” and to South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, calling the U.S.–South Korean alliance a “lynchpin of the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.” On a call between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, both leaders affirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japanese alliance as a “cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a White House readout of the conversation.
Only a decade ago, the phrase “Indo-Pacific” would have left most foreign policy experts scratching their heads. Today, it is not just stock language in Washington but a widely accepted reconceptualization of Asia that is rearranging U.S. foreign policy. In the early days of his administration, Biden appointed Kurt Campbell—one of the architects of President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia—as his “Indo-Pacific Coordinator,” a newly created position on the National Security Council. Soon after, Admiral Phil Davidson—head of what just a few years ago was the Pacific Command but is now the Indo-Pacific Command—announced that the Pentagon was shifting away from its historic focus on Northeast Asia and Guam toward “revising our Indo-Pacific force laydown . . . to account for China’s rapid modernization.” And ahead of Biden’s meeting this week with the leaders of the Quad—a loose coalition among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States that seeks to counter China—White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the president’s decision to make the summit one of his earliest multilateral engagements “speaks to the importance we’ve placed on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.”
The Indo-Pacific’s evolution from unfamiliar term to foreign policy cliché is not the product of rigorous policy debates or careful consideration. Rather, Washington’s national security establishment has unthinkingly internalized a Trump-era turn of phrase that is rife with unrealistic expectations and unvetted assumptions. The goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” may sound noble, but pursuing it will lead the United States astray.
The concept of an Indo-Pacific expands what is meant by Asia to include the Indian Ocean region, an area of debatable interest to the United States that many now see as vital for countering China. Widening the regional aperture in this manner encourages military overstretch by positioning the United States for commitments that will be difficult to defend and distracts policymaker attention from other parts of Asia, where decades of hard-won peace hinge much more directly on American words and deeds. East Asia and the Pacific are not just subsets of a greater Indo-Pacific—they are the core geography of U.S. power and influence in Asia. Forsaking them for the latest geopolitical buzzword is an epic blunder in the making.
The modern concept of the Indo-Pacific dates back to 2007, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe observed in a speech in India that “the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A ‘broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form.” After the speech, the Indo-Pacific became a recurring referent in Japanese, Indian, and eventually Australian foreign policy circles. The Indian Ocean had always mattered to these countries; Australia and India front it, and since the dawn of the twenty-first century, Japanese strategists had quietly promoted the idea of partnering with India there in order to dilute China’s strength in East Asia. Reframing Asia as the Indo-Pacific served the interests of all three of these nations.
The Pentagon’s competition-obsessed Office of Net Assessment started pushing the idea of expanding American influence in the Indian Ocean as part of a broader reorientation of U.S. statecraft toward Asia as early as 2002. References to the Indo-Pacific then began to proliferate during Barack Obama’s presidency, as defense strategists in particular started thinking of the Indian Ocean region as a place to balance a rising China at relatively low cost. But the broader idea of an Indo-Pacific really became lodged in the imagination of U.S. policymakers only after the publication in 2010 of Robert Kaplan’s geopolitical travelogue Monsoon, which popularized the idea that the Indian Ocean would take center stage in the twenty-first-century strategy games of great powers.
Kaplan’s prophecy was self-fulfilling—only after the book became a bestseller did the Indo-Pacific become a Washington obsession—but he did not pull it from thin air. Kaplan identified real patterns crisscrossing the Pacific and Indian Oceans: energy corridors, shipping containers filled with Gucci bags and iPhones, migration, terrorism, and subdued Sino-Indian competition for influence among smaller states that long predated the current all-consuming rivalry between China and the United States. The Indo-Pacific, in other words, was a thing, and it merited attention.
By 2019, using the term “Asia” rather than “Indo-Pacific” suggested that one wasn’t in the know.
But the idea quickly leapt from novelty to cliché, ultimately stifling rather than improving debates about Asia policy. In Washington, the Indo-Pacific, as a substitution for Asia, came to matter only as a balancing game against China: it and the Indian Ocean region became shibboleths during the Trump era, ways for insiders to identify who among them was working in service of a larger project of zero-sum competition with China. By 2019, using the term “Asia” rather than “Indo-Pacific” suggested either that one wasn’t in the know or that one wasn’t sufficiently committed to kneecapping Xi.
The Trump administration endorsed this more expansive way of talking about Asia because it symbolized and facilitated an additional front of pressure against Beijing. Enamored with the search for new ways to cause problems for China in the Indian Ocean region, Trump officials believed they could draw Beijing’s attention and resources away from other areas of competition. So far, the Biden administration appears to have imported this thinking wholesale. Unfortunately, neither administration gave much thought to the implications and risks of expanding the field of play in this “great game” with China.
Analytically, the biggest problem with an aggregate Indo-Pacific is that it subsumes an East Asia in which no wars have erupted since 1979. This “Asian peace” is the product of a number of factors, including U.S. forward military presence and alliances, Sino-U.S. détente, economic interdependence, regional norms and multilateral architecture, and the spread of democracy in some quarters. Peace and its causes in East Asia and the Pacific should be the focal points of U.S. policy toward the region, particularly as most of these historical sources of stability have eroded in recent years. What could be more important than preventing war in the world’s wealthiest, most militarized, and most populous region?
By grouping South Asia with East Asia, though, the Indo-Pacific obscures the Asian peace. India and Pakistan have come into conflict repeatedly over the last half century, indicating that the politics of South Asia are out of step with those of East Asia. They are different games. Washington risks losing that insight—and the ability to calibrate policies accordingly—when it views everything through the lens of a single mega-region with a single, albeit implied, mega-purpose. U.S. statecraft cannot address what it cannot see, and the Indo-Pacific formulation turns the Asian peace into a dangerous blind spot.
But a neglected Asian peace is not the only risk Washington runs with its expanded conceptualization of Asia. The United States risks overextending its power in the Indian Ocean region. Washington enjoys many advantages and retains many interests in East Asia and the Pacific: these regions contain five U.S. treaty allies, not to mention Hawaii, where the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is headquartered, and the U.S. territory of Guam. Through the Compact of Free Association, the United States maintains exclusive control over the security of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau in exchange for basing and port access. These alliances and commitments, underpinned by more than 80,000 U.S. troops and dozens of military installations in East Asia alone, give the United States considerable influence in East Asia and the Pacific. But the United States has no comparable alliances, responsibilities, or interests in the Indian Ocean region.
The United States faces a credibility problem in the Indian Ocean region.
The United States therefore faces a credibility problem in the Indian Ocean region, should it wish to fight a war or engage in coercive diplomacy there. Without allies or territories in the region, and with scarcer access to bases and ports than in other parts of Asia, U.S. forces would find it harder and riskier to project military power in the Indian Ocean than pretty much anywhere other than the Taiwan Strait. As a result, U.S. threats and commitments in the Indian Ocean region do not carry as much weight as they do elsewhere.
The Pentagon usually expects to overcome disadvantages such as these with more weapons and more funding, rather than with better strategy. But the United States’ thin military presence in the Indian Ocean region is not a gap that needs filling. It is proportional to U.S. interests in the region compared with those in other parts of Asia. Expanding the navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean could make sense if the United States needed to be prepared for the sudden outbreak of war there. But China’s main conflict is on land in the Himalayas—against India, a dispute that does not concern U.S. interests. And China will not remain passive as it perceives the U.S. military further encircling it. The surest path to preventing war in the Indian Ocean is restraint, not more troops in defense of a nonexistent redline. Greater militarization of this part of the world benefits nobody and costs the American taxpayer all the while.
There is also the risk that by trying to cleverly distract and disadvantage China in the Indian Ocean, the United States will distract and disadvantage itself. If the Biden administration had inherited healthy alliances and an uncontested regional order in Asia, perhaps it could have made the case for going even farther abroad in search of new places to stabilize. But the past four years have caused many U.S. allies to question Washington’s reliability, and the list of pressing regional issues has only gotten longer—from intensifying Chinese pressure on Taiwan to North Korea’s runaway nuclear capabilities. Recent polling also indicates that most Southeast Asian nations do not care about great-power competition nearly as much as they do about climate change, economic inequality, and societal recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic—the inverse of U.S. foreign policy priorities of late. Biden, in other words, has plenty of repair work to do in East Asia and the Pacific before he should worry about expanding the United States’ sphere of interest.
None of the above is an argument for neglecting the Indian Ocean. But given the region’s relative unimportance to the United States, and Washington’s comparative advantages elsewhere, only low-cost and low-risk initiatives make sense there. The Quad arguably qualifies as such an initiative, as long as expectations are kept in line with reality. The same is true of the United States’ decision to furnish India with intelligence during its recent skirmish with China in the Himalayas—a sensible move, assuming U.S. officials had reason to believe that better information was going to discourage violence. The United States is also right to welcome Canadian, French, and British involvement in the region, since it costs Washington nothing and has the potential to amplify Washington’s voice while moderating its overzealous competitive impulse through democratic multilateralism.
What these initiatives have in common is not just that they constitute a kind of balancing on the cheap but that they encourage other countries to assume greater responsibility for regional security. The United States should be looking for ways to contribute in the Indian Ocean that offer complementarity without commitment—not ways to command the commons, lead the “free world,” or carry the burden for frontline states whose fates are more directly affected by the shape of Indian Ocean politics. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that “every element of what we do in our foreign policy and national security ultimately has to be measured by the impact it has on working families.” Further militarizing the Indian Ocean and distracting from Asia does not meet that standard.
The Indo-Pacific is, at times, a valid analytic construct. Some things do traverse the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and the Indian Ocean is of geographic importance to U.S. allies such as Japan and Australia. But an ally’s geography is not the United States’ geography. Washington must not allow hubris, fear, or groupthink to distort its perception of threats, interests, and capabilities. What one calls a thing might be trivial, but how one imagines a thing can carry great importance. In the case of the Indo-Pacific, an imagined sphere of U.S. interest that puts the Indian Ocean on a par with East Asia could lead to disaster.