In America, Asia-Pacific remains standard issue language, but Indo-Pacific has been thoroughly inducted into the U.S. rhetorical armory, too. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Assistant Secretary for East Asia Kurt Campbell started deploying it in speeches a few years ago. Current Secretary John Kerry has picked up their characterization of the newly opened Burma as part of an “Indo-Pacific economic corridor”, while Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to India this year emphasized the Indian Ocean dimension of America’s Pacific rebalance. The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, does not even utter Asia-Pacific these days, though he marches to a slightly different beat: He calls it the “Indo-Asia-Pacific.”
Locklear is right to recognize Asia as the heart of the matter. Ideally, the region should be called Indo-Pacific Asia. Some key Asian capitals are now espousing or exploring Indo-Pacific ideas, even if their words are not always the same. New Delhi has toyed with the unhelpfully possessive “Indian-Pacific.” Japan has its own poetic formulation: the “confluence of two seas” (futatsu no umi no majiwari). And Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has added “Indo-Pasifik” to the vocabulary of his country’s wonderfully adaptable language.
Not all are convinced about the new nomenclature. Some in Southeast Asia, notably the Singaporeans, are still much more comfortable with “Asia-Pacific” even though their interests span the two oceans. As for the Chinese, they have been wary of the unfamiliar new Indo-Pacific mantra, but this may be starting to change. The Chinese rendering of Indo-Pacific, Yin Tai, is starting to be used by some foreign policy scholars. Some Chinese strategists are quietly developing a “two oceans” school of thought, paving the way for an Indian Ocean strategy, even though Beijing’s immediate security preoccupation remains the disputes on its eastern maritime edge.
Chinese caution toward Indo-Pacific rhetoric is understandable. For a start, the Chinese foreign policy establishment took a long time to embrace the Asia-Pacific label, a concept that for decades has helped legitimize the major role of the United States in a neighborhood Beijing would prefer to regard as simply Asia. Now the Indo-Pacific idea might seem a further ploy to shift China from the center of things and downgrade its importance by inviting in yet another substantial power, India. It is also a reminder that the security of the South China Sea and other waters connecting the two oceans is everyone’s business.
But that’s the point: Things are changing, so it’s time China and others got on board, not because this is their region’s new name but because this is the name of their new region. The Indo-Pacific is not simply a new term for the Asia-Pacific. Rather, it reflects changes in economics, strategic behavior and diplomatic institutions that are having real consequences regardless of who utters the words.
Just a decade ago, the term Indo-Pacific was heard almost nowhere. Even just a few years ago, it could only be found sprinkled in the writings of think-tank types.1 Then it began popping up in the occasional official speech. At first some mistook this for merely a touch of spice to liven up the staple platitudes of Asia-Pacific diplomacy. But it turns out this has been a conscious shift among thinkers and policy makers in multiple places, from Washington to New Delhi, Canberra to Jakarta. Words matter, whether one echoes them wittingly or not. The more frequent use of Indo-Pacific terminology recasts the mental map of some of the most strategically important parts of the globe. How maps are made and labeled matters too, as Robert Kaplan reminds us, because they affect how the powerful understand the world.2
At the simplest level of understanding, the “Indo-Pacific” label means recognizing that the accelerating economic and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean are creating a single strategic system. The idea of an Asian maritime super-region, in general terms, is actually an old one. It had something of a false start in the early 15th century, when a Chinese emperor grounded the treasure fleet of his eunuch admiral, Zheng He, after seeing little merit in his seven voyages west. Later, during early colonial times, European maps titled “Asia” invariably encompassed a swath from the Indian Ocean rim through Southeast Asia to China, Korea and Japan—tantamount to the “Indo-Pacific.” By the 19th century, this breadth was reflected in British imperial practice: The trade arteries and military sinews of that Indian empire reached China and Australia via Singapore, and went west to Africa and Suez. Thus it was that both Alfred Thayer Mahan and Halford Mackinder each saw Asia as an integrated region.3 So did a range of European and Asian geostrategists after them, from the German Karl Haushofer (who in the 1920s saw the Indo-Pacific as imperial Japan’s to conquer) to India’s K. M. Panikkar. Indeed, British and Australian defense documents still referred to the Indo-Pacific Basin into the 1970s, and at least one Southeast Asian country was scheming from birth about Indo-Pacific linkages despite its present caution about the term: India’s post-1993 “Look East” policy had an antecedent in Lee Kuan Yew’s efforts to enlist India as a security partner in Singapore’s neighborhood.