What does the ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ mean?

Nine months ago, in this column, I wrote about the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. Some argue that it was initiated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as early as in 2012. Other claim that the originally biogeographic concept was first used, as a strategic term, by an Indian Naval officer back in 2007.

No matter who initiated the FOIP strategy, however, it is now the official policy of Japan and the United States. The Foreign Ministry states that the “key for stability and prosperity” is the “dynamism that is created by combining ‘Two Continents’: Asia and Africa, and ‘Two Oceans’: Free and open Pacific and Indian Oceans.”

The U.S. government seemed to have signed onto the FOIP strategy in November 2017, when the Trump administration started referring to the “Indo-Pacific region” during President Donald Trump’s first tour to Asia. Washington now uses this concept as its regional strategy with close cooperation among the “Quad”: Japan, India, Australia and the United States.

Fifteen months have since passed, but we still don’t know what the FOIP really means as a strategic concept. Is the FOIP strategically viable? Is there a new strategic space in the Indian and Pacific Oceans for the Quad or nations in Southeast Asia? If so, how would China react to this new strategic reality?

To answer those questions, the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS), a Tokyo-based independent think tank whose foreign policy/national security shop I direct, conducted a 24-hour policy simulation (or so-called “war game”) last weekend over contingencies in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Forty-some participants, including Diet members, government and SDF officials, regional experts, scholars, businesspersons and journalists, gathered Saturday morning and they played roles as officials or reporters from India, China, Sri Lanka, Australia, ASEAN, the United States and Japan.

As always, I am profoundly grateful for their intellectual contributions to the war game, in which they performed so realistically that the outcome of the simulation became something worth examining. Although CIGS will eventually publish a more detailed report on this event, the following is my take on its outcome.

This policy simulation on the FOIP was based on the following assumptions: The main theater is the Indian Ocean, including Andaman Archipelago, which consists of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the 2020s. China is building military facilities in Myanmar’s Coco Islands, which are located near the Andamans.

Military coups erupt in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, which are considered part of the Indian-Chinese rivalries in the region. A Chinese naval unit activates its fire control radar against a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel in the international waters near the Andaman Islands and tensions continue.

In the Philippines, a South Korean ship builder based in Subic Bay, a former U.S. Navy base, goes bankrupt with a debt of $400 million. China shows interest in rehabilitating the company, but a Western consortium tries to prevent a Chinese takeover.

To make a long story short, at the final stage of the simulation, a sea battle breaks out between Chinese and U.S. naval vessels near the Strait of Malacca, causing heavy casualties on both sides. A Japanese commercial vessel sailing nearby is also hit. A United Nations Security Council meeting convenes but bears no fruit.

The results of the simulation were conventional and had no surprises. The pro-China coup in Sri Lanka was settled peacefully in India’s favor. China didn’t take over Subic Bay. Both China and the U.S. refrained from escalating tensions and agreed to consult with each other to prevent a recurrence.

The above are just the result of one war game and we should neither overestimate the lessons we learned from it, nor believe that those are the things likely to happen in the Indo-Pacific in the future. Having said that, my tentative takeaways are the following points.

1. Economic rationale versus strategic consideration: The China team seems to have put more emphasis on economic rationale than strategic goals. Beijing could have taken over the South Korean shipbuilding company and expanded its influence in strategically important Subic Bay, but it did not. The decision, however, might be reasonable from a strategic point of view. If the Chinese government had won the tender and taken control of the company, it would have caused more troubles than benefits. A Chinese takeover in Subic Bay would only alarm the U.S. and its allies in Asia, including the Philippines, and put Beijing in a more hostile environment in the South China Sea.

2. The People’s Liberation Army wasn’t ready in the Indian Ocean: China withdrew all its vessels back home after confronting the U.S. Navy. Given the current force structure and its military deployments in the region, the China team concluded that any military operations beyond the Strait of Malacca would not be successful. It may take some more time for China to think otherwise.

3. The Quad could not act together: Despite their emphasis on the Indo-Pacific concept, Japan, India, Australia and the U.S. do not seem to share the same level of strategic awareness and military capabilities in the Indian Ocean. The Quad must develop workable strategic cooperation while China is still not there, which may not be easy.

4. The value of the policy simulations: We were lucky this time that a variety of such talented human resources as a politician, economists, political scientists and journalists gathered at one place for 24 hours with only one purpose, which was to think deeply about something that nobody else has thought about. This is the true value of CIGS’ policy simulations.

By the way, I am not a simulation controller any more. I thought it was time for a younger generation to take over and develop this simulation as they like as it’s the only way for this game to evolve and survive. If any Japan Times readers are interested in joining us, they are always welcome to the CIGS policy simulations.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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