Plural realities of the Indo-Pacific. Summary of the CREIP conference

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By  Shuangsheng ZHAO , October 26, 2023   

Shuangsheng Zhao is a doctoral student in Geographic Sciences at Laval University (Quebec, Canada). He holds a master’s degree in Geopolitics from the University of Paris VIII. His current research project focuses on Chinese influence on Pacific island states. His research interests revolve around the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, great power rivalry and Pacific island states. He speaks Chinese, French, English and Korean.

You are now able to know the essentials of an event organized in Quebec about the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, here is the unprecedented summary of a hybrid conference organized in Canada by the Research Chair in Indo-Pacific Studies at Laval University (CREIP), on October 5 and 6, 2023, Pavillon La Laurentienne. Several dozen speakers on this major subject in which France has been interested for several years. All the names of the speakers are placed at the bottom of the summary, which will also help you to know part of the scientific community which is interested in this key subject. This will allow you to carry out effective bibliographic research.

Plurality of the Indo-Pacific concept

Frédéric Lasserre begins this conference by putting into context the emergence of the Indo-Pacific concept. According to him, this concept is characterized by a variable geometry depending on the different actors. Indeed, he identifies three types of visions: a projective and normative vision, embodied by the United States and Japan, which emphasizes shared ideas and values. In contrast, an inclusive vision, promoted by countries like Indonesia and India, encourages regional cooperation. Finally, a mixed vision combines both influence projection and dialogue, as Australia and France do . He emphasizes that, despite the multiple definitions proposed by the different actors, all focus on maritime Asia, encompassing the west of the Pacific Ocean and the east of the Indian Ocean , which constitutes the heart of the new Indo-Pacific region. However, all these actors share a common concern about China ‘s political and military rise , although their responses diverge. In conclusion, he discusses the possible repercussions of this diversity of perspectives, on an economic, political and security level, in an Indo-Pacific which currently lacks coherence.

Frédéric Lasserre
Holder of the Research Chair in Indo-Pacific Studies at Laval University (CREIP), Quebec, Canada

Sino-American rivalry in the Indo-Pacific

Jean-Pierre Cabestan argues that China favors the use of the term Asia-Pacific rather than the concept of Indo-Pacific because of its less strategic and more geographical character. This preference stems from the fact that the term Indo-Pacific is often associated with initiatives aimed at countering Chinese influence in the region. Paradoxically, some elements of Chinese propaganda have used the term Indo-Pacific more frequently than Asia-Pacific to challenge the former concept, as Olga V. Alexeeva has observed.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan adds that discourses on the Indo-Pacific, emanating from the Chinese government or academia, have gradually evolved from a restrained approach to a more critical approach over time . This transformation can be attributed in part to concerns over maritime security, which are having a significant impact on energy imports and China’s New Silk Roads projects .

To get out of the embarrassment in the Indo-Pacific, Jean-Pierre Cabestan discusses three strategies that China is adopting: strengthening its relations with Russia, establishing privileged partnerships with the countries of the South, including the island countries of the Pacific, as well as strengthen ties with Asian partners such as ASEAN, while seeking to divide the actors involved in the region.

These approaches can be explained using the analyzes of Pascale Massot, who considers that China is a heterogeneous power, on the one hand, it is a unitary power with coherent strategic objectives, while on the other, it positions itself as depending on areas of interest in different contexts.

She emphasizes that China is an indispensable actor for cooperation aimed at resolving certain existential challenges on an international scale, given its size and influence. Barthélémy Courmont also adds that an Indo-Pacific too resolutely turned against Beijing is doomed to failure, because it does not correspond to reality. At the same time, he is of the opinion that the United States is not a regional player, even if it seeks to return to the stage of the Indo-Pacific region. The return of the United States is accompanied by an intensification of tensions, even an escalation, with Beijing. Indeed, the Trump administration introduced the concept of the Indo-Pacific during its tour of Japan in 2017, with the aim of joining some of the regional partners already committed to this concept. Moreover, the United States has chosen to reaffirm its commitment to the Indo-Pacific by favoring a bilateral approach rather than multilateral with its traditional allies to reestablish links and connections in the region.

On the Sino-American rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, Roromme Chantal analyzes the enigma of Chinese power. First, it highlights the reluctance of some countries to adopt a U.S. policy of containment toward China, even if they participate in alliances such as AUKUS . These countries, although allies of the United States, seem rather to opt for a nuanced approach, seeking to collaborate with the two powers, both under the American security umbrella, while taking advantage of the economic opportunities offered by China. At the same time, the Chinese threat is perceived due to the change in China’s policies under Xi Jinping, who abandoned the low profile policy followed since the days of Deng Xiaoping, which led to the absence of the hardline movement . balancing . In the same vein, the absence of this traditional balancing movement has given way to a third way of Asia. As mentioned by Olga V. Alexeeva , China has also advanced its own strategy, called the Community with a Shared Future for the Asia-Pacific Region, as an alternative, aiming to transform China’s neighboring region into a space interconnected, conducive to multilateral cooperation.

Japanese security policy under the Indo-Pacific framework

Toru Yoshida begins by emphasizing that the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific is a continuation of a political speech entitled “The Ark of Freedom and Prosperity” given by Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro in 2007. During the two terms of the Abe government, Japan adopted a proactive policy in diplomacy and defense. The current government is continuing the path set by its predecessors.

According to him, the trinity of regime that has underpinned Japan’s stability since World War II, namely American military presence, economic growth and pacifism, is crumbling with the decline of American hegemony and the expansion of China . Japanese public opinion expresses concerns about the possibility of being abandoned by the United States, which calls into question the continuation of pacifism.

As a result, Japan is faced with dilemmas . On the one hand, the government’s desire to free itself from dependence on the United States clashes with national security imperatives. On the other hand, expansion in the area of ​​security is limited due to the population’s general attachment to pacifism. These two factors have led Japan to maintain the status quo in a constantly deteriorating security environment . However, a major change in Japanese security policy occurred from December 2022 with the adoption of three framework documents (NSS, NDS, DBC) defining its defense policy. These documents highlight three main axes: strengthening the capacities of the Self-Defense Forces, developing the response capacity, and a commitment to doubling the defense budget to reach 2% of GDP by 2027.

At the same time, according to Kei Hakata, Japan has developed four major axes for its strategy in the Indo-Pacific region: discourses, diplomacy with like-minded countries, economic cooperation, and military realignment. A significant example of this approach is the QUAD, considered the engine of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and an essential element of foreign policy. However, Kei Hakata points out that India is seen as a potentially unreliable partner in the event of conflict, which has led to the emergence of a New QUAD, replacing India with the Philippines.

On the one hand, Japan is beginning to emphasize the promotion of a free and open international order as well as the globalization of the free and open Indo-Pacific. According to Kei Hakata, maintaining a rules-based international order requires transcending geographic boundaries. On the other hand, Bernard Bernier argues that Japan is adopting an offensive approach, both economically and strategically, in the region, with the aim of countering certain Chinese policies. Japan is forging multiple alliances , whether formal or informal, in an effort to restrict China’s influence in Southeast Asia and the islands, rivaling the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, and to deter any attempted invasion of Taiwan .

As Kei Hakata points out, faced with influence operations and threats emanating from China, Russia and North Korea, Japan’s domestic space is also vulnerable. In particular, pro-Chinese currents exist within various Japanese circles, notably a narrative favorable to Sino-Japanese friendship, which may have misled the Japanese by camouflaging the true nature of the communist regime.

Role of Southeast Asia in the Indo-Pacific

Éric Mottet highlights the characteristics of the centrality of Southeast Asia in the Indo-Pacific, a major concept in ASEAN discourse, based on six major points. This centrality is first defined by the geography of Southeast Asia, which makes it a geostrategic hub and a vital node connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

In addition, this region is of crucial importance in terms of security, particularly for international trade, because almost 20% of world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca. Therefore, Southeast Asia’s centrality is enhanced by its role as a geostrategic crossroads for international trade and an access point to natural resources, including hydrocarbons.

Furthermore, Southeast Asia plays a driving, unifying and facilitating role in major trade agreements in the Indo-Pacific, such as the CPTPP, PERG and IPEF. In particular, PERG, a joint ASEA initiative, demonstrates ASEAN’s desire to create an agreement better suited to the region. This demonstration reveals that ASEAN is solidly positioned and knows how to play an active role in the game of regional cooperation.

Faced with various initiatives in the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asian countries have developed their own approach, known as the ASEAN Way. This is based on a model of multilateral negotiation, consensus, and non-interference. ASEAN aspires to export this model, with the ambition that it becomes a standard reference for the establishment of multilateral dialogues, not only in Asia, but also beyond the region.

Despite its cultural diversity and different political systems, Southeast Asia shares a common goal that encourages dialogue, negotiation, exchanges, the search for consensus, and the pursuit of common projects. In addition, the United States’ desire to intensify its cooperation with Southeast Asia reinforces this centrality.

At the same time, E. Mottet indicates that Southeast Asia’s main weakness lies in its lack of sufficient capacity and soft power to promote a set of values.

Subsequently, the specific cases of Indonesia and the Philippines in the Indo-Pacific region are studied. According to Gabriel Facal, Indonesia’s ambition is to initiate the ASEAN Outlook national agenda in the Indo-Pacific, thereby positioning the country as a driver to ensure peace, security, stability and prosperity in the region . President Joko Widodo’s “Global Maritime Fulcrum” initiative, launched during his first term in 2014, aims to develop a regional naval power capable of protecting the country’s territorial sovereignty and maritime resources.

According to Dominique Caouette, the Philippines represents another major player in Southeast Asia, with strategic importance for both China and the United States. Facing China, the Philippines is strengthening its alliance with the United States, particularly following Marcos’s accession to power, even if the two traditional allies went through periods of tense relations under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos’s rise to power marked a significant rapprochement, particularly in response to tensions in the South China Sea. Barthélémy Courmont explains that actors such as Vietnam or the Philippines, which have negative perceptions of China, are considered priority partners of the United States.

D. Caouette argues that, since President Marcos came to power, rapid changes and realignments have followed. China has stepped up its provocations in the South China Sea , leading to increased tensions with the Philippines. In the Southeast Asian countries facing China, D. Caouette considers that China is testing its room for maneuver in terms of its power to act against a country which has adopted a much firmer position alongside the bloc Western. From his perspective, China is exploring a new approach and evaluating how Southeast Asian countries decide to position themselves , a dynamic that could also influence other countries in the region, which also poses the risk of weaken the cohesion of the organization in the face of a major challenge.

Copyright October 2023-Zhao/



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