Roundtable in Asia Policy 18.3
One Region, Multiple Strategies
How Countries Are Approaching the Indo-Pacific
This roundtable explores the Indo-Pacific strategies of regional states. How do countries in the Indo-Pacific perceive the growing U.S.-China competition and how will they position themselves between the two powers? What other ambitions do they have for the Indo-Pacific region? These essays examine how these states intend to protect and promote their respective interests in the face of prevailing regional trends.
Jaeho Hwang and Jeffrey W. Hornung
The United States: A Comprehensive Strategy with Challenges Ahead
Jeffrey W. Hornung
Japan’s New Plan for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and Its Challenges
South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: More than Strategic Clarity and toward Becoming a Global Player
Australia’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: From Optimism to Hard Balancing
Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific Aspirations and the Reality of Its (Non)strategy
The Question from the Pacific Islands: Will the United States Be a Credible and Consistent Indo-Pacific Partner?
Henryk Szadziewski and Anna Powles
France in the Indo-Pacific: From a Balancing Power to a Constructive Stakeholder
UK Policy on the Indo-Pacific: Balancing Global Ambition in an Era of Resource Scarcity and Rising Insecurity
What’s in an Indo-Pacific Concept? Shared Visions and Varied Approaches
In May 2022, South Korea saw a new government, led by Yoon Suk-yeol, come to power. Part of the defining characteristics of the new government has been a more forward-looking approach in engagement with countries in the region, illustrated, in part, by the release of an Indo-Pacific strategy. This strategy’s release sparked debate within South Korea and abroad, not only regarding its vision and implementation challenges but also regarding its content, feasibility, and alignment with reality.
Amid this active debate, the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation hosted an international conference on the Indo-Pacific in Seoul in March 2023. Entitled “The Path of Korean Diplomacy in the Era of the Indo-Pacific,” the conference brought together over one hundred participants from twenty-two countries, including experts from sixteen countries, ambassadors and diplomatic representatives in Seoul from thirteen countries, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly of South Korea, and parliamentarians from four countries. The conference highlighted the fact that interest in the Indo-Pacific has transcended any one country and become an integral part of regional policy approaches.
Indeed, many countries today have their own Indo-Pacific strategies. However, these strategies are not in lockstep with one another. Indo-Pacific strategies mean different things to different states. And yet, for most, the defining characteristic of the growing interest in the Indo-Pacific region appears to be a looming showdown between China and the United States. The competition between the two nations is fierce, and many countries feel forced to choose sides despite the desire to maintain positive relations with both powers.
This roundtable seeks to build upon the proceedings in Seoul and invite additional regional voices to explore how countries in the Indo-Pacific perceive the growing U.S.-China competition, how these states plan to position themselves between the two powers while they engage other regional countries, and how they intend to protect their respective interests in the face of prevailing regional trends. In other words, what are the Indo-Pacific strategies that regional states are pursuing? In this roundtable, nine prominent experts from eight countries explore the Indo-Pacific strategies of seven key countries—Australia, France, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and the Pacific Islands region.
The aim of the roundtable is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted political, economic, diplomatic, security, and military implications of the intersecting dynamics of cooperation and competition that are occurring in the Indo-Pacific. The contributors seek to do this by examining the insights that the Indo-Pacific strategies of different countries provide and exploring potential avenues for collaboration among nations. Specifically, each of the contributors details the regional engagement strategy of the country—or countries—they are writing about and the potential challenges to implementing that strategy. The authors also provide insights that shed new light on how regional countries are dealing with the unfolding U.S.-China competition. The essays conclude with constructive recommendations designed to help contribute to the future advancement of diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region and meaningful directions for cooperation within the international community.
The roundtable opens with an essay by Jeffrey W. Hornung of the RAND Corporation that explains the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy. Hornung argues that there is much continuity with his predecessors in President Joe Biden’s regional approach, but the new strategy represents an acknowledgement that the United States cannot do everything by itself. While lauding the positives of the strategy, Hornung also highlights four areas where implementation of the strategy may prove difficult. These areas include addressing China as a challenge in U.S. regional engagement, fulfilling ASEAN centrality, maintaining real engagement with the Pacific Islands, and promoting economic engagement with regional countries without offering market access.
In the next essay, Keio University’s Junya Nishino provides an assessment of Japan’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) vision. Nishino reminds readers that FOIP originated with the late prime minister Shinzo Abe. While maintaining the core tenants of Abe’s vision, current prime minister Fumio Kishida has revamped FOIP. Despite improvements in several areas, Nishino argues that the new FOIP will face hurdles—but also opportunities—in managing relations with China, promoting cooperation within the Quad, engaging with the global South, and rebooting cooperation with South Korea.
The roundtable then turns to Jaeho Hwang of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies to examine South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Hwang argues that the Yoon administration’s new strategy plays a critical role in advancing the government’s ambition to make South Korea a global pivotal state and a meaningful middle power so that the country can contribute a wider spectrum of roles in the international community beyond entirely focusing on North Korea. However, Hwang lists several challenges that can be expected in the months ahead as the Yoon administration seeks to implement this strategy. These challenges include managing U.S. expectations in terms of burden sharing, maintaining the bilateral relationship with China, sustaining adequate attention on North Korea, and aligning South Korea’s own strategy with other regional states’ strategies.
Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy is examined by La Trobe University’s Nick Bisley. Bisley tracks the long history of the move toward “Indo-Pacific” as well as the growing pessimism and hardened rhetoric in Australia that have defined the country’s approach to the region, despite not having a formal Indo-Pacific strategy. He argues that despite the substance of Australia’s regional strategy remaining largely the same, its optimistic hedging approach has given way to one focused overtly on the hard balancing of Chinese power. Bisley notes several obstacles for Canberra, including a limited focus on East Asia and the South Pacific that may make a hard-balancing approach unsustainable over the long term and the consequences of focusing on China as the cause of regional instability for Australia’s relations with other Indo-Pacific countries.
Next, Natalie Sambhi of Verve Research examines Indonesia. In her essay, Sambhi argues that Indonesian leaders have formulated their own interpretation of the Indo-Pacific to maximize the country’s role in shaping the region within its means and values. Rather than a formal strategy, however, Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific vision focuses on promoting multipolarity and cooperation in the maritime domain. Importantly, Indonesia expressly avoids singling out any particular actor. Key among the challenges Indonesia’s leaders will face, however, is the question of whether Indonesia can continue to look to ASEAN as its preferred mechanism to execute these engagement efforts.
Henryk Szadziewski of the University of Hawai‘i and Anna Powles of Massey University provide insight into the often underexamined subject of the Pacific Islands. They note that among the growing number of countries focused on the Indo-Pacific region, some actors—China and the United States, in particular—have focused new attention on the Pacific Islands. They argue that while the United States has committed to re-engaging the region and reasserting U.S. strategic geography as part of the broader Pacific region, framing this engagement as strategic competition with China will undermine the United States’ ability to develop deep relationships with these islands.
Céline Pajon of the Institut français des relations internationales examines France in her essay. Pajon reminds readers that France is also a resident power and was the first European country to announce an Indo-Pacific strategy. While France seeks strategic autonomy, Pajon argues that this is increasingly challenged by geopolitical realities, such as the Australia–United Kingdom–United States defense pact, growing Chinese assertiveness, the ideological turn of U.S.-China competition, and even the war in Ukraine. Given France’s stated ambition to be active in the region but limited resources, Pajon argues that the country should recalibrate its posture away from being a balancing power and toward that of a pragmatic and constructive regional stakeholder.
The final essay of the roundtable is on the United Kingdom and is authored by John Nilsson-Wright of Cambridge University. Nilsson-Wright argues that the origins of the UK’s “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific region were born out of the need to put a positive spin on the 2016 Brexit decision. Given several domestic criticisms surrounding the strategy, the government of Rishi Sunak has sought to revise this approach to focus on four key policy priorities. Nilsson-Wright notes that the strengths of the UK’s policy are its convergence with other global actors’ strategies, its building and reinforcement of existing relationships in a broader network, its continuity with past patterns of British engagement while seeking to raise Britain’s physical presence in the region, and the greater attention given to the region by UK bureaucratic institutions. He closes his essay by highlighting expected obstacles to the tilt, such as capacity constraints, trust issues, exaggerated economic expectations, and tensions between liberal values and national interests.
Collectively, the authors outline multiple strategies for engaging the Indo-Pacific region. All countries seek to have positive relations with the United States and China, but differences emerge in those approaches. Some countries, like Japan and Australia, are taking more definitive sides in the geostrategic rivalry, supporting closely the United States’ view of China as the region’s biggest challenge. Many others, such as Indonesia, South Korea, and the Pacific Islands, look more toward balanced relations between the United States and China. Additionally, traditionally Atlantic countries like the UK and France are becoming more involved than ever in Indo-Pacific issues, promising to change the dynamics of regional responses. All countries face resource limitations, and how they continue to engage the Indo-Pacific and respond to regional issues will define the region in the years ahead. This roundtable seeks to provide insight into the trends behind those expected responses.
Jaeho Hwang is a Professor in the Division of International Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul and Director of the Institute of Global Strategy and Cooperation (South Korea). He specializes in Korean diplomacy, U.S.-China relations, South Korea–North Korea relations, and the diplomacy and security of the Indo-Pacific region.
Jeffrey W. Hornung is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University (United States). He specializes in Japanese security and foreign policies, East Asian security issues, and U.S. foreign and defense policies in the Indo-Pacific region, including U.S. alliances.
Junya Nishino is a Professor in the Faculty of Law, Department of Political Science, at Keio University (Japan), where he also serves as Director of the Center for Contemporary Korean Studies. His research focuses on contemporary Korean politics, international relations in East Asia, and Japan-Korea relations.
Nick Bisley is the Dean and Head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University (Australia). His research and teaching expertise is in Asia’s international relations, great-power politics, and Australian foreign and defense policy.
Natalie Sambhi is Executive Director of Verve Research and a Nonresident Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program (Australia).
Henryk Szadziewski is an Affiliate at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai῾i at Mānoa (United States). His research focuses on external state interventions in Oceania, emphasizing grounded responses to Chinese economic globalism. He has a PhD in Geography from the University of Hawai῾i at Mānoa.
Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University (Aotearoa/New Zealand). Her research focuses on the interplay between local and external political and security actors in the Pacific, and her work has explored interventions in Pacific conflicts, security sector assistance, security cooperation and defense diplomacy, the Australia–New Zealand alliance, regional security architecture, and the nexus between local security dynamics and strategic competition in the Pacific. She is also a Nonresident Fellow with the National Bureau of Asian Research.
Céline Pajon is Head of Japan Research at the Center for Asian Studies at the Institut français des relations internationales (Ifri) in Paris (France), where she has been a research fellow since 2008. She researches Japanese foreign and defense policy as well as France’s and Europe’s Indo-Pacific strategies and coordinates Ifri’s program on the Pacific Islands. In addition, she is a Senior Researcher with the Japan Chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussels and an International Research Fellow with the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.
John Nilsson-Wright is the Fuji Bank University Associate Professor in Modern Japanese Politics and International Relations and a Fellow of Darwin College at Cambridge University (United Kingdom). He is also the Korea Foundation Korea Fellow and Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House. In addition, he is a nonresident fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, the Korea Center in the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, and the European Center for North Korean Studies at the University of Vienna.
Alison Szalwinski is Vice President of Research at the National Bureau of Asian Research (United States).
About Asia Policy
Asia Policy is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal presenting policy-relevant academic research on the Asia-Pacific that draws clear and concise conclusions useful to today’s policymakers. Asia Policy is published quarterly in January, April, July, and October and accepts submissions on a rolling basis. Learn more