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The Peninsula

The Indo-Pacific Strategies Jigsaw Puzzle

Published February 7, 2023
Author: Mark Tokola
Category: South Korea

This is the first in a two part series looking at Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Indo-Pacific Strategies of other governments. The second part can be found here.

Over the past five years, Australia, Japan, the United States, the European Union, France, Canada, and South Korea, among others, have published separate Indo-Pacific strategies. Comparing them shows that they have more similarities than differences, and even where they differ, they do not disagree in any important way.  Lacking a common venue in which to produce a joint strategy, these key, like-minded, regional players have each created their own.  But, if you fit the pieces together, the picture that emerges looks something like a democratic Pacific Charter.

The Indo-Pacific strategies all tell the same story regarding why they are necessary, and why they are necessary now.  Each begins with a description of how important the Indo-Pacific region is to them.  The Canadian strategy says that “Every issue that matters to Canadians—including our national security, economic prosperity, respect for international law, democratic values, public health, environment, the rights of women and girls and human rights—will be shaped by the relationships Canada and its allies and partners have with Indo-Pacific countries.”  The French strategy says directly, “The Indo-Pacific is becoming the world’s strategic center of gravity.”

After noting the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, the strategies agree that the stability of the region is trending in the wrong direction and that development demands action.  All note a rise in geopolitical tension between China and the United States, with most blaming China by name for its overreaching territorial claims, economic coercion, and disregard for rule of law.  Others side-step naming China but it is clear who they have in mind when they refer to the same problems.  A few have a longer list of indictments against China including human rights violations, intellectual property theft, an aggressive defense budget, and disinformation campaigns.  Some spread the blame beyond China, citing “protectionism” as a problem, in clear reference to the United States.  The French regret that Chinese-American strategic competition is contributing to a breakdown of international order and is getting in the way of dealing with global challenges.

Along with geopolitical tension, all of the Indo-Pacific strategies cite the urgent need to deal with transnational problems: the most often cited are climate change, public health, and supply chain disruptions.  But other issues are also on their minds: cybercrime, biodiversity, over-fishing, counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation, governance, corruption, crisis management, dispute settlement, natural disaster response, infrastructure, development, education, disinformation, and human rights are described as areas requiring cooperation among Indo-Pacific countries.  North Korea is often mentioned as a particular problem.  The EU strategy emphasizes issues regarding women and girls, and religious minorities; the Canadian strategy adds the rights of 2SLGBTQI+ persons and persons with disabilities to their list of concerns.

There is a remarkable consensus that more security cooperation is needed.  The U.S. strategy talks about strengthening its five “ironclad” treaty alliances (Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand) but it also intends to strengthen security cooperation throughout the region. Japan refers to its “maritime security partners”: the U.S., Philippines, Vietnam, and Palau.  The EU naval force (EU NAVFOR) intends to conduct joint naval activities with Japan and India and will increase its number of port calls.  EU Military Advisors will be deployed to the EU Delegations in the region.  France ranks security and defense as the top priority of its Indo-Pacific strategy, citing the need to protect its territories, with their 1.6 million citizens and 7,000 French troops.  French forces will participate in joint exercises with India.  Australia and Canada refer to their commitments to defend the Korean Peninsula as members of the United Nations Command.  The overall impression of the strategies is that Indo-Pacific defense forces need to be strengthened and better coordinated.

Another point of consensus is that none of the strategies call for a new treaty or organization except for the U.S.-instigated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).  They all refer to existing means of cooperation: bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral, regional, and international.  The strategies instead emphasize national commitments of more resources to new and existing programs, and the countries’ intentions to invigorate or join existing avenues for cooperation.  Several state their wish to strengthen ties to ASEAN, particularly the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+).

How do the Indo-Pacific strategies differ?  First, the definitions of the region are not the same.  The U.S. talks about the region as “reaching to the Indian Ocean,” but Korea, the EU, and France explicitly refer to the East Coast of Africa as being a part of it.  Canada, unsurprisingly, discusses the Arctic dimension of the Indo-Pacific region in its strategy.

The strategies differ in emphasis and show their national peculiarities.  The U.S. strategy stakes a historical claim to interest in the Indo-Pacific.  The EU document is chock full of EU program acronyms, such as “Enhancing Security Cooperation in and with Asia (ESIWA).”  The Korean document emphasizes the need to protect and expand trade.  Canada’s strategy—which is the best written—emphasizes social issues, people to people contacts within the Indo-Pacific, and a broad range of human rights.  The Canadian document also manages to avoid almost any reference to the United States (China 51 references, United States 4).  Japan’s strategy, the oldest, clearly focuses on key issues: the fundamental principles of the international order, economic prosperity, and maritime issues.  Indo-Pacific strategy is so central to Australia’s thinking that it is not expressed in a single document but instead is spread out over its 2016 Defense White Paper, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, and 2020 Defense Strategic Update.

What should we make of the Indo-Pacific strategies?  First, the concreteness of their various “action plans” shows serious intent.  They not only describe a strategy, but what they intend to do about it.  Second, the former ‘hub and spoke’ system of each country being connected to the United States rather to each other is obsolete.  Far from resisting this, the United States actively encourages networking in its Indo-Pacific strategy and cites its partners’ Indo-Pacific strategies with approval.  Third, the notion that Europe is a peripheral actor in the Indo-Pacific is a thing of the past.

Finally, the strategies are largely prompted by concerns about China but are not only about China.  All say that cooperation with China is desirable to deal with common challenges.  The countries that have written these Indo-Pacific strategies perceive grave challenges to a shared system that require a common response—but without the need to put a badge on either the system or their response.  To change metaphors, each national Indo-Pacific strategy is a unique tree—but step back and there is a forest there.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Image from Shutterstock.

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