WHAT’S IN A NAME?

by | Sep 29, 2022 | Trade Working Blog

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The now widespread use of the term “Indo Pacific” to describe the region to which New Zealand belongs brings a risk of geographical confusion.

When did the “Asia Pacific” become the Indo Pacific?   For thirty years or more New Zealand has sought to enhance its trade, economic and people-to-people linkages with the world’s most dynamic region.  Today over 70 percent of trade is with the economies of the Pacific Rim.  There is still a lot of room for improvement, particularly in terms of building greater competency on the part of New Zealanders to interact with the region.  In 2021 New Zealand chaired the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum and laid out a plan to establish an Asia Pacific Community by 2040.  Business leaders in the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) have long advocated for a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). Yet, gradually the term “Asia Pacific” is being replaced by “Indo Pacific” – Ministers continually reference it and New Zealand has now joined the US-led Indo Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).

You say potato, I say tomato …

Success, they say has a thousand mothers, and there seem to be multiple sources for the Indo Pacific nomenclature.  The Lowy Institute in Sydney was one of the early adopters.  In 2011 Bob Kaplan’s book “Monsoon” argued that the Indian Ocean was about to become a new centre of economic and political gravity. India’s Prime Minister Modi speaking in 2018 outlined a commitment to “a free, open and inclusive Indo Pacific”.  Following that cue, a former NZ Foreign Minister in 2020 used the term extensively in an address to an Indian think tank, doubtless comforted by ASEAN’s adoption of an “Indo Pacific Outlook” the year before.  Since then, use of the term has expanded rapidly with the United States and the EU both adopting Indo Pacific strategies and the UK an Indo Pacific “Tilt”. 

But where is the Indo Pacific? And how does it relate to the Asia Pacific?  Locating the region on a map is tricky.

But where is the Indo Pacific? And how does it relate to the Asia Pacific?  Locating the region on a map is tricky.  It clearly includes India and the Indian subcontinent, but if it includes all economies bordering the Indian ocean (as well as those around the Pacific) it starts to become very large indeed.  Bangladesh and Pakistan are presumably part of the Indo Pacific, but what about Djibouti and Madagascar?  And what of the Latin American economies and Canada, some of which are APEC members but have not been included in IPEF?  This might not seem so odd in a world where (for good and acceptable reasons) the United Kingdom has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), but when it comes to defining the things that might bind the region together as a foundation for further integration and community building, it becomes more difficult.

A rose by any other name

There is an elephant in the room when it comes to the Indo Pacific and that is China.  Despite the pivotal role China plays not just in the Asia Pacific but globally, China has not been invited to join IPEF, entirely for geo-political reasons.  China is a member of APEC and has applied to join CPTPP.  China’s economy has been and despite current troubles is likely to continue to be the economic motor of Asia.   It seems hard to believe that IPEF, however useful as a means for US economic engagement with the region, can become the “blueprint” for regional integration.   In 2023 the United States is chairing APEC – confusion is bound to arise.

Perhaps a strategic mistake was made earlier in not ensuring that India was invited to join APEC.  That idea has long been on the table with the APEC economies seemingly unable to agree on the possibility of new members.  The consequence of this is that India has been left outside decades of economic co-operation in the Asia Pacific and the habit of meeting regularly to discuss the region’s needs.  It is notable that India decided eventually not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and has not joined the trade pillar of IPEF.  Compare that to the way in which APEC nurtured the careful development of CPTPP and its predecessor agreement.  For its part, New Zealand has every interest in building the relationship with India – this need not come at the expense of other partners.

Do names matter – as along as New Zealand is included? In this troubled and increasingly divided world, efforts to bring economies together should be welcomed.  Leaving some out can have unforeseen consequences.  We know only too well what happens when countries are drawn into opposing camps. The Indo Pacific seems to be defined as much as by who is out, as who is in. 

New Zealand has limited resources and the work of securing our position particularly in Asia is not yet completed. It is troubling that this geographical confusion now lies at the heart of our foreign and trade policy.   However much political strategists might like to alter the map, New Zealand’s economic future lies in the dynamic region which surrounds it.

This post was prepared by NZIBF Executive Director Stephen Jacobi.

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