Guest Post: “War of the Word: Rethinking (and Restrategizing) the Southern Imbalance of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ Concept”

Today I’m pleased to introduce a new contributor to Lawfire: U.S. Army judge advocate, MAJ Alec Rice – and he has some very interesting ideas and nuanced analysis to share with us. 

MAJ Rice fears “Washington’s narrowed conceptualization of the Pacific theater” causes the U.S. to become “oblivious to a national security predicament in the North Pacific by adhering to the attenuated limits of the lexicon of the Indo-Pacific.”

He insists that “[b]y continuing to subscribe to the imbalanced southern emphasis of the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) concept and ignoring the full northern expanse of the Island Chains, the US is unconsciously removing the geopolitical region of the North Pacific and greater East Asia from its mental maps and defining a strategic problem out of existence.”

MAJ Rice gives us a fresh take on an area that ought to be a top concern for everyone, and especially national security professionals:

War of the Word:

Rethinking (and Restrategizing) the Southern Imbalance of the “Indo-Pacific” Concept

By MAJ Alec Rice, USA, JAGC*

Introduction:  Words Matter (and Some More Than Others)

     In recent years the geopolitical term “Indo-Pacific” and the accompanying phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) have become nearly ubiquitous elements of national security jargon.  Yet, the way the terms have come to be utilized do not reflect the conditions and motivations undergirding their origin and promulgation—conditions and motivations which have drastically altered.

     The parameters of the term Indo-Pacific, by definition, carve out and ignore the North Pacific, the Sea of Japan, the Japanese archipelago, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Chinese Polar Silk Road and Russian Northern Sea Route paths through the Arctic. These are precisely the areas where China and Russia, the United States’ great power competitors, are most closely engaging in military and economic cooperation. 

     Washington’s adoption of the Indo-Pacific verbiage is leading to a state of strategic affairs where its grasp of the enormity of the Pacific theater is essentially limited to the narrow confines of Southeast Asia. In its eager advocacy of the FOIP concept, Washington is failing to consider the increasingly dire strategic implications for the United States and its primary Northeast Asian ally, Japan.

Birth of the Indo-Pacific Neologism

     The late Japanese Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo, coined the term Indo-Pacific and the accompanying FOIP catchphrase in 2016. Abe’s initial impetus for creating and promulgating this concept was to bring international attention to the importance of the oceanic trade route from the Suez Canal through the Indian Ocean, Straits of Malacca, South and East China Seas, to Japan.

     In conjunction with propagating the Indo-Pacific idea, however, Abe was also in frequent negotiation with Russian President Vladmir Putin. The crux of these talks involved providing Japanese economic support to Russia in return for territorial concessions to the Northern Territories, islands in the southern Kurile chain claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia since World War II.

     Importantly, maintaining (relatively) friendly relations with Russia in Japan’s north allowed for exclusive military focus on Chinese predatory activity in the south. Avoiding a two-front war is an enduring strategic goal for Japan, dating at least back to World War II, when Japan was facing dual threats from the US in the south and the USSR in the north.

     Part of Abe’s intent was that Tokyo could execute a Nansei Shift away from its Cold War era Soviet deterrent concentration of Ground Self-Defense Forces in Hokkaido, towards a deployed array in its archipelagic south to protect its southern economic lifeline.

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

The United States’ Appropriation of Abe’s Indo-Pacific Concept

     Seeking to redefine its role and pivot to the Pacific after decades of emphasis on counter-terrorism in the middle east, the US enthusiastically subscribed to Abe’s Indo-Pacific idea. 

     By 2018, the US had become so enthusiastic about the notion that it had rechristened “US Pacific Command,” the Hawaii-based geographic combatant command responsible for military operations spanning half the globe, as US Indo-Pacific Command.

     However, an unanticipated corollary of this wholehearted adoption of FOIP is that the US has come to increasingly define its strategic priorities in the entire Asia-Pacific by the geographic limits of the Indo-Pacific, effectively conflating the entire Pacific theater with the Southeast Asian region.

     In so doing, Washington is increasingly failing to pay attention to adversarial activity in the North Pacific. This Indo-Pacific southern imbalance is now an immense strategic problem for both Japan and the US because the North Pacific area is precisely where China and Russia are increasing military collaboration

     Moreover, both nations are economically cooperating in developing the “Polar Silk Road” and the “Northern Sea Route” to connect East Asia with Europe through the rapidly melting Arctic as an increasingly viable alternative to the southern route through the Indo-Pacific.

     The one area where the United States’ Great Power Competitors are now most cooperatively involved is an area Washington has removed from its strategic lexicon and its security focus.

The Island Chain Misinterpretation—Only Half the Picture

     Further contributing to this southern Pacific imbalance is the spread of a curtailed interpretation of another Pacific geopolitical concept:  the Island Chains. 

     The US and Japanese governments, as well as much of international mass media, have widely adopted a truncated conception of the China’s “Island Chain Strategy” in which the First Island Chain reaches up from the South China Sea, through Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Okinawa and terminates at the Japanese island of Honshu.

     In sharp contrast, the People’s Liberation Army Navy conception of the First and Second Island Chains does not end at Japan—both island chains include the entirety of the nearly 7,000 islands of the Japanese archipelago up through the Kurile Island chain north to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

     The modern Chinese Island Chain interpretation is adopted from a US 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 was in turn connected to the idea of the US Defensive Perimeter famously posited by Dean Acheson in 1950 (the “Acheson Line”). The entire expanse of this Island Chain conceptualization was integral to Cold War strategy and is now still keenly geopolitically relevant.

     In its reorientation to the Pacific, Washington has inadvertently created a strategic blind spot by adopting an invisible border to its known world. Unmistakably, China and Russia are watching Washington closely and calculating the advantages they can gain from the US effectively cutting its entire Pacific vision in half.

Conclusion:  The Imperative of Expanding the Pacific Perspective

     Washington’s narrowed conceptualization of the Pacific theater influences its leaders’ perspective, imagination, attention and ultimately, its entire defense strategy. The US risks becoming oblivious to a national security predicament in the North Pacific by adhering to the attenuated limits of the lexicon of the Indo-Pacific.

     By continuing to subscribe to the imbalanced southern emphasis of the FOIP concept and ignoring the full northern expanse of the Island Chains, the US is unconsciously removing the geopolitical region of the North Pacific and greater East Asia from its mental maps and defining a strategic problem out of existence.

     In the area surrounding northern Japan, China and Russia have each been engaging in their own strategies of incremental territorial encroachment that the US-Japan alliance is failing to react to. In combination with Chinese activities in the South and East China Seas, this amounts to an immense adversarial pincer movement at both ends of the Japanese archipelago. 

     The unquestioned absorption of the Indo-Pacific and FOIP have contributed to Washington’s failure to realize it is acutely oriented towards only one prong of a two-horned dilemma. 

     The North Pacific is the vertex where the China “pacing challenge” and the Russian “acute threat” join. The US cannot win a game, great or otherwise, if it doesn’t know where it’s being played.  Washington must change its thinking, or it has already lost to its adversaries before even beginning to fight.

About the author:

Major Alec Rice is an attorney currently assigned to the Headquarters of the Department of the Army, 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 General 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 U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, 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 on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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