By Sorpong Peoua



This article asks whether regional security governance is emerging in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to explain this development, if any. Regional governance is generally understood to mean a set of formal and informal processes and institutions established by states, international organizations and other actors (such as civil society) to address regional challenges through collective action in the absence of a highly centralized authority with enforcement power. Based on this understanding, this article advances an argument that regional governance is likely to develop among states that share similar liberal democratic traditions and, thus, challenges two approaches to regional security: commercial liberal and constructivist optimism and realist pessimism.




The idea of the Indo-Pacific as a region rests on the assumption that a group of states develop an identity as members because of their geographical proximity and a degree of cultural, economic, political, and organizational cohesiveness.[i] Based on this understanding, there are several factors that lead to the assumption that regionalism and regional governance in the Indo-Pacific is possible or even emerging.

The term “Indo-Pacific” has now been used by academics and policymakers alike to suggest that it is a region,[ii] broader than the Asia-Pacific, which covers only states in Northeast Asia (China, Japan, North and South Kora, and Taiwan), Southeast Asia (ten ASEAN states), and Oceania (Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia). The Indo-Pacific includes the Asia-Pacific plus Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. The Indian and Pacific oceans link states on both sides of the Malacca Strait, stretching from Pakistan to the Philippines, from Australia and Papua New Guinea to China in Northeast Asia, and from China and Japan to Canada and the United States.

Liberals see positive regional developments, such as inter-oceanic connectivity, shared commercial and security interests through “the arc of trade routes, energy flows, diplomatic bonds and strategic connections between the two oceans.”[iii] Geographical interconnectivity, not geographical proximity, is one factor. The second factor is that the Indo-Pacific has the potential to be a coherent region because of growing economic interdependence on both sides of the Malacca Strait. Economic interdependence in particular makes states in the region willing to promote cooperation on various issues. Liberal institutionalists further point to the third factor identified in this article: the role of international regimes in which global actors such as the International Maritime Organization and the International Maritime Bureau can do to help ensure ship safety, security, and maritime environmental protection. International law also plays a positive role in regulating state behavior and transforming international relations. 

Liberal optimists do not see power transition between rising economic powers as inevitably war-prone but as giving the region an opportunity to cooperate and building a regional community with some form of governance. Perhaps most interesting to observe about the ‘economic pull’ toward regional integration in the Indo-Pacific region is the fact that two of the large states – China and India – has witnessed economic transformations in recent decades. While the United States remains the world’s largest economy measured in terms of its GDP ($19.4 trillion in 2017, $20.4 trillion in 2018 and about $34.1 billion by 2050), China has emerged as the second largest economy ($14 trillion) and is predicted to overtake the United States in 2050 when its GDP reaches $58.5 trillion. Japan ranks third in the world with a GDP of more than $5 trillion in 2018. India takes 7th place with a GDP of almost $3 trillion. Australia, Indonesia and South Korea are among the largest 20 GDPs.[iv] China, India, and the United States are among the biggest trading partners. With more economic growth also come deeper economic interdependence and more potential for cross-regional cooperation among states in the North (developed countries) and the South (less developed countries). Moreover, the emerging idea of an Indo-Pacific region looks promising when put in the broader context of regionalization in the world economy. The process of globalization seems to have slowed down as states have conducted more negotiations at the regional level.[v]

Photo: Leading Seaman Mike Goluboff, MARPAC

Other optimists believe that conflict management through confidence and trust building is the way to go. As one Indian general puts it, “risk management is a vital requirement, and a pan-Asian dialogue to alleviate misgivings and mistrust seems necessary.”[vi] Proponents of conflict management are not oblivious to the fact that there is an arms race and military tensions going on in the region, driven by the rise of China, territorial disputes in the East and South China seas, and the counter-balancing strategy through its ‘pivot-toward-East Asia’ policy. Still, they believe, states in the region can still work together to promote cooperation for peace and security because doing otherwise would hurt their national interests. As one military general puts it, “we must remember that our security, prosperity, and vital interests are inextricably linked to each other. If we do not swim together, it is possible that we may sink together.”[vii]

Some constructivists also paint an optimistic picture of the region based on their conception of identity-based regional community. A region is a region because states imagine it to be. Instead of treating economic growth as the driver of regionalization or integration, social constructivists put more emphasis on nonmaterial factors such as shared values, collective norms, and common identities. In fact, the ASEAN members agreed to establish three types of community: economic, political and security, and cultural. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for instance, is regarded as a regional security community whose members have not gone to war against each other because of their dependable expectations for peaceful change[viii] – one that has also been on the driver’s seat taking other states in the Asia-Pacific in the direction of a broader regional community through institution building such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

However, the question for those who entertain the idea of the Indo-Pacific region is whether those states that consider themselves geographically, economically and socially linked to one another as a group are taking concrete steps to build institutions that give rise to what may be called regional regime or governance. More specifically, the question is whether the states that regard themselves as belonging to the Indo-Pacific region are likely to take policy steps beyond singing regional trade agreements by moving toward creating a security community, if not customs unions, common markets, economic unions, and even political unions as exemplified by the European Union.




There are several reasons why cooperation or regionalization through interdependence, the exercise of soft power and public diplomacy at this point has its own limitations.

Firstly, the Indo-Pacific has been defined as a geographical region but is still new and subject to different understandings and characterizations. According to Mark Beeson, “Only a few years ago, if the Indo-Pacific was invoked at all, it was as a fairly obscure geographical signifier, primarily of interest to marine biologists.”[ix] Although there is a shared understanding that the Indo-Pacific is different from the Asia-Pacific, disagreement remains. The major states that seriously entertained the idea aim at countering China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is the champion of this idea, which includes mainly four states: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

Secondly, the problem with the Indo-Pacific is that the term ‘region’ may even exacerbate rivalry between major powers such as China and India, simply because it seems to place India as the centre of the region and makes China look less significant than India. Geographical proximity between Japan and China as well as between China and India has not made the two neighbouring states develop a sense of community. Throughout history China has regarded itself as ‘Chung-Kuo’ – the middle kingdom, the centre of the universe with the oldest culture in the world. Their bilateral relations have been fraught with hostility and rivalry. Even scholars who see potential in cooperation between them are aware of this history. Japan and China fought two bloody wars: the first Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1894-1895, resulting in Japan’s victory, and the second Sino-Japanese war began in 1937 and lasted until 1945. China and India fought a border war in 1967 and tensions on the border have occasionally flared up. Although the EU can be cited as evidence to show that geographical proximity develops a sense of community, this variable is more dependent than independent. European states had fought each other for centuries, even after the establishment of the Westphalian Peace Treaty in 1648.

Thirdly, states in the region appear to adopt different approaches to soft power and public diplomacy. Rising powers like China and India are said to prefer or rely more and more on soft power, whereas middle powers like Australia lean toward public diplomacy. While some see China’s soft power in cultural terms, others would like to see China play a responsible leadership role by providing international public goods. On the other hand, India’s soft power lies in its cultural tradition and diplomacy. Australia’s public diplomacy is based on education and sports.[x] While these different forms of soft power and public diplomacy may sometimes complement each other, we have yet to see how they can be coordinated to ensure effective cooperation among states.

Fourthly, relations between the major states in the so-called Indo-Pacific region are far from achieving effective cooperation. While territorial disputes in the East and South China seas have not escalated out of control, there are no concrete signs that states in the region have moved closer toward effective conflict management, not to mention a regional regime or formal institutions in which states agree to comply with agreed-upon rules, norms, and principles. Regional cooperation remains far from institutionalized. ASEAN has been arguably the most cooperative regional group in the region, but the level of institutionalization remains low and this raises the question of what keeps its members together. The Asia-Pacific region remains far less institutionalized than ASEAN, despite the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1989 and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994. Evidence still suggests that the international/regional maritime regime remains nascent. The International Maritime Organization, International Maritime Bureau and Port State Control regimes are ineffective because of their limited resources and states’ reluctance to cooperate. Disputes over maritime territories and military buildups remain evident. States in the region still tend to take action to combat piracy on their own.[xi]

Thus, political realists are rightly skeptical about optimistic liberal and constructivist claims. They criticize the assumption about China’s “peaceful rise” promoted by Beijing and academic claims about the mitigating or pacifying effects of economic interdependence, globalization, international institutions, and international law.[xii] The Asia-Pacific is an example of how even the idea of regional security governance is far from realized after almost three decades of regional efforts to build confidence and trust among rival states. States in Asia have coveted both wealth and weapons.[xiii]  Neither economic interdependence nor regional integration has curbed Beijing’s territorial designs and ambitions. Despite the hundreds of flights per week linking China and Taiwan, the former has fifteen hundred land-based missiles aimed at the latter.

Whether China is becoming an offensive or a defensive power as realists see it is a matter of academic debate. On one hand, China’s economic growth depends on its ability to import strategic resources such as oil through the Indian Ocean and the Straight Malacca. China has sought to build strategic ports in the Indian Ocean and beyond based on the concept of “pearl chain.” On the other hand, China’s territorial aggression (such as the assertion that the South China Sea belongs to China and its efforts to build artificial islands there), its acquisition of Maldives’ unpopulated islets, its “Belt and Road” initiative with large investments in the Indian Ocean Rim’s infrastructure projects and its first military overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa – are seen as offensive and not as indicators of China’s adoption of soft power to attract other states.

For political realists, “peace must ultimately be maintained by a balance of power.”[xiv] The United States, for instance, reacted negatively to the rise of China when President Barak Obama was in power by redeploying US forces, especially naval capabilities, to East Asia, giving rise to a strategy known as “Pivot to Asia” as a form of power balancing. Realists now see Australia, India, Japan and the United States as unwilling to accept China as the new regional hegemon and would further point to the emergence of “Quadrilateral Initiative” (Quad) seen by China as a “provocative encirclement strategy.” Initiated in 2007 as Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Quad is an informal strategic dialogue consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The year 2017 saw the re-vitalization of Quad. According one report, “In recent months…Trump administration officials have consistently used the term ‘Indo-Pacific,’ rather than ‘Asia-Pacific,’ during their visits to Asia.”[xv] India, Japan, and the United States have also conducted joint military exercises known as “Exercise Malabar,” which began in 1992 between India and the United States and then expanded to include Japan in 2015. Thus, the United States appears to be shifting from its ‘Pivot-to-Asia’ security policy to Quad.




None of the above perspectives – liberalism, constructivism, and political realism – sheds conclusive light on the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Evidence suggests states that share a liberal democratic identity have a better record of governance building.

Quad is an informal security partnership among democracies, which share a common interest in countering the rise of China – the world’s largest and most powerful autocracy, perceived as a growing threat to democratic states. Australia has been a stable democracy. According to Chellangey, “Japan is determined not to accept Chinese regional hegemony,”[xvi] but Japan remains the oldest and most stable democracy in Northeast Asia. India is the largest democracy in the world and the oldest democracy in South Asia. The United States is the world’s second-largest democracy and most powerful state. These major democratic states have now sought to balance the actual or perceived threat of China. This point can be illustrated in several ways. Firstly, the realist logic of power balancing is problematic. If Japan was the one that launched the idea of Indo-Pacific, it is important to point out that Japan’s foreign policy has not been simply driven by the logic of power balancing otherwise Tokyo would have balanced the most powerful state during the Cold War and after, namely the United States. Prime Minister Abe “has long championed the idea as part of his country’s response to the rise of China,”[xvii] but this is not because China is economically and militarily superior to the United States. China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas pose a threat to states like Japan with their competing claims. China’s unilateral decision to establish an Air Defence Identification Zone and China’s numerous air and naval intrusions into Japanese maritime territory have also raised security alarm bells in Japan.

Photo: Lieutenant (Navy) Vincent Charlebois

Secondly, the most critical question remains unanswered: why have these sources of tension remain unresolved or undealt with in a cooperative faction? The quick answer is that most states in East Asia remain Westphalian because of their preoccupation with territorial integrity and political independence rather than interdependence. This is contrary to North America and Western Europe where territory has become increasingly irrelevant,[xviii]  largely because states within the regions have become post-Westphalian. Evidence further suggests that post-Westphalian states are democratic states, which have developed into regional security communities.[xix] In East and South Asia, however, most states remain undemocratic and this has made it difficult for states in the regions to cooperate or support the idea of regional security community or governance.[xx]

Thirdly, the fact that Japan took the initiative in 2012 to launch the idea of “democratic security diamond” is also revealing. According to Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States would “safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the Western Pacific” as a way to defend the existing regional order and oppose Chinese “coercion.”[xxi] Most noteworthy is that fact that the four Quad members are democratic states. Abe’s counter-China strategy should not, however, suggest that he is a true champion of democracy in the region. Democracy promotion has never been a top priority in Japan’s foreign policy. As a leader of a major democracy in Asia, however, he has responded to powerful autocracies like China in a way more negative than how he has related to other democracies.

Fourthly, evidence shows that Japanese and other democratic state leaders have in recent years made new and greater efforts to improve their security relations at different levels. In 2014, Australia and India agreed on a new Framework for Security Cooperation that included maritime security cooperation and ‘regular maritime exercises.’[xxii] The India–Japan Annual Defence Ministerial Dialogue has been institutionalized. In 2016, India and Japan also signed a logistics-sharing accord known as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which allows for joint military exercises among the Indian, Japanese, and U.S. militaries in the Indian Ocean. Military aircraft and war ships from the Indian Navy, the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, and the U.S. Navy held in June 2018 their first ‘Malabar’ military exercise off the coast of Guam. Although Australia has been unable to join the Malabar naval exercise, after it had withdrawn from Quad in 2008 because of its economic relations with China, Australian leaders have expressed interest in rejoining it. Defence minister Kevin Andrews said his government wanted to join the annual naval exercise.[xxiii] Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper, as one scholar puts it, “would now be receptive to a revival of quadrilateral cooperation between the four [democratic] countries because Canberra increasingly views with pessimism the prospect that China will leave the existing liberal rules-based order.”[xxiv]

Meanwhile, there is evidence suggesting that major democracies in the Indo-Pacific have also sought to recruit democracies in Europe. India, for instance, has also reached out to France and Great Britain, which maintain naval bases in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans by signing military logistics pacts with the latter. France is an Indian Ocean power with a military presence and has established a strategic relationship with India and both states have institutionalized an Indo-French strategic dialogue. According to one security analyst, “the Indo-French strategic dialogue is now broad and wide-ranging, and the annual joint military exercises have each year grown more elaborate.”[xxv]

In short, political realist analysis is more compelling than commercial liberalism when explaining the Quad’s perception of China’s growing threat, but it overlooks one key fault-line in the Indo-Pacific region: democracy vs. autocracy. This is not the question of security threat based on material power per se but one strongly shaped by identity politics. One may have an easy time raising a legitimate question critical of the democratic-peace thesis when only democratic states exist in the world, as Stephen Walt does.[xxvi] However, one would have a harder time disproving the fact that a major fault-line between democratic and authoritarian ideals has existed for more than 2,000 years. When faced with the threat of a rising autocracy, democratic states are likely to band together to balance against its growing threat and to develop a sense of community among themselves – often with some form of common security governance.




Regional security in the Indo-Pacific is still at a crossroads. There is a good prospect that the major powers in the region can do something to overcome the collective-action problem or to mitigate the evidently growing security dilemma through some form of conflict management. States in the region may, therefore, need to bring back the idea of common or cooperative security in order to avoid repeating the tragedy of great power politics.[xxvii] But recent developments also show that the idea of an Indo-Pacific security regime that includes both democratic and authoritarian states remains elusive. Neither common security nor cooperative security has been taken seriously by states in the region. The Indo-Pacific region may turn out to the world’s greatest strategic arena in the 21st century because of China’s rise and strategic expansion to which major democracies (Australia, Japan, India, and the United States) have jointly responded. These democracies have not yet developed a security alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but have the potential to do so when their shared perception of the China threat grows stronger. France and Great Britain are likely to join in when that time arrives. This potential six-member security alliance would work to counter China. This common response to the threat of China though the idea of an Indo-Pacific region is not based only on Chinese material power. China is not militarily superior to the United States and its nascent port expansion, for instance, is strategically not yet significant when compared to the large US military presence in East Asia and other parts of the world. But China is likely to remain excluded from the Indo-Pacific’s regional security framework initiated by Japan and supported by Australia, India, and the United States. This has much less to do with China being a rising power and more to do with the fact that China poses an illiberal threat to the existing liberal democratic order.



Sorpong Peou


[i] Andrew Hurrell, “Explaining the Resurgence of Regionalism in World Politics,” Review of International Studies 21, 1995, pp.331-358.

[ii] Mark Beeson, “Institutionalizing the Indo-Pacific: the Challenges of Regional Cooperation,” East Asia 35 (2018), pp.85–98; Arun Prakash, “On Indo-Pacific Maritime Security: We may sink together if we do not swim together,” Asian Politics & Policy vol.5, no.2 (2013), pp.275–283.

[iii] Rory Medcalf, “Australia’s new strategic geography: Making and sustaining an Indo-Pacific defence policy,” in New Regional Geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific: Drivers, Dynamics and Consequences, edited by Priya Chacko (London & New York: Routledge), p.12.

[iv] IMF (International Monetary Fund), World Economic Database Outlook. April 2018.


[v] Theodore Cohn, The Global Political Economy (New York & London: Routledge.), p.59

[vi] Prakash, p.280.

[vii] Ibid., p.281.

[viii] Acharya, Amitav, “Collective Identity and conflict management in Southeast Asia,” in Security Communities, edited by Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[ix] Beeson, p.86.

[x] Caitlin Byrne, “Introduction to the Special Issue: Recasting Soft Power for the Indo-

Pacific,” Politics & Policy, vol. 45, no.5 (2017), pp.684-705.

[xi] Sam Bateman. 2010. Maritime piracy in the Indo-Pacific region – ship vulnerability issues. Maritime Policy & Management, vol. 37, no.7 (2010), pp. 737–751

[xii] John Mearsheimer, “China’s Unpeaceful Rise,” Current History, April 2006, pp.160-62.

[xiii] Robert Kaplan D., Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014), pp.143–44.

[xiv] Ibid.,, p.174.

[xv] Richard Javad Heydarian, “Revived ‘Quad’ Alliance Eggs on China’s Response,” Asia Time. February 28, 2018. Link:

[xvi] Brahma Chellangey, “The Linchpins for a Rules-Based Indo-Pacific,” The Japan Times, October 25 (2018), p.41. Link:

[xvii] Beeson, p.86.

[xviii] James Sperling, “Regional or global security cooperation? The vertices of conflict and interstices of cooperation,” in Global Security Governance, edited by Emil J. Kirchner and James Sperling (New York, NY: Routldge, 2007), p.282

[xix] Sorpong Peou, “Regional Community Building for Better Global Governance,” in The

United Nations System in the 21st Century, edited by Volker Rittberger. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2002).

[xx] Sorpong Peou, “Building an Asia-Pacific Peace Community from a Human Security Perspective,” Asian International Studies Review vol. 17, no.1 (2016), pp.1-23.

[xxi] Lavina Lee, “Abe’s Democratic Security Diamond and New Quadrilateral Initiative: an Australian Perspective,” Journal of East Asian Affairs vol.30, no.2, 2016, pp.1-41.

[xxii] Prashanth Parameswaran, “Australia Wants to Join India, US and Japan in Naval Exercises: Defense Minister,” The Diplomat, September 5, 2015. Link:

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Lee, p.1.

[xxv] Iskander Rehman, “India-France Relations: Look to the Indian Ocean,” The Diplomat 4 June, 2015. Link:

[xxvi] Stephen Walt, “Never Say Never: Wishful Thinking on Democracy and War. Foreign Affairs. January-February, 1999, pp.146-151.

[xxvii] David Dewitt, “Common, Comprehensive, and Cooperative Security,” Pacific Review vo.7, no.1 (1994), pp.1-15; Michael Mihalka, “Cooperative Security in the 21st Century,” Connections: The

Quarterly Journal vol.4, no.4 (2005), pp.113-122.