Foreign Affairs

Why NZ must adjust to the rise of the ‘Indo-Pacific’

If the Asia-Pacific order has been defined by peace and prosperity, the rise of the Indo-Pacific is bringing a greater focus on regional security and tensions - and New Zealanders must adjust, Thitinan Pongsudhirak writes.

COMMENT: Few countries will miss the Asia-Pacific era more than New Zealand. This trade-oriented geographic bridge that connects the peoples, lands and economies from both sides of the vast Pacific Ocean has not gone away by any means, but it is being eclipsed by a hazy “Indo-Pacific” horizon.

If the Asia-Pacific was all about the peace and prosperity that underpinned several decades after the Second World War, the Indo-Pacific is shaping up to be mostly about regional security and tension into the first half of the 21st century.

For a well-endowed country of fewer than five million people to Thailand’s 70 million but more than half the latter’s land mass, and arguably the hyphen in the Asia-Pacific, New Zealand will increasingly confront far-reaching ramifications in its near and far neighbourhood as the ordering paradigm shifts from prosperity to security.

While its officialdom is coming to grips with the Indo-Pacific era, New Zealanders need to awaken to this inconvenient reality with alertness and anticipation, but without undue alarm.

To be sure, the Asia-Pacific as a household frame of reference will remain visible because it is supported by a big bureaucracy behind the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, currently with 21 members.

Headquartered in Singapore, Apec hosts an extensive network of meetings and conferences among constituent firms and governments. But its trade liberalisation momentum has stalled compared to the early years after its formation in 1989.

Barack Obama's "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific has been supplanted by his successor Donald Trump's vision of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific". Photo: Getty Images.

The Asia-Pacific was rebooted between 2009 and 2016 under US President Barack Obama’s strategic approach, known as the “pivot” and later the “rebalance”, whereby America’s heft and priorities shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Obama “rebalance” was complemented by a trade-liberalisation vehicle, namely the Trans-Pacific Partnership among 12 Asia-Pacific countries, which excludes China and originally featured the US until it withdrew under the Trump administration.

Geoeconomic winds are now blowing in a different direction. The Trump administration has promoted a new approach, formally called the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (or FOIP) which has been codified into the US national and defence strategies, identifying China as a revisionist rival.

Apart from the US, other Indo-Pacific promoters are Australia, Japan, and India, comprising the so-called “Quad” of Indo-Pacific powers. The emphasis on “free and open” varies among them but all agree on the two-ocean geostrategy.

China sees the US’s FOIP as a campaign to check its geopolitical ascent through containment and encirclement. Nevertheless, the nascent Indo-Pacific era is catching on.

Asia-Pacific out, Indo-Pacific in

In early 2018, the Honolulu-based US Pacific Command (Pacom) was renamed the US Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom). The US Air Force inaugurated the first edition of its new academic publication, called The Air Force Journal of the Indo-Pacific Affairs.

Last June, the US Department of Defence released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which mentions the Indo-Pacific 146 times and the Asia-Pacific just four times, two in reference to Apec and the other two to the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, a Honolulu-based think-tank.

Not missing a beat, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade set up an Indo-Pacific branch as a separate division earlier this year. India’s ministry of external affairs has taken a similar measure. 

It is as if the “Asia-Pacific” is being replaced by the “Indo-Pacific” in the geopolitical and geoeconomic lexicon. This week, as a current example, Thailand is hosting the Indo-Pacific regional meeting of army chiefs from across the Pacific region.

The Indo-Pacific takes up so much global bandwidth that Asean – Southeast Asia’s 10-member regional organisation and centre for regional security and economic cooperation – has felt compelled to respond.

Last June, Asean launched the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) at the 34th Asean Summit in Bangkok. The AOIP brought up the Asia-Pacific six times and the Indo-Pacific 28 times.

For New Zealand, the unfolding Indo-Pacific era poses a conundrum. A frontal answer to it requires an awareness - not just in the Beehive but right down to the sheep farms and rural households - that times are changing fast and in a direction inconsistent with the peace and prosperity we have all grown accustomed to.

This is understandable, because the AOIP addressed the challenges and issues within the Indo-Pacific framework, but the lack of focus on the Asia-Pacific was unmistakable.

Yet the Indo-Pacific lacks a trade and investment component. If it develops an economic pillar, much like the TPP was to the Obama “rebalance”, the FOIP would be easier to sell to Asean and other countries.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, for example, is geopolitical and geoeconomic at the same time, offering infrastructure development to countries across the Eurasian landmass all the way to Africa. 

For New Zealand, the unfolding Indo-Pacific era poses a conundrum. A frontal answer to it requires an awareness - not just in the Beehive but right down to the sheep farms and rural households - that times are changing fast and in a direction inconsistent with the peace and prosperity we have all grown accustomed to.

It does not mean New Zealand should immediately beef up its war-fighting capabilities, but it does require this great little country to bandwagon with like-minded friends and partners – Asean foremost among them – to keep superpower rivalry and tensions in a moving and workable balance, while avoiding complacency at all costs.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at the Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of political science in Bangkok. In 2018, he was appointed ASEAN@50 Fellow by New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and is currently an honorary adviser with the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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