Deep Dive

How the U.S. Learned to Stop Worrying About the Pacific and Love the ‘Indo-Pacific’

The United States has a new lens for its rivalry with China.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe listen to families.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe listens to members of the families who have had relatives abducted by North Korea during a meeting at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on May 27, 2019. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

In early 2017, U.S. and Japanese strategists were poring over maps on the top floor of the U.S. State Department. Satoshi Suzuki, a Japanese official, and Brian Hook, his U.S. counterpart, zoomed in on almost every touch point in Asia: the honeymoon between then-newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump and then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the emergence of India, and a potential flare-up on the Korean Peninsula. And then Suzuki widened the lens.

The Japanese side presented a series of maps, labeled “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.” Suzuki told Hook that Tokyo wanted to radically redraw the geography of the region, from the north-south orientation of the World War II era focused on the first and second island chains of the western Pacific Ocean to a two-ocean strategy that envisioned Japanese policy in Asia stretching to India and even as far as the Persian Gulf.

“It wasn’t the old and more narrow Asia-Pacific. It was the broader Indo-Pacific, and it recognized the significance of India in particular,” said a former senior Trump administration official. “It was a sense that, you know, we weren’t going to get what we wanted by asking Beijing nicely.”

In early 2017, U.S. and Japanese strategists were poring over maps on the top floor of the U.S. State Department. Satoshi Suzuki, a Japanese official, and Brian Hook, his U.S. counterpart, zoomed in on almost every touch point in Asia: the honeymoon between then-newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump and then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the emergence of India, and a potential flare-up on the Korean Peninsula. And then Suzuki widened the lens.

The Japanese side presented a series of maps, labeled “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.” Suzuki told Hook that Tokyo wanted to radically redraw the geography of the region, from the north-south orientation of the World War II era focused on the first and second island chains of the western Pacific Ocean to a two-ocean strategy that envisioned Japanese policy in Asia stretching to India and even as far as the Persian Gulf.

“It wasn’t the old and more narrow Asia-Pacific. It was the broader Indo-Pacific, and it recognized the significance of India in particular,” said a former senior Trump administration official. “It was a sense that, you know, we weren’t going to get what we wanted by asking Beijing nicely.”

Something clicked. The idea caught fire in Washington. Hook quickly began briefing the idea to then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and shared the Japanese maps with European allies. The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, had been looking for a way to bring India in from the cold of its nonaligned Cold War stance and focus on China. Now, the Japanese were giving the new U.S. administration a way to say it. 

Four years and a change of administrations later, the Indo-Pacific remains the flavor du jour of U.S. policy in Asia. The first foreign visits of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration touched down in Japan and India. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are currently on their own Indo-Pacific tours. Meanwhile, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) partnership that also includes the United States and Australia is one of the most buzzed-about diplomatic groupings around. 

And the shift in tone, spurred by Japan and encouraged by Australia, has major implications for U.S. military strategy as the Biden administration decides how—and where—it will counter China’s rise. 

Although the term has given the United States’ friends the ability to call out Beijing on its territorial expansion without stepping on its toes, some experts and former officials worry that by hemming too closely to Tokyo and Canberra’s wonts, the United States could risk taking its eye off the ball in the Western Pacific, such as a future Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

From a military perspective, the focus really needs to be tightly on the Pacific, especially the first island chain and Taiwan,” said Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration who helped craft the 2018 National Defense Strategy. “The Indian Ocean is a distinctly secondary theater for the United States and shouldnt distract from that primary focus.”


What’s in a name? For Harry Harris, the U.S. military commander overseeing all U.S. troops from Hawaii to the edge of the Persian Gulf, it meant a lot. Nearly 5,000 miles from Washington, at U.S. Pacific Command’s headquarters in the tree-lined hills above Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach, Harris had long sensed strategic ground was shifting beneath the U.S. Defense Department’s feet, even if that message wasn’t always getting across in the Pentagon’s outer ring. 

Harris had risen through the ranks from a maritime patrol officer flying turboprop surveillance planes from India’s southern coast in the mid-1990s to become the highest-ranking Japanese American in the entire Navy. And when his predecessor, Adm. Samuel Locklear, overstayed his allotted time at Pacific Command, Harris had some extra time between his 2014 confirmation and 2015 start date to think about how he wanted to change the region. 

He didn’t hesitate to make his thoughts known once he got started. In speech after speech and meeting after meeting, Harris insisted the region’s geography was changing. He used the term “Indo-Asia-Pacific,” a nod to a bigger region stretching from Hollywood to Bollywood, as he liked to say—something that captured the economic linkages between nations of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

But not everyone understood what he was talking about, and even Harris felt his own term was a bit long. He needed something catchy that could capture attention and political support like other U.S. combatant commands do. 

“You can’t have an Indo-Asia-Pacific Command. How would that [work]? IAPCOM?” Harris asked. “You have to look at the thing from a salesmanship perspective also. INDOPACOM is almost too long. But AFRICOM, three syllables. EUCOM, two syllables. SOUTHCOM, two syllables. You’re playing in this selling game as well.”


Suzuki’s 2017 meeting in Washington wasn’t the genesis of the term. A decade earlier, Abe, an early proponent of the Quad, took to the stage during a visit to India and borrowed a phrase from a 17th-century Mughal prince. Abe proposed there was a “confluence of the two seas” between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, using the speech to trace deep civilizational ties between the two. 

That was long before Western governments began to spot China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. But Abe’s speech also gave Japan, which has legal limits on pursuing foreign wars, and India, a nonaligned power between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, an opportunity to talk about China’s growing military might without directly poking the bear.

Abe, who’d already been defeated in a shock election weeks before that speech, didn’t have the time or political capital to push his vision very far. But Australia was ready to pick up the mantle. For years, Australia had been torn between its identity as a Western country and its location near Asia. By embracing a broader conception of its region, Australia went some way toward sorting out its own strategic muddle.

“I think U.S. strategy has benefitted from Australia’s long-term strategic identity crisis,” said Rory Medcalf, who heads up the National Security College at the Australian National University and who wrote a book on the rise of the Indo-Pacific. “Australia was the first country to really seriously codify the Indo-Pacific in policy.”

Australia, unlike Japan, actually is in the Indian Ocean—but also has deep trade ties with Asia and security links across the Pacific with Washington. In 2013, Australia’s defense white paper, a public blueprint for its strategy, first made that observation in connection with the words “Indo-Pacific,” suggesting the region was at a fork in the road. With cargo ships, oil tankers, and military vessels pouring down the sea lanes connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it could become a highly competitive or reasonably cooperative strategic environment.

“It made a lot of sense because the Indian Ocean washes one of our shores,” said Richard Maude, who served as deputy secretary for the Indo-Pacific Group in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade until 2020. “And the pioneers on this could see that we should be thinking about the region in a way that was vertical as much as horizontal—that is, looking west or northwest to India as much as we look straight north to the rest of Asia.”

The Indo-Pacific had come full circle, from a kernel of an idea in Abe’s mind to something bigger: official government policy in an allied country. 

For Abe, the timing could not have been better: Chinese President Xi Jinping had announced a strategy that would become the Belt and Road Initiative in a September 2013 visit to Kazakhstan, a sign China’s appetite for economic expansion throughout Asia was greater than ever, and later stressed a maritime component of the ambitious initiative in a trip to Indonesia. What’s more, China had begun applying more pressure on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which are disputed between the two countries, sending patrol boats into contested waters and flying fighter jets into Japanese airspace. 

By 2016, those economic and military ambitions had become even more closely intertwined: China was setting up its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, tucked in right next to Japanese and U.S. troops. China’s military challenge was outgrowing the Pacific region.

Back in the United States, Harris just had to bring the idea home to Washington. He called up former commanders of U.S. Pacific Command to take their pulse on the proposed name change and heard no dissenting voices. He pitched the U.S. ambassador in India as well as India’s deputy foreign minister. Eventually, Harris talked up the idea with aides of then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. They liked it too. He didn’t find any pushback until he took the idea to Carter himself in a letter to the secretary in 2016, arguing the name change better reflected changes in the region, including the centrality of India and the Indian Ocean. Carter wasn’t having it and formally rejected the plan that summer. 

But the idea didn’t lay dormant for long. Trump’s shock victory in November 2016 drove Harris to bring the same briefing back to the new defense secretary, James Mattis. The name change was unveiled at Harris’s passing of Pacific Command to Adm. Philip Davidson in May 2018: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

But despite the shift in emphasis, the United States has struggled under Biden and Trump to contain potential Chinese buildups closer to where U.S. forces operate, officials said. China has begun constructing runways that could eventually fit its next-generation bombers at Ream Naval Base in Cambodia and has increased the military utility of the atolls and sand spits it reclaimed in the South China Sea. Even further east, China is looking at plaits location near Asiaitns to construct an airstrip in Kiribati that would put People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bombers within range of U.S. troops in Hawaii; one U.S. official said the Biden administration never offered an alternative proposal to kick out the Chinese.

“The establishment of a Chinese military base in the South or Western Pacific would be a game changer on any number of levels, in essence allowing the Chinese to construct an invisible, yet fortified wall between U.S. forces stationed in Hawaii and those already operating in theater,” Craig Singleton, an adjunct fellow studying great-power competition with China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who previously served in sensitive U.S. national security roles, said in an email. “In the event of a crisis scenario involving Taiwan, a Chinese base could allow the PLA to potentially cut off U.S. re-supply.”

A stronger regional footprint could also give Chinese units the ability to harass their U.S. counterparts with ships and planes. Singleton worries a permanent PLA base in the region “would also have the effect of essentially boxing in U.S. forces operating closer to China’s territorial waters, even if only temporarily.”

Chinese owners have also bought a stake in Australia’s Darwin Port, near the basing point for hundreds of Marines, a deal Canberra is reviewing for national security risks.

Those buildups, grabbing fewer headlines than foreign trips and “Indo-Pacific” speeches from cabinet members, have raised questions about the military efficacy of the phrase. Some officials within the Trump administration were privately skeptical of focusing on the Indo-Pacific, fearing it would distract from more pressing military challenges in the Western Pacific, such as Taiwan. Could the United States, squeezed by forces on both the left and the right that thin out its global military footprint, really do both of those things at once?


The Aussies and the Japanese may have gotten the ball rolling on calling the region the Indo-Pacific, but the Trump team moved surprisingly quickly to articulate an Indo-Pacific strategy of its own, producing in late 2017 a national security strategy centered on the new idea. The 10-page document, which was mostly declassified in January, just days before Trump left office, sets the table for a broad long-term competition plan with China in the region, extending from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait and back into the Western Pacific, where military planners privately and publicly fear a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could be imminent. One big component: a rejuvenated U.S. alliance system in Asia, with the inclusion of India on China’s western flank.

“A strong India, in cooperation with like minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China,” the Trump administration strategy read.

It’s begun to have an impact. Indian officials are now often quick to raise China-related issues early in meetings with Biden administration counterparts before Pakistan, which New Delhi has traditionally seen as a top security threat. And Japan, which has veered away from foreign conflicts since World War II, has been signaling more loudly in recent months it could be ready to help defend Taiwan.

Now, as the Biden administration approaches its own strategic inflection point—its first National Security Strategy is due in early 2022—it will have to define its vision for the United States’ new role in Asia. Biden and his team will have to decide how to calibrate the United States’ military posture to manage China’s ascent while contending with real financial, political, and military limits to U.S. power.

But regardless of how Washington approaches the region and its rivalry with China, some U.S. allies see a greater give and take between Washington and Beijing, not a zero-sum game. 

“I don’t think this is about winning or losing against China,” Medcalf said. “I think this is about creating a context where we can cope with Chinese power and limits to Chinese assertiveness. And the game is far from over.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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