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China’s Vision for the Indo-Pacific: Will They Dissipate Like Sea Foam?

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The concept of Indo-Pacific, which we can trace back to the German Geopolitician Karl Ernst Haushofer in the 1920s, took a place in the field of international relations with the speech of Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe titled “Confluence of Two Seas” in the Indian Parliament.[1] Spanning a vast stretch of the globe from the west coast of the United States to the eastern shores of Africa, the region is home to the world’s most populous state, most active trade routes, and biggest economy states, and includes over half of the earth’s population. Among the 10 largest standing armies in the world, 7 reside in the Indo-Pacific; and 6 countries in the region possess nuclear weapons. Nine of the world’s 10 busiest seaports are in the region, and 60 percent of global maritime trade transits through Indo-Pacific. Owing to these realities, the Indo-Pacific region stands out as the one where great power competition is currently taking place and will continue to do so in the future.

The Pacific Ocean, a significant pillar of the Indo-Pacific, has come to be known as the “American Lake”[2] as a result of US hegemony and its maritime control capability that emerged after World War II. In the following period, the growing economic ties between US and nations such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore brought dynamism to the region, and the name Asia-Pacific was popularised to describe American Lake.

However, the area has witnessed a new rivalry with evolving peaceful growth of China beginning with economic and cultural reforms in 1978 into a more assertive foreign policy after the 2010s. New geopolitical perspectives, alliances, economic ventures, and security perceptions have emerged as a result of China’s ascent in the Indo-Pacific region. Parallel to the perceptions created by the new order, the USA required a fresh strategy against rising China. Using its rhetoric power, Washington extended the region’s limits and replaced the Asia-Pacific narrative with the Indo-Pacific one. China, on the other hand, fears that the Indo-Pacific concept would destabilize the region and escalate threats since it does not accept a US-based concept and the policies that will be developed in accordance with it desires and purposes. After meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on May 22, 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the following statements regarding the Indo-Pacific:[3]

“The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy is triggering more and more vigilance and concerns in the world, especially in Asia-Pacific countries. The so-called “strategy” has given itself away, as it not only aims to erase the name of “Asia-Pacific” and the effective regional cooperation framework in the Asia-Pacific region, but also aims to efface the achievements and momentum of peace and development fostered by regional countries with joint efforts for decades. … Facts will prove that the so-called Indo-Pacific Strategy is in essence a strategy that creates divisions, incites confrontation and undermines peace. No matter how the strategy is airbrushed or disguised, it is bound to be a failed strategy.”

Contrary to the other two concepts (Asia-Pacific- American Lake), the Indo-Pacific concept reflects an imperative response of the US against China’s attempt to reach out to the Pacific and Indian Ocean rather than the US own initiative. Because when Xi Jinping took office as president of China in 2012, he abandoned the predecessors’ “Hide your strength” strategy and adopted an expansionist approach in an effort to accomplish the “Chinese Dream”:[4]

“We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

In order to achieve this objective, Xi launched the Belt-Road Project with historical references and gained political, cultural, and economic benefits from this initiative. Increasing its economic power, on the one hand, Beijing sought to become the dominant military force in the region by modernizing its army, especially the navy, on the other hand. Because one of the ways to protect economic and political gains is to be a deterrent military force. In particular, a military capability controlling the Indo-Pacific region is seen as essential to China’s interests.

Export-based growth and security of energy supply, the two indispensable elements that are key to China’s economic development, are the two pillars of Beijing’s rise. For this reason, the Indo-Pacific, which is the most vital area where both global trade and energy routes pass, represents the achilles’ heel of China in a sense. As a matter of fact, the concept of Indo-Pacific and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”, which has geopolitical components and which the USA has frequently emphasized after 2016, represents the policy of containing China through this weakness and vulnerability.

The harsh rhetoric used to contain China that started with the Donald Trump era continued with a more inclusive and collaborative strategy under Joe Biden. During the period under Biden Administration, QUAD became more active and held its first meeting at the level of Heads of State.[5] While China perceives QUAD as a component of the containment strategy against itself, QUAD claims that the group’s goal is to maintain the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific area. Indeed, the question “What is China’s view on the “Indo-Pacific strategy” pursued by the US, Japan, India and Australia? Do you see it as an attempt to “contain” China?” was asked by Phoenix TV in 2018 to Wang who provided the following responses:[6]

“It seems there is never a shortage of headline-grabbing ideas. They are like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean: they may get some attention, but soon will dissipate. Contrary to the claim made by some academics and media outlets that the “Indo-Pacific strategy” aims to contain China, the four countries’ official position is that it targets no one. I hope they mean what they say and their action will match their rhetoric.”

Undoubtedly, Wang’s answer contains an ironic approach, just as QUAD has declared that it has no intention of limiting China. China is aware that it has to fight with the USA and its allies to control this line, which starts from its own periphery and stretches to Africa and the Suez Canal. Based on this reality, Beijing seeks to attract the countries of the region with its economic power and historical references. However, China is taking steps to consolidate its own power and expand its sphere of influence in areas such as the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea at the risk of a cold-hot conflict with the countries of the region. The current status quo in terms of China-US and China-region nations relations in the Indo-Pacific has long been based on China’s strategy called “posing problems without catching up” or “Gray Zone Strategy” strategy.

However, the current status quo has evolved in a different direction with the visit of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, to Taiwan. The period of evaluating, analyzing and deterring other has come to an end and now, the time of disrupting or preventing the opponent has started. The actions and achievements made thus far represented China’s and America’s power like a bullet in a gun. The global power struggle shuttling between the cold and hot conflicts will be the scene of intense diplomatic maneuvers, mutual and multilateral military drills and new economic projects, and will force countries to choose a side. The fundamental dynamic of the new world order will be shaped by this rivalry, which we might refer to as the “New Great Game.” It can be predicted that in this game, the winning nation would become the major actor of the next century, while the loser state will dissipate like sea foam.

[1] “Confluence of the Two Seas”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html, (Date of Accession: 16.08.2022).

[2] Eleanor Lattimore, “Pacific Ocean or American Lake?”, Far Eastern Survey, (14)22, 1945, s. 313.

[3] “The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy is Bound to Be a Failed Strategy”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202205/t20220523_10691136.html, (Date of Accession: 16.08.2022).

[4] “What does Xi Jinping’s China Dream Mean?”, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-22726375, (Date of Accession: 16.08.2022).

[5] “President Biden Hosts First Quad Leaders’ Summit, PM Modi Attends Meet”, Indian Express, https://indianexpress.com/article/world/president-biden-first-quad-leaders-summit-pm-narendra-modi-meet-7533017/, (Date of Accession: 16.08.2022).

[6] “Foreign Minister Wang Yi Meets the Press”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/wjbz_663308/2461_663310/201803/t20180309_468677.html, (Date of Accession: 16.08.2022).

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem Koyuncu, Karabük Üniversitesinde Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde Master öğrencisi olup Hint-Pasifik Bölgesi, ABD-Çin Rekabeti, uluslararası güvenlik, jeopolitik ve stratejik araştırmalar alanları üzerinde çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Karabük Üniversitesi’nde eğitimine başlamadan önce, Boğaziçi Üniversitesinde Lisans eğitimini tamamlamıştır. Özel sektörde yöneticilik tecrübesi kazanmasının ardından Koyuncu, kariyerine ANKASAM’da devam etmektedir. Koyuncu, ileri seviyede İngilizce bilmektedir.