Rethinking (and redefining strategies) the southern imbalance of the “Indo-Pacific” concept” – Lawfire

Today, I am pleased to introduce a new contributor to Lawfire: US Army Judge Advocate MAJ Alec Rice – and he has some very interesting insights and nuanced analysis to share with us.

MAJ Rice fears that “Washington’s narrow conceptualization of the Pacific theater” is rendering the United States “blind to a national security issue in the North Pacific adhering to the attenuated limits of the Indo-Pacific lexicon.

He insists that “[b]By continuing to subscribe to the unbalanced southern focus of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept and ignoring the entire northern extent of the island chains, the United States is unwittingly suppressing the Pacific geopolitical region. North and Greater East Asia from his mental maps and defining a strategic problem out of existence.

MAJ Rice gives us a fresh look at an area that should be of primary concern to everyone, and especially to national security professionals:

Word War:

Rethinking (and redefining) the southern imbalance of the “Indo-Pacific” concept

By MAJ Alec Rice, USA, JAGC*

IIntroduction: Words matter (and some more than others)

In recent years, the geopolitical term “Indo-Pacific” and its accompanying phrase “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) have become nearly ubiquitous elements of national security jargon. Yet the way the terms have been used does not reflect the conditions and motivations underlying their origin and enactment – ​​conditions and motivations that have changed dramatically.

The parameters of the term Indo-Pacific, by definition, cut out and ignore the North Pacific, the Sea of ​​Japan, the Japanese Archipelago, the Sea of ​​Okhotsk and the Sea of ​​China. Polar Silk Road and Russian Northern Sea Route paths through the arctic. These are precisely the areas where China and Russia, major powers competing with the United States, are the most engaging closely in military and economic cooperation.

Washington’s embrace of Indo-Pacific verbiage leads to a state of strategic affairs where its understanding of the enormity of the Pacific theater is essentially confined to the narrow confines of Southeast Asia. In its ardent advocacy of the FOIP concept, Washington ignores the increasingly dire strategic implications for the United States and its main Northeast Asian ally, Japan.

Birth of the Indo-Pacific neologism

The late Japanese Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo, coined the term Indo-Pacific and the accompaniment FOIP slogan in 2016. Abe’s initial impetus to create and promulgate this concept was to bring international attention to the importance of the ocean trade route from the Suez Canal through the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca, the South and East China Seas, to Japan.

In conjunction with the spread of the Indo-Pacific idea, however, Abe was also in frequent negotiation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The essence of these talks was to provide Japanese economic support to Russia in exchange for territorial concessions to the Northern Territoriessouthern islands of the Kuril Range claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia since World War II.

It is important to note that the maintenance of (relatively) friendly relations with Russia in northern Japan has allowed an exclusive focus on Chinese predatory activities in the south. Avoiding a war on two fronts is an enduring strategic goal for Japan, dating back at least to World War II, when Japan faced a dual threat from the United States to the south and the USSR to the north.

Part of Abe’s intention was that Tokyo could run a “Nansei Displacement” away from its Cold War-era Soviet deterrent concentration of ground self-defense forces in Hokkaido, toward a network deployed in its archipelagic south to protect its southern economic lifeline.

This is a good strategy provided Russia is friendly, trustworthy and cooperative with Japan. However, the invasion of Ukraine this year has forced Japan and the world to realize that Russia is not the benign partner Abe’s coveted Japan.

US appropriation of Abe’s Indo-Pacific concept

Seeking to redefine its role and pivot to the Pacific after decades of emphasis on counterterrorism in the Middle East, the United States enthusiastically embraced Abe’s Indo-Pacific idea.

In 2018, the United States had become so enthusiastic about the idea that it renamed “US Pacific Command”, the geographical combat command based in Hawaii responsible for military operations covering half the globe, as “US Indo-Pacific Command”.

However, an unintended corollary of this wholehearted embrace of FOIP is that the United States has come to increasingly define its strategic priorities throughout Asia-Pacific by the geographical boundaries of the Indo-Pacific, effectively conflating the entire Pacific theater with the Southeast Asia region.

In doing so, Washington increasingly neglects to pay attention to the contradictory activities in the North Pacific. This southern Indo-Pacific imbalance is now a huge strategic problem for Japan and the United States, because the North Pacific area is precisely where China and Russia strengthen military collaboration.

Moreover, the two nations are cooperate economically in the development of the “Polar Silk Road” and the “North Sea Road” to link East Asia with Europe across the rapidly melting Arctic as an increasingly viable alternative to the southern route through the Indo-Pacific.

The one area in which major-power competitors to the United States are now most involved in cooperation is an area that Washington has removed from its strategic lexicon and security focus.

The misinterpretation of the island chain – only half of the image

The spread of a restricted interpretation of another geopolitical concept of the Pacific: island chains further contributes to this imbalance of the South Pacific.

The U.S. and Japanese governments, as well as much of the international media, have largely embraced a truncated conception of China’s “island chain strategy” in which the first island chain extends from the South China Sea, across Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Okinawa and ends on the Japanese island of Honshu.

On the contrary, the People’s Liberation Army Navy Design of the First and Second Island Chains doesn’t stop at Japan – the two island chains comprise all of the approximately 7,000 islands of the Japanese archipelago up to the Kuril Islands chain north of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The modern interpretation of the Chinese island chain is adopted from a American strategic concept that evolved from multiple international origins at the dawn of the Cold War-a chain extending from the Philippines, through Taiwan and Japan, reaching as far north as, and including, the Aleutian Islands.

John Foster Dulles and General Douglas MacArthur emphasized the geopolitical importance of the island chain concept, which in turn was linked to the idea of ​​the American defensive perimeter enunciated by Dean Acheson in 1950 (the “Acheson Line”). The full extent of this island chain conceptualization was integral to Cold War strategy and is now still highly geopolitically relevant.

In its reorientation towards the Pacific, Washington has inadvertently created a strategic blind spot by adopting an invisible border to its known world. There is no doubt that China and Russia are watching Washington closely and calculating the benefits they can derive from the United States by halving its entire vision of the Pacific.

Conclusion: the imperative to broaden the perspective of the Pacific

Washington’s narrow conceptualization of the Pacific theater influences the perspective, imagination, focus of its leaders, and ultimately its entire defense strategy. The United States risks becoming oblivious to a national security issue in the North Pacific adhering to the attenuated limits of the Indo-Pacific lexicon.

By continuing to subscribe to the lopsided southern focus of the FOIP concept and ignoring the entire northern extent of the island chains, the United States is unwittingly withdrawing the geopolitical region of the North Pacific and Greater East Asia of their mental maps and define a strategic problem of existing.

In the region surrounding northern Japan, China and Russia have each engaged in their own strategies of progressive territorial encroachment to which the US-Japan alliance fails to respond. Combined with Chinese activities in the South and East China Seas, this amounts to a huge contradictory pincer movement at both ends of the Japanese archipelago.

The unquestioned absorption of the Indo-Pacific and the JTF has contributed to Washington’s failure to realize that it is deeply biased towards only one side of a two-sided dilemma.

The North Pacific is the summit where China’s “rhythm challenge” and the The Russian “acute threat” rejoin. The United States can’t win a game, big or otherwise, if they don’t know where it’s at. Washington must change its mind or it has already lost to its opponents before it even begins to fight.

About the Author:

Maj. Alec Rice is an attorney currently assigned to the Department of the Army Headquarters, Office of the Judge Advocate General, National Security Law Division. He is the former Chief of National Security Law for U.S. Forces Japan and a graduate of the 66th Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Command and Staff Course.


*The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Department of Defense, the US military or any part of the US government.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect my views or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University. See also here.

Remember what we like to say about Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, weigh the arguments – then decide yourself!

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