The Indo-Pacific Regional Architecture: Its Future
--- Multipolar Order Beyond US-China Relations ---

Tsutomu Kikuchi
Professor, Aoyama Gakuin University

1. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to provide a perspective on the future of the regional architecture of the Indo-Pacific --- a topic of growing interest in recent years.

The recent surge of interest in the Indo-Pacific reflects the changing political, economic, and security conditions that have underpinned the region's stability and prosperity. Since the 1980s, the Indo-Pacific region has achieved remarkable economic development and political stability. At present, however, the era of stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, underpinned by relatively stable relations among the major powers and their support for economic globalization, is coming to an end.

For many years after WWII, a network of US-centered "hub and spokes" alliances formed the basis of the Indo-Pacific regional architecture. The US-centered alliance network will continue to be essential. Nonetheless, this network now needs to be reviewed to address new regional developments: China's rise and its changing external posture; changing US engagement; the development and increasing resilience of India and Southeast Asian countries and their changing external postures; and the growing role of ASEAN in regional international relations.

The arguments of this paper are as follows: First, while US-China relations are crucial for the future Indo-Pacific regional architecture, it is necessary to examine how other countries besides the United States and China are responding to changes in international relations in the region. Second, in thinking about the future of regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific, we need to pay particular attention to two developments that are taking place in the region: mega-regionalism and minilateralism. Third, the Quad --- a forum for dialogue among four countries: Japan, the United States, Australia, and India --- has the potential to form a foundation for a new regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific. Fourth, it is important to view Quad as a forum for multilayered cooperation among the four countries, including bilateral and trilateral cooperation as well as cooperation among the four countries as a whole. It is also important to expand cooperation with non-member countries through the Quad plus scheme, especially promoting cooperation with ASEAN. Lastly, the current US centered "hub and spokes" network of alliance would be transformed into a networked arrangement, complemented by new overlapping bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral relations with other Indo-Pacific partners, while maintaining the US-Japan and US-Australia alliances as linchpins.

2. Characteristics of International Relations in the Indo-Pacific

1) Changes in US-China Relations

Behind changes in international relations in the Indo-Pacific region are the changing US-China relations.

First, following the improvement of US-China relations in the early 1970s, China accepted US dominance in Asia, and the bilateral relationship was relatively stable. Now, this situation is changing.

Today, China is no longer satisfied with merely elevating its own status in the US-led order. Patriotic nationalism and the ambition to become a superpower associated with rapid economic development are driving China's foreign behavior. China is trying to achieve a dominant position in the Indo-Pacific in its quest for global superpower status.

Second, both the United States and China have been promoting economic globalization and expanding mutual economic exchanges, but today, both are becoming skeptical about globalization. In American society, there are doubts about the globalization that the United States has so far led and a sense of repulsion toward China who has unfairly enjoyed the benefits of globalization. COVID-19 is intensifying these doubts and sense of repulsion.

China is also beginning to review its development strategy of relying on American markets and technologies. She is advancing a "double-circulation" economic strategy to increase the role of its domestic market, and the domestic development of core technologies.

Many discussions focus on US-China relations for an outlook on the future of the Indo-Pacific. 1 Looking at the Indo-Pacific regional architecture with US-China relations as the axis, various scenarios may be envisaged --- American or Chinese regional hegemony, a US-China Cold War, or US-China joint governance (G2).

2) Changes in the External Stance of Countries and Organizations Other Than the United States and China

The Indo-Pacific is a vast region of great diversity, where a variety of international relations beyond US-China relations are evolving. What will a new regional architecture of this region look like?

In the Indo-Pacific, there are major powers such as Japan, India, and Russia, besides the United States and China. These countries are not bystanders to the US-China power politics. They harbor the "ambition" to influence regional international relations.

Australia, ASEAN states, and Taiwan hold a substantial national power and the potential to increase their national power in the future. Located at crucial strategic junctures, they are trying to play an independent and proactive role in shaping international relations in the region. They are neither mere bystanders nor are they at the mercy of great power politics. With past bitter experiences of being tossed around by great power politics, they are proud of having survived the ordeal. They have a strong will to maintain the "independence" and "self-reliance" achieved by making great sacrifices. Nationalism is the main factor that defines the behavior of these countries.

The attitude of these countries toward US-China relations is ambivalent. On the one hand, they are very much concerned about China's coercive behavior. On the other hand, they find the economic benefits China offers attractive and the maintenance of a stable relationship with it significant. The presence of a mighty China is a geopolitical reality in the region. They are well aware of the need to coexist with it. While they anticipate continued US engagement with international relations in the Indo-Pacific to check China's behavior, they are critical of US unilateralism.

These countries do not want to see a US- or China-led regional order established in the Indo-Pacific --- whether confrontation (a "US-China Cold War") or cooperation ("G2: US-China Joint Governance") --- either of which would restrict their choices and narrow the room for bargaining.

Although US-China relations are vital for the future Indo-Pacific regional architecture, the willingness, ability, and ambition of other countries to become involved in shaping the regional order must be taken into account.

3. Noteworthy Developments Related to the Future Indo-Pacific Regional Architecture

The following are aspects worthy of note in considering the Indo-Pacific regional architecture in the future.

1) The Future of Mega-Regionalism

When discussing the future Indo-Pacific regional architecture, it is noteworthy that China is taking an active initiative in the region. We are entering an era in which China's power and vision will have a significant impact on it.

(1) The "Belt and Road" Initiative

Under the "Belt and Road" initiative, the flagship project of President Xi Jinping, China is working on a vast economic zone through infrastructure development. Although the initiative includes the entire world in its scope, its focus is around China's neighboring areas --- Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia. Various economic corridor initiatives (CPEC, BCIM, etc.) will connect China with neighboring states through railroads, highways, ports, pipelines, etc. Through these projects, China is attempting to incorporate the economies of neighboring states into a China-centered economic network. China has also established regional institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) on its initiative.

China owes its development to its participation in the free, open, and rules-based international order led by the United States since the end of the Cold War. Under this order, China has made the most of the free, open political and economic institutions of other countries, thereby enjoying economic benefits. 2

However, the rules-based order that has prevailed in the post-Cold War world was intrusive in nature, touching on domestic rules and institution. Rules and principles associated with the rule of law, transparency, and good governance embedded in the rules-based order are incompatible with China's political system.

China's attitude toward the rules in the international community is "selective." As its national power grows, China is attempting to downplay and rewrite the rules in the international community that are undesirable to it.

The "Belt and Road" initiative will have an enormous impact on the regional economic structure and rules. Indo-Pacific states --- along with the United States under domestic pressure to change the rules of the global economy it has led --- will face a test of whether they can effectively argue to China that it must abide by the rules in the international community.

(2) The Future of Regional Free Trade Agreements

There are two major free trade agreements associated with the Indo-Pacific region: the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement). The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) --- the CPTPP's predecessor --- symbolized the US rebalancing policy toward Asia. It aimed to secure continued US engagement in Asia, where China's presence was growing, as well as US leadership in trade-rule making. The RCEP was anticipated to impose certain restrictions on China's influence by including India in the regional trade mechanism in East Asia. However, the United States withdrew from the TPP that once it had agreed to, and India refused to sign the RCEP in the final phase of negotiations.

Last year, President Xi Jinping expressed interest in joining the CPTPP. Although there are high hurdles against China's membership due to problems over Chinese state-owned enterprises and alleged infringement in intellectual property rights, China has shown at home and abroad its support for economic globalization and free trade.

For the United States, its CPTPP membership would be significant in demonstrating its continued engagement in the Indo-Pacific. But there is less and less room for "free trade" to be accepted in US domestic politics. The United States is at a disadvantage in the race for regional free trade agreements.

The role the United States played in the development of Asian economies has been enormous. The open, huge US market with great diversity sustained the export-oriented development strategies of Asian countries. However, as the United States has become more inclined toward protectionist trade policies, its attractiveness as a market is diminishing.

China is now the largest trading partner of most Asian countries. As its RCEP membership and future membership in the CPTPP will tighten the ties between Asian economies and China, a regional economic architecture in the Indo-Pacific will emerge under Chinese leadership. By establishing free trade zones, China-centered supply chains will expand, and regional states will become more dependent on the Chinese economy.

Obviously, the Biden administration prioritizes its engagement in the Indo-Pacific as a top diplomatic challenge. But the United States is hampered by its domestic politics in its response to trade problems, the chief concerns of regional states. This situation will remain unchanged in the foreseeable future.

In this context, the roles of Japan and Australia, which have been leading the CPTPP, are vital, and the expansion of the CPTPP membership will have significant implications for strengthening the regional trade architecture in the Indo-Pacific.

2) Minilateralism

It is remarkable that new, bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral multilayered alignments have recently been evolving among the Indo-Pacific states. 3 These diverse alignments include the Quad (US-Japan-Australia-India), new trilateral alignments among Japan-US-Australia, Japan-US-India, and India-Indonesia-Australia, as well as bilateral alignments between Australia-India, Japan-India, US-India, India-Vietnam, India-Indonesia, Australia-the Philippines, and India-Singapore.

What these new networks seek includes: politics, economy, security, infrastructure development, the improvement of maritime law enforcement capability, the strong resilience in marine security (the strengthening of defense and sea patrol capabilities), etc.

In connection with future regional architectures, noteworthy is the Quad --- a four-nation forum of Japan, the United States, Australia, and India. Some assess the Quad as aiming to be a system of collective defense, like an "Asian version of NATO." But unless China further escalates its military provocations, the possibility of its becoming such will be slim.

The comparative advantage of the Quad as an institution is that it is composed of the four countries that possess the will and capabilities to discuss, formulate, and implement responses to the challenges facing the region.

The March 2021 Quad summit joint statement articulates the future direction of the Quad. The Quad is an institution that promotes cooperation to provide regional public goods such as countermeasures against COVID-19 and climate change, core technologies, counterterrorism measures, infrastructure investment, humanitarian aids, maritime security, and disaster relief. The Quad does not aim to counter specific countries but seeks to promote regional cooperation to address common regional challenges.

What is noteworthy about Quad is the following.

First, the future of the Quad as a multilayered institution, or a collective entity of bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral alignments and cooperation among the four member states. Four members' joint action and cooperation are one aspect of the Quad. It possesses a variety of bilateral and trilateral cooperation and alignment mechanisms. Through these mechanisms, progress has taken place in different areas of cooperation, including military cooperation and alignment (joint military drills and enhanced interoperability), cooperation in infrastructure construction, cooperation to enhance supply chain resilience, and industrial development.

Consultations among the four countries will function as a forum for the coordination of bilateral and trilateral alignments in the future, which in turn will help enhance the resilience of the Quad as a quadrilateral institution. Bilateral or trilateral alignments will primarily address the issue of military security. However, through mutual coordination, the military response capability of the Quad as a quadrilateral institution may also improve.

Second, the Quad may function as a mechanism to encourage US engagement in the Indo-Pacific, and, at the same time, check its unilateral action. The Indo-Pacific states can no longer depend on the massive power (military and economic) of the United States as they did in the past. Still, the fact that US engagement in the region is indispensable will remain unchanged. The Quad can, in this sense, serve as an institution to ensure US engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

The United States, located on the distant continent of North America always faces the question of if it will remain a staying power in the Indo-Pacific. The Obama administration's half-hearted "rebalancing policy" and the Trump administration's "America First" policy have deepened the concerns of regional states about America's continued engagement.

Through the Quad, policy coordination and responsibility-sharing among the four member states will advance, creating more room for joint action.

Third, the possibility of the Quad Plus. Quad-Plus cooperation has already been tested to deal with COVID-19. Still, the Quad is capable of contributing to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region by building diverse networks with non-Quad countries.

Various issues in the Indo-Pacific region need to be dealt with through collaboration among regional states. Regarding each of these specific issues, the Quad may work out a different Quad-Plus mechanism to promote cooperation.

It is crucial to forge a constructive relationship between the Quad and ASEAN states, which, located at a strategic juncture in the Indo-Pacific, provide the main battleground for power politics among the great powers. The support of ASEAN states is essential for the Quad to attain its potential. The Quad's legitimacy in the region will to a large extent depend on its relationship with ASEAN.

The specific cooperation agenda outlined in ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), adopted by the ASEAN states in June 2019, is similar to the areas promoted by the Quad. The potential for cooperation between the two is enormous.

Through cooperation with ASEAN, the Quad should support ASEAN in its development as an indispensable actor in the Indo-Pacific order. Also, the Quad should place a top priority on taking various measures to strengthen ASEAN's capabilities. The presence of ASEAN, an effective institution at a strategic point in the Indo-Pacific, which maintains distance from the power politics of the great powers and promotes regional cooperation based on institutional unity, will contribute to the stability of the Indo-Pacific.

The Quad will be able to collaborate also with European countries such as the United Kingdom and France, both of which have increasingly engaged in the Indo-Pacific in recent years. The involvement of the European Union and European countries in the Indo-Pacific can be expected to make a significant contribution to the establishment of a rules-based order.

Fourth, the Quad aims to encourage China to behave in a manner compatible with the rules of the international community. The Quad's emphasis on developing regional public goods may be persuasive for China to change its policy while saving its face. Simultaneously, if China adopted more aggressive policy measures, the Quad could transform itself into a more robust multilateral institution targeting China, based on bilateral and trilateral cooperation and alignment.

Fifth, the weakness of the Quad may be that it is unlikely to generate dynamism to advance economic globalization and free trade, which constitute the common interests of the regional states. The United States is facing increasing difficulties in securing domestic support for its policy measures --- economic globalization (deregulation and free trade), global governance, and nation-building assistance, which the United States has actively promoted to date. Recently, India is also advocating "economic self-help," keeping a distance from regional free trade agreements. The Quad has to work on the demanding challenge of creating an economically attractive alternative to the vast Chinese market.


China is trying to organize its neighboring regions to suit its interests. This move is likely to continue in the future. There is a possibility that a regional economic architecture formed around China will occupy the center of international relations in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US-led "hub and spokes" network will shift to a network sustained by new overlapping bilateral, trilateral, or quadrilateral relationships with other Indo-Pacific partners, while maintaining current alliances. The US-led regional architecture will recede, and the regional states will instead play a more vital role. In this case, the role and function of the Quad will matter.

The United States may also embrace these changes. Rather than securing a dominant position in the Indo-Pacific, it may choose to put the priority to prevent China's regional hegemony and to seek a regional order based on pluralism. 4 The Indo-Pacific will change into a multipolar world in which regional states will share greater responsibility while maintaining the continued engagement of the United States.

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