Russia blew Indo-Pacific out of the world’s consciousness, but the killing of Shinzo Abe reminds us of its origins

Russia blew Indo-Pacific out of the world’s consciousness, but the killing of Shinzo Abe reminds us of its origins
People pay their respects before a photo of assassinated former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at the Japanese embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, on 12 July 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Diego Azubel)

The region remains on the global geo-strategic map, having now explicitly entered NATO’s strategic thinking. The killing of Shinzo Abe too has thrown the Indo-Pacific into stark relief against the geopolitical threats posed by Russia and China, since it was he who essentially invented the concept.

In February 2022, European, African and Asian foreign ministers were meeting in Paris for the first international conference on the Indo-Pacific, when Russian troops rolled over the border into Ukraine. 

France and the European Union had hoped to put the Indo-Pacific more firmly on the map as a strategic concept. But the sudden return of war to Europe was a huge distraction and instead made the region seem even more remote than it had been.

Yet the Indo-Pacific has clearly not lost its importance as another potential theatre of future conflict and second front for NATO.

As recently as five years ago the concept “Indo-Pacific” barely existed in the discourse of international relations. The shocking assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe a week ago was a reminder that it was mainly he who invented the idea.

In 2007, during his first term as prime minister, in his seminal “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech, he told the Indian parliament that the Pacific and the Indian oceans were undergoing a “dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity”. He envisaged a “broader Asia” evolving into an “immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia”. This would be a network of democracies, allowing “people, goods, capital and knowledge to flow freely”.

The word “China” did not appear in Abe’s speech. But clearly he was responding to the pressure of a China rising under Xi Jinping and starting to stake its claim to islands in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific. The location of Abe’s speech was deliberate as he saw India as an obvious ally. Abe invented the Indo-Pacific concept to bring India into alliance with Japan.  

Abe’s strategy became explicit, as Japan’s “Effort for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, during his second term as prime minister, from 2012 to 2020. Since then the Indo-Pacific concept has proliferated with several other nations or multistate organisations drafting Indo-Pacific strategies, including France, the EU, the US, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, India, Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.  

The “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in Japan’s strategy reflected the central concern expressed in all these strategies that China was trying to control the passage of foreign vessels through large tracts of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. This was most blatant in its landfilling over and between shallow rocky outcrops to create artificial islands and then building military bases on them. This is giving China closer military access to rival countries in the region as well as extending its territorial waters – at least in its own view.

The US, Japan, Australia and other rival powers are ignoring these claims, enforcing their freedom-of-navigation rights by sailing and flying through the seas and airspace China claims. This is creating a risk of conflict.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific has also now explicitly entered NATO’s strategic thinking. 

The Russian and Chinese threat

Under its previous Strategic Concept, drafted in 2010, Russia was still a potential NATO partner and China was not even mentioned. 

In its new Strategic Concept adopted at its summit in Madrid in June 2022, NATO declared: “The Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

China is often not mentioned explicitly in many documents or discussions about the Indo-Pacific. Yet it remains the hidden dragon in the room

And the Strategic Concept also, for the first time, identified China as a threat: “The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values. The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up.”

The NATO document added: “The deepening strategic partnership” between China and Russia “and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.”

And, not coincidentally, the NATO Strategic Concept also mentioned the Indo-Pacific for the first time, saying: “The Indo-Pacific is important for NATO, given that developments in that region can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security. We will strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests.”

It was no coincidence that China and the Indo-Pacific made it into the Strategic Concept at the same time because the Indo-Pacific concept itself – and the several Indo-Pacific strategies of different nations and the EU – are very much reactions to the increasingly aggressive geopolitical posture Beijing has adopted under Xi. 

China is often not mentioned explicitly in many documents or discussions about the Indo-Pacific. Yet it remains the hidden dragon in the room. The coyness may reflect the strategic reality that, as NATO put it, Beijing has remained “opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up” and so it is difficult to confront it directly. 

The US has been most explicit about the threat it sees China as posing. President Joe Biden bluntly declared in March 2022 that “the United States is an Indo-Pacific power” and added that the US’ intensifying American focus on the region was “due in part to the fact that the Indo-Pacific faces mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC”.

“The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power. The PRC’s coercion and aggression span the globe, but [are] most acute in the Indo-Pacific. 

“From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbours in the East and South China seas, our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behaviour. In the process, the PRC is also undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, as well as other principles that have brought stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific.”

Biden was speaking at the third summit of the “Quad” – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a new grouping which joins the core group of countries in the Indo-Pacific that are trying to counter China’s influence: the US, Japan, India and Australia. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “Global Indo-Pacific alliance: China, the dragon in the Quad room

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said there that: “The four leaders concurred that any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force, [as in Ukraine]… must not be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific region, and that it is precisely because of this situation that it is critical to further promote efforts toward the realisation of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.”

He was expressing the growing concern that China might be preparing to emulate Russia by invading and annexing Taiwan which it regards as part of its territory and which it has long vowed to take back. 

At their most recent summit, in May 2022, the Quad leaders issued a statement, saying: “We will champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), and the maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight, to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China seas. We strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo and increase tensions in the area, such as the militarisation of disputed features, the dangerous use of coastguard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities.”

The Quad is essentially a vehicle for implementing the Indo-Pacific strategies of its four member states. This includes a variety of other non-security actions in the region.  

“AUKUS” – the Australia, UK and US security pact formed in September 2021, through which the US and the UK will help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines – is another manifestation of Indo-Pacific strategies in action.  

Though not a member of the Quad, France has perhaps the greatest interest in the region of the European states since it regards itself as a resident Indo-Pacific power through its many island territories in the two oceans. 

Which was why it hosted that first international ministerial conference on the Indo-Pacific in February, with the EU. French and EU officials firmly denied publicly that the conference was aimed at China – though South Africa clearly didn’t believe them because it declined the invitation to attend for that reason. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “Africa may be hamstringing its economic and security prospects by distancing itself from Indo-Pacific forum

Security strategy

The conference carefully emphasised non-security aspects, focusing on European development cooperation with the countries of the Indo-Pacific, such as building infrastructure including digital connectivity and co-production of Covid-19 vaccines.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Russia and China ‘gatecrash’ first EU-Indo-Pacific forum despite their no-show

It was not hard, though, to see these projects – like similar ones in other Indo-Pacific strategies – as part of a “hearts and minds” strategy to woo the regional states away from China’s massive investment in infrastructure, most of it under its Belt and Road Initiative which spans the same territory. 

And privately, French officials acknowledged that France, the EU (and others by implication) were promoting a development model in the region different from China’s – more open and transparent, compared with China’s opaque model with secret contracts, for instance 

The security and defence pillar of the EU-Indo-Pacific partnership was most evident in the decision to launch a new Coordinated Maritime Presence (CMP) programme in the northwest corner of the Indian Ocean at the Strait of Hormuz, the strategically critical choke point between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. 

Part of the CMP’s ambition is to keep maritime routes open to all and EU officials did not rule out the possibility that it could in future be extended to the South China Sea, where China is trying to control the freedom of navigation of foreign vessels. 

If Pretoria shied away from the Paris conference so as not to offend its BRICS ally China, India, another BRICS ally, had no such qualms. Its foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, frankly welcomed the EU’s “commitment to contribute to the security of the region”, suggesting the EU’s presence in the Indo-Pacific was necessary to balance unnamed regional forces which were throwing their weight around the region. DM


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