The Indo-Pacific: What’s in a Name?

The high table of Asian geopolitics is abuzz with talk of the “Indo-Pacific.” Manmohan Singh tells his East Asian counterparts that India seeks with them “a stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.” Shinzo Abe speaks of Japan as a promoter of rules across two inseparable oceans. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa calls for a region-wide treaty to safeguard an Indo-Pacific “engine of global growth.” In Australia, the policy establishment has gone further. With a defense white paper earlier this year, Australia became the first country formally to name its region the Indo-Pacific, which suits its two-ocean geography and puts the land down under near the center of things. A new government in Canberra, elected on September 7, is broadly sustaining that view.

In America, Asia-Pacific remains standard issue language, but Indo-Pacific has been thoroughly inducted into the U.S. rhetorical armory, too. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Assistant Secretary for East Asia Kurt Campbell started deploying it in speeches a few years ago. Current Secretary John Kerry has picked up their characterization of the newly opened Burma as part of an “Indo-Pacific economic corridor”, while Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to India this year emphasized the Indian Ocean dimension of America’s Pacific rebalance. The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, does not even utter Asia-Pacific these days, though he marches to a slightly different beat: He calls it the “Indo-Asia-Pacific.”

Locklear is right to recognize Asia as the heart of the matter. Ideally, the region should be called Indo-Pacific Asia. Some key Asian capitals are now espousing or exploring Indo-Pacific ideas, even if their words are not always the same. New Delhi has toyed with the unhelpfully possessive “Indian-Pacific.” Japan has its own poetic formulation: the “confluence of two seas” (futatsu no umi no majiwari). And Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has added “Indo-Pasifik” to the vocabulary of his country’s wonderfully adaptable language.

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