If there is one place in the world that we need to keep our eyes on for a better understanding of the dynamics of international affairs in 2020, it is the Indo-Pacific region. Here are four reasons why.
1. The Indo-Pacific is hard to define
Politically, the Indo-Pacific is still a contested construct in the making. Australia and the United States seem to share a similar geographic view on the Indo-Pacific, i.e. the original Asia-Pacific region plus India. However, Japanese and Indian geographic understandings are much broader, including two continents—Asia and Africa— and across two oceans—the Pacific and Indian Oceans. For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the concrete boundary of the region does not matter as long as the association retains its centrality in the future regional architecture.
China is a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, no matter how the geographical boundary is defined. However, China is reluctant to register itself to the Indo-Pacific. So far, no Chinese official document has used the term Indo-Pacific. In practice, however, China’s economic and strategic ambitions have straddled across the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, as we can see from the extensive scope of its Belt and Road Initiative. In other words, China has politically entered the Indo-Pacific without acknowledging it officially.
2. The Indo-Pacific matters to the US and China
The political contestation over the geographical construct reveals the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific itself. The Indo-Pacific includes the world’s most populous state (China), the most populous democracy (India) and the most populous Muslim-majority state (Indonesia). Seven of the ten largest standing armies in the world can be found in the Indo-Pacific, and around one third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea alone. Therefore, as the United States government has claimed, “the Indo-Pacific is the single most consequential region for America’s future.”
For Chinese leaders, the single purpose of US emphasis on the Indo-Pacific concept and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy is to contain China’s rise. To a certain extent, the Indo-Pacific has become a new focal point of the US-China rivalry for the next decade or two. It is clear that the US-China competition will re-shape the strategic dynamics and international order in the region. All other states, especially Australia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand—US traditional allies, might have to take sides between the United States and China or choose between security protection and economic prosperity in the future if US-China strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific becomes extremely tense.
3. There are many potential flashpoints
Militarily, the Indo-Pacific is full of flashpoints that serve as potential sources of armed conflict. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has refused to return to talks with United States although Trump sent birthday greetings to Kim personally. North Korea has vowed to show the world its “new strategic weapon” in 2020, which will be definitely a poke in the eye for the United States, and South Korea and Japan as well. Taiwan’s pro-independent Democratic Progressive Party won a landslide victory in both presidential and legislative elections in January 2020. Any pro-independent movement of the Democratic Progressive Party might fuel the nationalism flame in the mainland and drive Beijing into a corner. To make things worse, the United States will not remain idle if cross-strait military tensions heat up. Potential conflicts between the two nuclear powers will be a doomsday for the world.
In addition, the territorial and maritime disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea might be stirred up anytime as seen from the recent standoff between Indonesia and China in the waters near the Natuna islands in the beginning of 2020. China has strengthened its navy’s power projection capabilities by building its second aircraft carrier in 2019 while the United States conducted 85 military drills in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea, according to a Chinese report. It is very likely that the Indo-Pacific, especially the South China Sea, will feature heightened US-China security competition and rivalry in 2020.
4. The Indo-Pacific is a major economic hub
Last, but not the least, the Indo-Pacific is at the centre of gravity of economic growth in the world. The three largest economies, the US, China, and Japan are all located in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, the Indo-Pacific can be either a powerhouse or destroyer of world economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, the US-China trade war that started in mid-2018 has dragged the 2019 global growth to its slowest pace since the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Besides the trade war, the more worrisome trends are the strategically driven decoupling and technological competition between the two economic giants, which will cause more collateral damages to other states in the region. One example is the Huawei 5G controversy, in which the United States has forced other states to take sides in the tech-war between the United States and China. In addition, the United States, Australia, Japan, and India have expressed strong interest in strengthening cooperation of their infrastructural initiatives as a countervailing measure against China’s Belt and Road Initiative influence. To be clear, any market-driven competition in infrastructure will definitely benefit all parties because it will increase efficiency, transparency, and sustainability of infrastructure projects in particular and regional economic growth in general. However, political and strategic motivations behind economic and technological competition will not only dim the opportunities for economic growth, but also fuel distrusts and suspicions among states in the Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific can become a driver of peace and prosperity in the whole world providing the United States and China can work together. At the same time, the region can also become an epicentre of turbulence in world politics if these two major powers remain at odds. The early flashpoint in 2020 may have occurred in the Middle East (with the stand-off between the US and Iran) but expect the Indo-Pacific to regain prominence as a cause for concern as the year progresses. Whichever direction the region takes, without a doubt the effects will be felt across the globe.
Featured Image Credit: “White and Black Desk Globe” by Andrew Neel. CC0 public domain via Pexels.