The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The Indo-Pacific is being rapidly transformed.

Spanning from the shores of the Indian Ocean to the central heartlands of the Pacific, the Indo-Pacific is in the midst of the world’s most rapid transformation. The region’s growing significance in the fabric of international geopolitics and strategy is matched only by the urgency for its scholarly understanding to deepen.

The myriad islands scattered across the Indo-Pacific have historically been the chess pieces of greater powers, essential for navigation, commerce, or defense. The chronicles of these islands delineate a pattern of protection and control, carving the region into zones of power and influence. In today’s strategic landscape, an ensemble of states — China, the United States, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, the ASEAN nations, and various island nations along the Indo-Pacific rim — acknowledges the region’s multifaceted importance and strategically maneuvers to broaden their global influence.

These islands have always been the crucible for global power struggles. In the age of empires, they were critical to European dominance over the Indian Ocean. During the tumult of World War II, they were the pivot points of maritime conflict between the United States and Japan. Presently, the Indo-Pacific has ascended as a nexus for global finance, commerce, production, and the extraction of resources. It encompasses 46% of the world’s trade in goods, houses 65% of its population, and generates 63% of global GDP.

Further, the region accounts for half of the world’s seaborne commerce. Strategic maritime pathways crisscross these waters, paths over which European nations once sparred. The island of Sri Lanka, a historical beacon on the maritime Silk Road, epitomizes these critical junctures. Now, as China’s gaze and grasp on the region intensifies, the old guard scrambles to weave alliances, forge trade pacts, and win the favor of local governments.

The United States, driven by the desire to preserve its stabilizing influence, is determined to counter China’s reach. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) — a coalition with India, Japan, and Australia — seeks to sculpt a multipolar region upheld by universally recognized rules and norms. The Quad envisions an Indo-Pacific that remains unencumbered and open, standing in opposition to China’s burgeoning clout. The White House’s Indo-Pacific Strategy of 2022 pledges to prioritize an integrated, affluent, safeguarded, and resilient region. President Biden articulated this vision, committing to a partnership that fosters “an Indo-Pacific region that is open, connected, economic, resilient, and secure, and we are ready to work with every one of you to accomplish it.”

This strategy illuminates the imperative of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific,’ upholding the sovereignty of states, advocating autonomous decision-making within the realm of established international norms, and affirming the legitimate oversight of shared domains. Regional resilience is envisioned through nurturing a free press, buttressing democratic mechanisms, eradicating corruption, advancing financial transparency, promoting socio-economic reforms, and applying international law to the maritime and aerial domains of the Indo-Pacific.

The United States’ bolstered security emphasis adds another layer to the region’s geopolitical dynamics. Recently, America has augmented, refurbished, and intensified its military footprint, aiming to safeguard shared interests and deter potential aggressors against its allies. On Monday, news surfaced of America’s plan to station intermediate-range missiles in the region — a strategic move unseen since the Cold War’s cessation. Potential deployments may include land-based versions of the Standard Missile 6 and the Tomahawk Cruise Missile, both formidable deterrents against Chinese military expansion.

While the military escalations could exacerbate regional discord, the shared objective of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ forges a common cause amongst the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, aligning their efforts towards mutual prosperity. These nations are united by a multitude of interests, ranging from combating the climate crisis to preserving the marine-based economy, recognizing their reliance on the ocean for substantial portions of their GDP.

For the smaller island states within the region, the escalating strategic competition heralds an era where they can wield their growing significance to further their own economic, societal, and defense ambitions, emancipating themselves from the shadow of any singular foreign dominion. This includes initiatives to combat unlawful fishing practices or to receive aid in constructing climate-resilient infrastructure. While superpowers may jostle for military and economic leverage, the interests and concerns of these island nations must be paramount for any major power eager to gain favor within the region.

The ASEAN collective, composed of 10 Southeast Asian nations, holds a central role in the regional geopolitical theater. The ASEAN Free Trade Area, established in 1992, serves as a linchpin for regional trade and investment, fostering economic interdependence among member states. Moreover, the ASEAN Regional Forum catalyzes political and security cooperation, while educational, developmental, and cultural initiatives bolster socio-cultural understanding and engagement—elements deemed crucial for regional equilibrium. Yet, the bloc navigates a labyrinth of contemporary challenges: the geopolitical tug-of-war between the U.S. and China, Myanmar’s internal turmoil, disparate levels of economic prosperity, and the friction born from nationalistic pursuits. Despite these hurdles, the ASEAN nations maintain a united front, asserting their collective clout.

The foundational efforts of the Quad have carved a path for enhanced bilateral and multilateral relations. The evolving architecture of international agreements such as the Quad, the nascent AUKUS pact, and NATO’s potential uptick in engagement contribute substantially to the region’s political, economic, and security blueprint. The presence of naval forces from the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, and France in the South China Sea underscores the West’s burgeoning commitment to the Indo-Pacific’s stability. Concurrently, the U.S. urges India to assume a more assertive role in safeguarding regional tranquility and offsetting Beijing’s ascendancy. This tapestry of dialogues and collaborations among states underscores a shared acknowledgment of the Indo-Pacific’s pivotal role in shaping global economic trajectories.

As regional figureheads proactively seek converging interests to counterbalance China’s strategic and economic ascent, defensive alliances emerge as the bedrock for continued cooperation and strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific tableau.

Tejvir Bawa is a graduate in political science from Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. His areas of interest are energy security, military history and war studies.

Cameron Wood graduated from New Zealand’s University of Auckland with degrees in both Commerce and Law. He is currently based in the Netherlands where he writes about geopolitics, foreign affairs and government relations.