Friday, January 31, 2020

The Ambiguity of the Indo-Pacific Strategy

At the end of the last year, I had some opportunities to attend a couple of public forums on the Indo-Pacific strategy to defend the freedom of navigation and the rule of law in this huge region. Literally speaking, the Indo-Pacific region means the area beyond the east of Suez, but policy debates focus on managing Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea so much that it seems to me that this grand design is confused with, or even contract into the Asia-Pacific strategy. That may be why most of the debates sound rather reactive to Chinese expansion, than proactive to take an initiative for the new order in this region. Therefore, I would like to review the background of the Indo=Pacific strategy from the beginning.

The genesis of the Indo-Pacific strategy today was presented by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the TICAD (Tokyo International Conference on African Development) Nairobi in 2016. Abe stressed importance of the sea lane that connects Asia and Africa, and stated that Japan would endorse freedom of navigation and the rule of law for African development and security ("Address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at TICAD VI"; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; August 27, 2016 and TICAD Yokohama Declaration states the "Indo-Pacific Initiative"; Nihon Keizai Shimbun; August 30, 2019).Abe’s idea is nothing new. Historically, there were some precursors. In the Middle Age, Arab-Muslim merchants dominated trade of goods and slaves from Africa to the Far East on the sea. In the colonial era, the British Empire defended the sea lane from Suez to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Also, the Royal Navy enforced the rule of law to stop slave export from Africa. More recently, the Bush administration launched the Greater Middle East Initiative to fight the War on Terror against Islamic extremism, and to promote democracy throughout the region.

Compared with these historic precedences, it seems to me that current Indo-Pacific strategy lacks panoramic views and consistency. China is a critical challenge, but I would argue that it is necessary to manage threats in the Middle East and Africa like Iran and terrorism, in connection with Chinese geopolitical ambition. Also, we need to consider the multilateral framework for this objective. Actually, Professor Ken Jimbo of Keio University comments that America’s Pacific strategy had evolved virtually into the Indo-Pacific strategy, when the 7th fleet began to fill the vacuum in the Indian Ocean after British withdrawal from the east of Suez in the 1960s and 70s. Nevertheless, we witness how the Western strategy against Iran is poorly coordinated these days. In view of such multidimensional aspects, let me talk about the involvement by regional stakeholders beyond the Asia-Pacific.

Just as Asia-Pacific nations have different interests and priorities each other, so do the nations of the Indian Ocean. Most noticeably, India wants to maintain strategic autonomy from the United States, though she assumes China as the primary threat in her “Look East” defense strategy. Meanwhile, African nations wonder how much they can embrace China’s BRI. While they do not want the West to preach democracy and human rights, some countries like Kenya worries that China would dominate them through 5G telecommunication systems and tied aid, and even drag them into East Asian conflicts in which they are hardly interested (“Focus: the Potential of the Indo=Pacific Initiative”; JIIA International Affairs; December 2019). Also, we have to accommodate major powers outside the region into the Indo-Pacific strategy. From this point of view, US-European partnership is quite important. However, as President Donald Trump courts conservative base at home to prioritize his reelection to diplomacy, the transatlantic clash of values over new human rights, such as abortion rights and LGBTQ issues, grows further. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mocks them “unreliable rights” ("The Case for Transatlantic Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific"; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Decomber 18, 2019).

As policy coordination among allies stall, another challenger to the Indo-Pacific strategy emerges. Strobe Talbott of the Brookings Institution, comments that Russian influence in the Middle East is growing, while America and Europe split over Iran (“The only winner of the US-Iran showdown is Russia”; Brookings Institution; January 9, 2020). Abe has launched an ambitious initiative to show Japanese political presence in the absence of American leadership. But today, everything has become more complicated than in the days of Arab traders and British imperialists, to implement a grand design to connect Africa and Asia that Abe stated at the TICAD 6 in Nairobi. On one hand, we have to manage specific and imminent problem like Chinese expansionism, but on the other hand, we have to review the concept of the Indo-Pacific strategy in the whole region.