The Indo-Pacific is an idea whose time has come

In the twenty-first century globalised and cyber-connected world, the economic engine is the centre, and that centre is the Indo-Pacific.
A Japanese map of the world dating from 1850. Here the Indo-Pacific region sits in the centre.
A Japanese map of the world dating from 1850. Here the Indo-Pacific region sits in the centre. Credit: Buyenlarge via Getty Images
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Look at a flat map of the world. If, as probable, it has Europe slap-bang in the centre – it’s out of date.

Of course, there is no geographic centre on the outside of a planet, and so the classic flat Mercator map of our world, with Europe in the middle, reflects the view of those who first circumnavigated it, and whose dominance is why so many maps are still drawn this way. They are out of date because they perpetuate the subconscious idea of a dominant Europe, even though the economic and political centre of the world is now the Indo-Pacific region.

How a geographic space is framed, along with theories about geopolitics, can seem abstract, but they shape how we think. It follows that if some are outdated but we still use them, they risk holding back useful ways to think about the world.

The Mercator map is a good example, as is, in the field of theory, the idea of geographer and academic Halford Mackinder: ‘The World Island’ which in 1919 he named ‘The Heartland Theory.’ In basic terms it was the interlinked Afro-Eurasia continents.  The Heartland stretched from the Volga to the Yangtse and from the Himalayas up to the Arctic. Control that and you control the world. It was never proven; it probably never could be one way or the other, and it had a fatal flaw. Mackinder argued that the Heartland’s core (essentially the areas the Soviet Union later controlled) was protected from invasion by the sea and thus would ensure global domination. In this he contradicted the conventional geopolitical theory advanced by the naval officer and historian Alfred Mahan who argued in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 that sea power was the key to dominance. This has proved a better bet. Even now about 80 per cent of global trade by volume is moved by sea, and the dominant power of the last hundred years has been the one that can project power into two oceans simultaneously – the USA.

Mackinder’s ideas, and others such as American political scientist Nicholas Spykman’s ‘Rimland’ theory are too wide, too grandiose, to be of much practical use although that doesn’t prevent geopoliticians discussing whether China’s Belt and Road initiative is an attempt to conquer the Rimland or the Heartland. More useful is to understand that the more maps depicting the Indo-Pacific in the centre of the world, the quicker we will all understand how much power has shifted.

The Indo-Pacific is an idea whose time has come. It has supplanted the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ because the world has moved on. In the twenty-first century globalised and cyber-connected world, the economic engine is the centre, and that centre is the Indo-Pacific.

Modern use of the term was coined by the-then prime minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, in a 2007 landmark speech titled ‘The Confluence of the Two Seas.’ It was a nod to a Mughal prince, Dara Shikoh, who had written in praise of the similarities of Hinduism and Islam in a treatise with the same title. In a clever diplomatic move, Abe delivered the speech to the Indian parliament –  thus helping to draw India into the new reality. That is, that a loose coalition of like-minded states across a huge swathe of the world was required if China’s ambitions to dominate that region were to be contained. By 2013 Australia formally adopted the geographic concept in its Defence White Paper, the USA followed suit in 2017, and the ten-nation ASEAN group in 2019. By then, Japan was advocating the benefits of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific,’ safeguarding international sea lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. Flowing from all this is the increasing importance of the Quadlateral Security Dialogue involving Australia, the USA, Japan, and India, the recent AUKUS agreement, and the presence of UK, Canadian, Dutch and French navies in the South China Sea region. Abe’s signature foreign policy success has yet to be fully recognised by the world, but he has brought into being an idea.

That is a concept rooted in practicality, and more useful than far-reaching theories unlikely ever to be tested. Now there is a new theory, but this too is practical and is rooted in an understanding of modern realpolitik – Astropolitics. This new discipline frames space as a geographic location with its own ‘oceans’ and ‘mountains.’ There are also ‘choke points,’ notably low-earth orbit. If one country has full-spectrum dominance of this ultimate ‘high ground’ it could control the satellites that have the overview of where ships, aircraft, missiles, and troops are moving, and at what pace. This also means domination of secure encrypted communications, and the gateway to space exploration with its vast mineral wealth and potential energy sources. 

Twenty years ago, an American professor, Everett Dolman, wrote a book titled Astropolitik. Most of his predictions have come to pass. There is already great power competition and the beginnings of the militarisation of outer space. Dolman argued that this rivalry would result in a Westphalian conception of the cosmos. This too is already upon us, with several countries agreeing to ‘safety zones’ on the Moon, a phrase which has echoes of ‘spheres of influence.’

On the plus side, Astropolitics also looks at cooperation in space, not least the importance of building a planetary defence against the impact of near-earth objects. It is a way of looking at the world (and beyond) which, like the map which puts the Indo-Pacific at the centre, is here and now. 

Tim Marshall

Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster, and author. Amongst other titles, he is the author of the bestseller Prisoners of Geography (2015).

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