Asia is no longer Pacific

For the last 50 years, we in South-east Asia have lived in an Asia-Pacific regional order. This has provided our region and Asean a central and assured position and the conducive environment for South-east Asian states to successfully hedge and not choose between major powers.

Today, we are moving into an Indo-Pacific order where the place of South-east Asia and Asean is less assured and potentially peripheral, and hedging harder to sustain.

All strategic regions are international relations constructs that awkwardly reflect the underlying distribution of power and relations among major powers of the era in geographic terms. The Asia-Pacific construct shrank the Pacific Ocean, the world's largest geographical feature, to a lake. It reduced Asia, the world's largest land mass, to the eastern littoral states. During the Cold War, both India and China were excluded. Over the last 30 years, China returned as a major power at the centre. India's position has been less clear.

The Asia-Pacific order, underpinned by the network of US alliances, favoured formal multilateral institutions from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) to Asean to facilitate relations among all its participants. This created the conducive environment for Asean's development of wider regional processes and its ambitious claim to centrality. At the end of the Cold War, these institutions, led by Asean, were the means to first bring China into the regional fold and then give it a central role. China became an ADB member in 1986, joined Apec in 1991, became a full Asean dialogue partner in 1996, was a founding member of the Asean+3 process in 1997, and in 2003 Asean and China signed a strategic partnership. Over this same period, Asean has embraced India. Apec has not.

Beyond South-east Asia, Australia and Japan had been the most active and committed proponents of the Asia-Pacific and its formal inclusive multilateral bases. Japan and Australia have worked to convince their common ally, the United States, of the benefit of this formal, inclusive multilateral approach to regional order maintenance.

Today we are moving into an Indo-Pacific world bounded strategically by India to the west, the US to the east, Japan to the north and Australia to the south. India, Japan, Australia and now the US have adopted "a free and open Indo-Pacific" as the new geographical reflection of their shared regional order maintenance interests.

These four powers, referred to as the "Quad", are proud maritime democracies, share strategic concerns over dictatorial China's great power actions and ambitions, and publicly express these concerns. All four called on China to abide by the binding 2016 arbitration tribunal ruling on the maritime rights dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea that China scornfully rejected.

The Indo-Pacific is creating a new regional order to try to dissuade and even deter a risen China rather than creating room for a rising China in the pre-existing regional order. This Indo-Pacific construct is more innovative in structure. It bypasses formal, inclusive multilateralism that is inherently conservative and prone to stasis, in favour of the coordination of policies among like-minded security partners and loose minilateral operational mechanisms. This flexible, lightly institutionalised approach was a hallmark of the George W. Bush administration's approach to Asia. The expansion of the US-India Malabar naval exercises to include Japan and the deepening Japan-Australia strategic partnership are two of the more established of a growing number of these mechanisms.

For India, the Indo-Pacific construct validates its self-image as a great power deserving of the requisite respect. For the US, the Indo-Pacific reflects the Pacific Command's vast area of responsibility and the maritime basis of US power. For Japan, it hedges against China becoming the dominant power in East Asia. For Australia, the Indo-Pacific manifests the country's two-ocean nature and strengthens Western Australia's position within the federation. For the US, Japan and Australia, the Indo-Pacific confirms their individual efforts to deepen relations with a rising India.

The differences in scope, purpose and approach between the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific are bad for South-east Asian states and Asean. Asean has remained mute on the July 2016 ruling to maintain unity within and cooperative relations with China. All South-east Asian states became prospective founding members of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank headquartered in Beijing that Japan and the US have chosen not to join. All South-east Asian countries are strong supporters of China's unilaterally conceived Belt and Road Initiative, nervously fretting when their leaders are not invited to its summits. India chose to skip the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in May while the US, Japan and Australia are lukewarm to the initiative.

South-east Asian states have long seen major powers building regional mechanisms outside of Asean as threatening.

The emerging Indo-Pacific world, if sustained against changes of government from within and Chinese pressure externally, could see South-east Asia face the grand strategic reality Asean was created to avoid; the region becoming a main arena for major power cooperation excluding South-east Asian states and Asean, and for major power rivalry that would reduce regional states' autonomy, influence and ability to hedge.

• Malcolm Cook is a senior fellow at ISEAS - Yusof-Ishak Institute. This article is derived from a recently published ISEAS Perspective co-written with Ian Storey entitled The Trump Administration And South-east Asia: Enhanced Engagement.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2017, with the headline Asia is no longer Pacific. Subscribe