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Speech to 17th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity

Senator Woo was an invited speaker at the 17th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity held in Jeju Island, South Korea, 15-16 Sep 2022.  The title of his speech was ‘What is an Indo-Pacific Strategy for?’

It is an honour to attend this year’s Jeju Forum.  I would like to thank the Jeju Peace Institute and the Knowledge Partnership Program of the University of British Columbia for organizing this panel on Indo-Pacific Strategies and inviting me to be part of it.

I am speaking to you today less in my capacity as a legislator in the Senate of Canada and more as a longtime student of regionalism in Asia. I would underscore that I do not speak for the Government of Canada, for whom we have two very able representatives in this room. 

Since the end of the Pacific war and the post-colonial period that followed, there have been many efforts at forging a regional identity in Asia, or sub-regional identities, especially in Southeast Asia, where I grew up. Many of the early efforts were security oriented, for example Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which was led by former colonial powers seeking to prevent the spread of communism in the region. In a similar manner, ASEAN was formed in in 1967 ostensibly to contain communism, but the founding members understood that anti-communism was not enough to sustain the Association. Accordingly, ASEAN had from its beginning the goal of promoting economic growth, social progress, and cultural development. It is interesting to note that while SEATO collapsed by the mid-70s after the fall of Saigon, ASEAN kept going, and was in fact able to transform itself into an organization that covered all countries in Southeast Asia, including communist Vietnam, which joined ASEAN in 1995. 

I mention this snippet of history because it is one example of how regionalism works in Asia. Successful regional institutions in Asia tend to be pragmatic and non-ideological, with primacy given to expanding trade and investment and economic cooperation among the membership rather than geopolitical considerations.

Since the 1980s, regionalism in Southeast and East Asia has been characterized by economic integration and a dense network of supply chains. Unlike the European Union, the priority for Asian regionalism is deeper trade and investment ties rather than the creation of centralized bureaucracies or political objectives. Economic integration was fostered first by unilateral trade and investment liberalization and then by negotiated trade agreements which today span Southeast and East Asia and extend to Australia and New Zealand as well as across the Pacific Ocean.  The most ambitious of these trade deals are the CPTPP and RCEP, both of which rival NAFTA and the EU in terms of market size.

The “Indo-Pacific” construct does not fit the pattern of regionalism I just described. It is, despite all the qualifications raised by proponents, fundamentally about great power politics and regional security, and much less about economic development. To be fair, the Indo-Pacific may not be about regionalism in the first place and therefore should not be compared with alternate concepts such as East Asia or the Asia Pacific. I am reminded of the famous quip about Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) as “four adjectives in search of a noun”. Well, the Indo-Pacific construct begs an even deeper question:  Indo-Pacific what?

This panel has framed the “what” as a “strategy”, but it is not clear that all countries using the term Indo-Pacific are coming up with “strategies”. Some use the word “framework”; others “vision”; yet others — notably ASEAN, which everyone seems to agree should be at the centre of the Indo-Pacific concept — use the term “outlook”. 

Nomenclature matters because the difference between a “strategy” and an “outlook” or “framework” is in the degrees of freedom and flexibility that a country or regional grouping can have in pursuing policy options that change with the times and circumstances, and which conform to their own priorities rather than the priorities of powerful neighbours.

Whereas concepts such as East Asia or Asia Pacific are founded on the premise of deeper economic integration, the Indo-Pacific concept seeks to fuse two sub-regions (South Asia and East Asia) where economic integration is much less advanced. It also places more emphasis on political/security issues than on trade and investment.  Indeed, the US Indo-Pacific strategy is notable for its absence of market access provisions for countries in the Indo-Pacific.  On the contrary, policy measures contained in the 2022 “Inflation Reduction Act” of the United States have resulted in new protectionist barriers against some “like-minded” Indo-Pacific partners, notably Korea. 

It is not even clear that the Indo-Pacific concept is about deeper economic integration between South Asia and East Asia.  India was a participant in RCEP negotiations and had the opportunity to join this historic trade agreement but balked at the last minute because of Delhi’s unwillingness to match the market opening measures of other member economies.  There is no indication that proponents of an Indo-Pacific approach are advocating for India to return to the RCEP table.  Delhi has even declined participation in the “trade pillar” of the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which itself is vague on market opening measures.

The issue is not whether India is a promising market and an emerging economic powerhouse, especially in services trade – which it is. Since the early 90s when Delhi embarked on a program of liberalization, countries across Southeast and East Asia, as well as further afield, have periodically turned their attention to the Indian market and attempted free trade negotiations as well as trade and investment promotion more generally. None of these efforts were contingent on an “Indo-Pacific” strategy and the fact that few countries have successfully concluded an FTA with India is more about Delhi’s outlook on trade policy than other countries not having an outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

By connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans in one concept, proponents of an Indo-Pacific outlook are explicitly raising a set of maritime security considerations that have more to do with geopolitics than economic integration.  

An Indo-Pacific strategy that includes the priority of “freedom of navigation” pushes back on China’s extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea and the potential impact on maritime traffic. At the same time, it provides tacit support for India’s concerns over China’s growing naval presence in Delhi’s backyard.  It is not a coincidence that the four countries that are arguably the most enthusiastic about the Indo-Pacific concept are themselves part of a mini-lateral grouping known as the Quad, and are the countries which are most active in pursuing maritime security as part of their Indo-Pacific strategies. 

To the extent that Indo-Pacific strategies are about diversifying and expanding economic ties with the region, it is not clear why the Indo-Pacific is the appropriate construct.  A renewed focus on India as a priority market, for example, would be better articulated as an India strategy. For that matter, a focus on any part of the Indo-Pacific would be more sensibly described as a strategy for that country (say Vietnam) or a sub-region such as ASEAN, or indeed on a political-security conundrum such as the Korean peninsula.

In this regard, the most glaring omission in the Indo-Pacific strategies that have been publicly released to date is in the treatment of the largest and most important economy in the region, which is of course China.  Any Indo-Pacific strategy which is truly about inclusiveness and increasing economic opportunities but does not explain how China fits into that picture is tantamount to an admission that the strategy is not about increasing economic opportunities for the region as a whole.  One could go as far as to say that an Indo-Pacific strategy which omits discussion of China as a key factor in the future prosperity and stability of the region, or which frames China as the reason for a geo-strategic concept such as the Indo-Pacific, is in effect a strategy of containment against China.  Conversely, a strategy that properly addresses the growing challenge of the PRC as a coercive power in the region, in the context of great power competition with the United States, does not need the Indo-Pacific as an analytic frame. 

For those of you who are looking for ideas on what an Indo-Pacific strategy should contain, what I have said so far may not seem very helpful. Let me be clear that I am not disavowing the need — politically speaking — for countries, including Canada, to come up with their own statements on the Indo-Pacific.  However, I worry that there is much fuzziness in thinking about why an Indo-Pacific strategy is needed, who it is intended to benefit, and what its unintended consequences might be.  For a country like Canada, which is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean and a long, long way from the Indian Ocean, a statement on the Indo-Pacific must above all be about the country’s commitment to promoting peace, prosperity and sustainability in the region, and working with all of the regional powers to bring about these goals. My own sense is that the best one can do with the Indo-Pacific concept is to use it as a framework for articulating the importance of the region and identifying cross-cutting priorities and objectives that apply across the region. The actual development of plans for economic and political/security objectives in a given country or sub-region, however, should be part of strategies that are specific to those areas. If there is any durability to an Indo-Pacific strategy, it will not be on account of an Indo-Pacific framework, but on the extent to which there is deep and detailed reflection on how to engage with the most important parts of the region.

The best way to think about the Indo-Pacific is in fact captured by the theme of this year’s Jeju Forum: It is to go “Beyond conflict — towards Peace, Coexistence and Cooperation”. I hope that is the approach Korea and Canada take as they develop their policy positions on the Indo-Pacific, and that peace, coexistence and cooperation can in fact be the basis on which our two countries work together for the benefit of the region.

Thank you.