What Does Multipolarity Mean for the Indo-Pacific Region?

221

The Indo-Pacific region stands as a crucible of geopolitical dynamics, where the converging interests of major powers intersect with the aspirations of the middle and emerging powers, shaping the contours of global order in the 21st century. Within this intricate landscape, the concept of multipolarity emerges as a focal point of analysis, embodying the dispersion of power and influence across a multitude of actors. The emergence of China as a significant global power has signaled the decline of the United States (US) unipolarity in the region. The Indo-Pacific narrative is marked by a complex multipolar dynamic, where different countries like India, Japan, and Australia exert considerable influence. This multipolarity not only diversifies power structures but also mitigates the risk of hegemonic bipolarity in the region. However, alarming trends such as isolationism and polarization pose potential threats to this multipolar environment. Addressing these challenges is crucial for sustaining the multipolar environment in the Indo-Pacific and preventing hegemonic dominance or strategic fragmentation in the future.

Multipolarity in the Indo-Pacific Region

Polarity generally manifests in one of three configurations: unipolarity, characterized by the dominance of a single state; bipolarity, where two states hold relatively equal power; and multipolarity, where power is dispersed among several states. It is often assumed that multipolarity necessitates a multitude of states with equal capabilities, yet in reality, multipolar systems frequently feature imbalances, with two or three major powers alongside numerous middle powers vying for influence.

From this perspective, the Indo-Pacific region stands out as a prime example of multipolarity, where the influence and interests of various actors converge to shape the strategic landscape. Unlike traditional notions of power dynamics dominated by singular superpowers, neither the US nor China holds sole sway over the region. Instead, countries such as India, Japan, and Australia assert their own strategic visions and interests, contributing to a diverse array of geopolitical perspectives. The Indo-Pacific also attracts attention of many extra-regional countries like France and Canada which are trying to establish their strong footprints in the region. Besides, the emergence of different trilateral and quadrilateral alliances and groups indicates convergence of interests among partners which cannot be attained single-handedly. Most importantly, regional multilateral forum like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) represents a symbol of multipolarity in the region.

The US and China are considered the most powerful actors in the Indo-Pacific with conflicting interests and visions. The US has already identified China as the number one threat in the region in its “2022 National Security Strategy” and “2022 National Defense Strategy”. The US, feeling insecure by the rise of China, seeks to uphold its longstanding role as a dominant power in the region by forming new alliances and partnerships with like-minded states, bolstering defense buildup, and promoting a rules-based order that promotes its values and interests. The US has its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and Indo-Pacific Command, aimed at countering Chinese influence and ensuring its dominance in the region. On the other hand, China asserts its growing influence by pursuing mega initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and expanding its military presence through territorial claims and naval buildup in the region. For instance, China has now the largest navy in the world in terms of the number of ships and submarines, with a total military budget of $229 billion which was only $14.6 billion in 2000. Chinese strategy also involves cultivating bilateral relationships with regional actors, offering economic incentives in the forms of soft loans and development aid, and challenging the US-led security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. As both powers compete for strategic dominance, their rivalry shapes the security dynamics and economic landscape of the region, contributing to the broader geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific.

However, the Indo-Pacific geopolitical landscape is not exclusively shaped by this US-China rivalry, as different countries have their own agendas and interests in the region. Unlike the Cold War, when the US and Soviet Union controlled the lion’s share of economic and military power, China and the US together control a smaller share today. One index of military and economic power, for example, suggests that that share has shrunk from around 40 percent in 1946 to only around 30 percent today. It suggests the diffusion of power elsewhere toward a variety of capable, dynamic middle powers like India, Japan, and Australia in the region.

India, one of the largest nations in the Indo-Pacific, holds immense geopolitical value due to its large population and growing economy. While India has the largest population in the world with a total population of 1.428 billion, its economy ranks 5th largest in the world. The European Union (EU) has identified India along with the US and China as the three of the most important strategic players in the region. India wants to establish itself as a net security provider and address common concerns like the rising influence of China by forging strong partnerships with its partners in the region. India has devised several strategies and policies like its “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR), “Act East” policy and “Neighborhood First” policy to achieve its goals in the region.

Japan, once a powerful force in world politics, continues to hold a strong position in the Indo-Pacific. It was Japan that first introduced the concept of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ in its official discourse. In 2016, Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that Japan would pursue a so-called “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” (FOIP), encompassing development, connectivity, investment, and security issues stretching all the way to Africa. The country is concerned about Chinese continued military expansion and North Korea’s rapidly expanding nuclear and missile capabilities in the region. Notably, the country is no longer willing to contract out its strategic positioning to the US. As a result, Japan has shifted its focus to strengthen its military power by spending more in this sector. For instance, Japan approved a record-breaking $52.67 billion for military spending in Fiscal Year 2024 which is a hefty increase of 16.5% from 2023. Externally, Japan is trying to foster strong partnerships with other countries like Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines to strengthen its position in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia, located between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, naturally emerges as a major force in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical landscape. Australia relies heavily on its maritime partners for trade and transportation. Australia has a longstanding history of trade with Pacific Island nations. For instance, 71.8% of Australia’s goods exports were directed to Asia-Pacific economies in 2013. However, China has become the Pacific’s main trading partner, and Australia’s share of the total merchandise trade has declined over the past decade. Besides, Australia has expressed its concerns over growing Chinese presence in the region, as it considers China an aggressive actor due to its assertive foreign policy. Australia has already outlined its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific in its “2016 Defense White Paper” (DWP), the “2017 Foreign Policy White Paper” (FPWP), and the “2020 Defense Strategic Update” (DSU). It aims to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific where freedom of navigation, free flow of goods and services, and freedom from the use of force or coercion are ensured. These objectives have pushed Australia to work with like-minded partners in the region, especially the US, India, and Japan. In addition to these middle powers, different emerging economies in the region have also developed their strategies and maintained a neutral and non-aligned foreign policy. Bangladesh is a leading example of this, as the country has announced its “Indo-Pacific Outlook” (IPO) in 2023 which advocates for a free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive Indo-Pacific for the shared prosperity of all relevant stakeholders.

The presence of extra-regional countries in the Indo-Pacific like France and Canada has also enriched the multipolar environment of the Indo-Pacific. For instance, France devised its own “Indo-Pacific Strategy” back in 2018 based on seven pillars and aimed at placing France as an inclusive and stabilizing mediating power. It has a strong military presence along with its memberships in different multilateral forums in the Indo-Pacific making it an important actor in the region. Similarly, Canada has also announced its “Indo-Pacific Strategy” in 2022 with an emphasis on expanding trade, investment, and supply chain resilience as the region is home to home to six of Canada’s top thirteen trading partners. Besides this, other countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, along with some regional bodies such as the EU and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also made their presence visible by formulating their strategies and new partnerships with regional countries.

Interestingly, the Indo-Pacific region has witnessed a notable surge in the formation of various minilateral groups, such as the QUAD and AUKUS, alongside numerous trilateral arrangements like the US, Japan, and Australia Trilateral Defense Ministers Meeting, and the US, Japan, and the Philippines Trilateral Defense Policy Dialogue. These initiatives underscore a fundamental shift away from a unipolar world order, where a single dominant power could dictate outcomes alone. Instead, the proliferation of minilateral groups signifies a recognition among countries that cooperation and coordination with like-minded partners are essential to achieving their strategic objectives.

Most importantly, the active engagement of countries in various multilateral institutions in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), serves as a testament to the region’s multipolarity. These multilateral platforms provide avenues for dialogue, cooperation, and collaboration among diverse stakeholders, promoting inclusivity and shared decision-making. The IORA, for instance, brings together 23 member states and 11 dialogue partners, fostering economic cooperation, trade facilitation, and sustainable development. By actively participating in these multilateral institutions, countries in the Indo-Pacific demonstrate their commitment to upholding a multipolar order, where diverse actors contribute to shaping regional dynamics and addressing common challenges through collective action and cooperation.

Opportunities in Multipolar Indo-Pacific

Countries are gradually shaping their policies to align with the evolving multipolar dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. For example, the 2022 “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States” promotes “integrated deterrence,” emphasizing collaborative approaches to address security threats in the region. Similarly, China’s National Security Concept (NSC) emphasizes multilateral dialogue, confidence-building measures, and non-proliferation efforts to maintain a peaceful regional order. Additionally, both Russia and China have acknowledged the emergence of a ‘new multipolar order’ in a joint statement issued in February 2022. Furthermore, the third pillar of France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy underscores the importance of multilateralism and the rule of law in the region. All these developments point towards a multipolar Indo-Pacific region.

A multipolar Indo-Pacific presents numerous opportunities for countries in the region. First and foremost, the heightened economic interdependence and connectivity facilitated by multipolarity pave the way for expanded opportunities in trade and investment. With the Indo-Pacific region already hosting 65% of the world’s population and contributing to 62% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and 46% of international trade, while overseeing half of the world’s maritime transport, a multipolar environment promises to bolster regional trade and guarantee the secure transit of goods and services. Secondly, the multipolar world order encourages strategic diversification and partnership-building, enabling countries to pursue flexible and adaptable foreign policies that cater to their national interests and priorities. Lastly, multipolarity will ensure that the region does not fall into the trap of Cold War-type bipolar politics which stagnant regional growth and development.

Challenges and Way Forward

Despite a multipolar Indo-Pacific, the existing political landscape is characterized by growing polarization and isolation, particularly within the framework of minilateral security groups like the QUAD and AUKUS. Along with the US, countries such as India, Australia, and Japan perceive China as their common adversary, leading to the risk of a bipolar mindset within a multipolar environment in the Indo-Pacific. This growing trend poses significant challenges to regional stability and cooperation, as they undermine efforts to foster inclusive dialogue and collaborative solutions to shared challenges. The rise of geopolitical tensions and the formation of alliances exacerbate divisions and heighten the risk of conflict escalation in the future.

Amidst these challenges, it becomes imperative for countries to prioritize diplomacy, dialogue, and multilateral engagement to mitigate tensions, build trust, and promote a more inclusive and cooperative regional order. Failure to address these challenges effectively could undermine the prospects of multipolarity in the Indo-Pacific, potentially leading to the resurgence of bipolarity or even unipolarity in the future.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

[Read Full Briefs as a Pdf]