From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific: Understanding the dynamics of terminology

By Kashif Anwar 


Alongside the apprehension emerging from the economy, military and the maritime disputes, vis-à-vis the tussle between the US and China for power and dominance, a nation’s political and economic narrative is largely determined to secure its respective national interests under “an open and free environment”. In this regard, the ASEAN Summit which was held at Bangkok, Thailand, in 2019, saw all the members unanimously accept the term Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis Asia-Pacific terminology in their report ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’. The acknowledgement of the term Indo-Pacific by the ASEAN after a year of deliberations and negotiations provided weight and thus recognised former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, the US ‘Hollywood to Bollywood’ narrative, the Australian government’s ‘Ho-Hum’ idea and India’s ‘free, open and inclusive region’ outlook. 

The Indo-Pacific as a concept gained currency in 2011, but it was Karl Haushofer; a German geopolitician, who used it for the first time in his work ‘Indopazifischen Raum’ in the 1920s. The US State Department’s document titled ‘A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision’ 2019 states that the Indo-Pacific Strategy needs to be sustained among the QUAD members (the US, Japan, Australia and India). In this regard, India proposed the ‘Indo-Pacific Initiative” in 2019 which not only meant to secure the maritime domain but also to ensure safety and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. This shift from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific is driven largely by the security and strategic constraint that has increased due to the rise of China in recent years. In this regard, Beijing views such developments - stated above along with the developments around the QUAD initiative and the USA’s Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) exercise in the South China Sea region - were only meant to encircle China and further restrict its peaceful development.  

From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific

The adoption of the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis the Asia-Pacific terminology was seen as a major development, as this development justifies the greater role New Delhi could play in the coming years in Asia. China, which was comfortable with Asia-Pacific terminology, referred to it as a large landmass including oceans which China feels it could dominate, in contrast, the Indo-Pacific concept which focuses more on the maritime aspect of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean region. Thus as Zhou Bo, an Honorary Fellow with the Centre of China-American Defence Relations, Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, states that China felt constrained and threatened with this change as it saw the USA’s Indo-Pacific Strategy as a way to contain China’s rise.

To counter the developments that the world is witnessing due to China’s rise coupled with its major developmental projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership along with obtaining financial assistance through the AIIB and BRICS National Development Bank. In this regard, Beijing perceives that through the Indo-Pacific strategy Washington is trying to attract democracies around the world. Subsequently, Beijing also argues the acceptance of the Indo-Pacific strategy as a way to strengthen Washington’s dominant position which has relatively weakened in recent years. In recent times, China has questioned the USA’s stand and its military response regarding the South China Sea dispute. For China, the 2019 US State Department’s document reflects only China’s concern regarding the USA’s strategic approach to restructure its allies and contain China in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Beijing’s interpretation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy

To understand Beijing’s concern regarding the Indo-Pacific concept, Wu Shicun, the President of National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), Haikou City, China,  stated the ‘Indo-Pacific strategy of the US is directed against China and is meant to develop an exclusive regional block and once it’s implemented, the strategy will challenge China’s BRI, its position in the South China Sea and will turn out to be a great strategic concern for Beijing. He further states through this strategy the US will achieve these objectives through two means, firstly, by sabotaging China from becoming an absolute power in Southeast Asia or the Indian Ocean region. Secondly, the US will control the maritime route and the economic affairs of the Indo-Pacific region, and in this direction the Quadrilateral setting, an informal group between the US, Australia, Japan and India also known as QUAD is meant to keep China away from establishing its orders meant for region’s economic and security aspects.


In this regard, during Obama’s administration, the US discontinued it’s the Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOP) between 2012 - 2015 in the South China Sea but cautiously resumed it in 2016 by conducting only three ‘one-off events’. On the contrary, under the Trump administration, they conducted more than 14 FONOPs along with the US-UK joint military operation in the South China Sea. From China’s strategic calculations towards the South China Sea dispute and how China could respond to the US actions in the Southeast Asian region will be imperative for China. In such a situation Luo Liang, Assistant Research Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, states China needs to remain unruffled and be level-headed and thus prepare itself of all scenarios to safeguard its interest and rights in the South China Sea. 


To counter such developments, Dr Hu Shisheng, Director of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, view Washington’s the Indo-Pacific Strategy as systematic and offensive and he observed recent bonhomie between the US and India as India’s only way to compete with China. In this regard, to cater its needs New Delhi is strategically working closely with Washington. He further states India in individual capacity lacks strength along with insufficient national power and therefore it cannot restrict Beijing immeasurably. As the Indo-Pacific strategy also focuses on how to counter China’s BRI, he states, India's stand on the BRI reflects from its acceptance of the USA’s Indo-Pacific Strategy as India intends to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.


To reconstruct its relation with China and to strengthen its Indo-Pacific strategy, even after the finalisation of the first trade agreement between China and the US, Wu Xinbo, Dean of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, sees such uncertainty still remains between both countries. As Huang Panyue, Editor at China Military Online, Central Military Commission, China, states, ‘in modern times the international relations were dominated by western countries with war, power, alliance being their tools to execute their national policies, and thus were able to use unfair means and methods like colonisation, aggression, plundering, bullying and expansion which only resulted into conflicts or large scales wars’. He also states, under rapid integration process which is currently being taking place globally; regards to China’s the BRI and RCEP and QUAD and FNOP being its counter response, he argues, an individual country cannot seek absolute security and it also can’t gain stability from the turmoil going on in another country and therefore universal security should be attempted.


As Chinese military strategy states Beijing will not attack first on any country unless someone attacks them first and therefore it wants the World to see its missiles, weapons and other military-related development programmes as a means to defend itself and to ensure and safeguard its national security and interest. Meanwhile, since 2004, to safeguard the Pacific Ocean region, the US has kept its B-52 Stratofortress bombers at the US Guam base with replacement being available at the base. Now under the ‘Dynamic Force Employment’ concept, it will change this pre-fixed pattern of the US, as China argues after this development the US could station their B-52 Stratofortress anywhere in the world risking other region’s stability. In such a concerning scenario, the security structure of Asia is being changed and China wants other countries to have an air early warning system ready as now it will be difficult to locate and monitor the presence of B-52 Stratofortress  in the region easily.

For the US, such development only took place when America’s strategic competitors have developed long-range ballistic missiles, and thus, to keep itself ahead and to secure its strategic assets and base safe, such development could come handy in conjunction with its Indo-Pacific strategy. On the other hand, for China, this development and the US Indo-Pacific strategy puts its interest in the East and the South China Sea region under greater surveillance and threat as it becomes a major concern for the Chinese policymakers to ensure China’s peaceful development. To counter China and its advantage of using RCEP, a renegotiation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) this time involving Washington under the Biden administration will help the US to have a degree of foothold in the Indo-Pacific region’s economic integration. In regard to the Indo-Pacific region, Biden’s policy towards the region is similar to his predecessor Donald Trump’s policy which is ‘an all-round strategic competition with China. Further seen as a rare move in US history, the Biden administration recently declassified the Indo-Pacific strategy framework and made it public before 2043. In response to such developments, large Chinese academicians sound alarmed and argued China should remain cautious and have a clear picture under the Biden administration.



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