The rise of the Indo-Pacific

Reporting from Washington DC, where he is a Fulbright Scholar in the Master's in Security Studies Programme at Georgetown University, Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network member Abbas Nazari looks at the rise of the Indo-Pacific and the significance of the term and region for New Zealand, the US and India.
Abbas Nazari

Abbas: "India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sees itself as a global power and is rapidly learning how to navigate the tumultuous region it finds itself in."

Being in the United States at this pivotal time in history feels like watching a train wreck in slow-motion where different passengers are vying to pull the levers dramatically in one way or the other. As well as the many domestic issues, be it race relations, social justice, the economy, or climate change, one of the biggest issues is external, foreign policy and America’s place in the world.

Central to America’s foreign policy is its relationships across the Pacific. The Indo-Pacific – a term that I hear a lot of around town these days, is the primary framework which American foreign policymakers view America’s role in the region.

I was already aware of how the concept of the Indo-Pacific fared against the more commonly understood Asia-Pacific having studied political science at the University of Canterbury. But it was an April 2018 Track II dialogue to New Delhi with the Asia New Zealand Foundation where I really learned firsthand about what the Indo-Pacific meant – especially for India, but also for us here in New Zealand.

India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sees itself as a global power and is rapidly learning how to navigate the tumultuous region it finds itself in. This came through in the discussions with the numerous think tanks and government-affiliated organisations that the Track II delegation met with in India. It was enlightening to learn how Track II diplomacy works in this regard. Such engagements are hugely important in developing the soft power undercurrents that run through international relations.

Abbas talking to Asia New ZEaland Foundation executive director Simon Draper

It was as a member of a Foundation Track II delegation to India that Abbas got a true understanding of what the Indo-Pacific meant. (Picture with the Foundation's CEO Simon Draper in Delhi)

Hearing the national conversations around India’s position in the world was certainly interesting. I got the impression that India seeks a position in the high tables of the world, but are battling several issues at home, particularly poverty, youth unemployment, and ethnic tensions. Looking at India’s foreign and domestic policies since then, it is clear that Delhi is geared towards the sole objective of India being a dominant power, perhaps even an equal to China, in the region.

The Indo-Pacific is a pivotal piece of foreign policy for all countries, mostly in response to the rise of China. New Zealand’s foreign policy in the area can also be summed up by the term “Indo-Pacific” as opposed to the longstanding “Asia-Pacific”. This subtle change speaks volumes, where New Zealand and other countries (namely Australia, the United States and Japan) tilt their framing of this crucial part of the world.

In a speech to the Indian Council of World Affairs Foreign Affairs, which he gave in New Delhi earlier this year, Foreign Affairs Minister at the time Minister Winston Peters drilled down on the concept, noting “the emergence of the Indo-Pacific terminology recognizes…New Zealand and India in a shared strategic geography as well as a shared commitment to a stable, peaceful, open and secure region.”

New Zealand foreign policy is relatively nimble and has so far deftly toed the many lines of international relations - being mindful of our relative size and influence in the world, while holding firm to our core beliefs of a rules-based international order. I think New Zealand will firmly adopt the Indo-Pacific framework, while doing its level best to maintain beneficial relations with China, as tough as that may be.

In the 2020s and beyond, as global power competition continues to increase, and America becomes more insular, New Zealand won’t be alone in being forced to make some hard foreign policy choices.

About the author

Abbas Nazari is currently a Fulbright scholar in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA. Abbas has been a member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation's Leadership Network since 2017. Abbas's interest in all things Asia arose after a semester abroad at the National University of Singapore in 2015. Abbas is passionate about business opportunities in Asia, and hopes to live and work in the region in the near future.