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The Indopacific space, a geopolitical concept with varying geometry in a field of competing powers

Publié le 08/03/2024
Auteur(s) : Vaimiti Goin, masterante en géographie, commissaire des Armées aspirante - ENS de Lyon, École du commissariat des Armées
Traduction :
Charlotte Musselwhite-Schweitzer, professeure des écoles (retraitée) - académie de Rennes

Mode zen PDF

The concept of an Indopacific space is taking centre stage in the strategies of all the states having an interest in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Refuted by China, this concept is also useful to unite China’s competitors in working out common strategies. However, its borders are never clearly defined, leaving the field open to varying associations of states adjusting to national strategies and to the interests of the present powers.

References | citation | English | français

In September 2021, the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union have jointly presented the European strategy for cooperation in the Indopacific region ((Commission européenne, Haut représentant de l’Union pour les affaires étrangères et la politique de sécurité. Communication conjointe au parlement européen et au conseil. La stratégie de l'UE pour la coopération dans la région indo-pacifique, Bruxelles, 16 septembre 2021.)). Whereas only a year previously, the European Commission opposed the idea of such a strategy, the publication of this document shows the increasing importance of the Indopacific in geopolitical relations. The term “indo-pacific” was originally used in marine biogeography to name the tropical and subtropical regions of the Indian Ocean and the western part of the Pacific Ocean. It is only from the 2000s that it appears in geopolitical discussion.

It reflects a geopolitical and geoeconomical reality resulting of the gravitational shift of global economy and world politics from the Atlantic towards the Pacific. This shift, which has been observed since 1985, is matched by the rise of the two emerging powers of China and India, and the reinforcement of their spheres of influence, as illustrated, in particular, by the Chinese project of The New Silk Roads/One Belt One Road. In addition to that, the Indopacific appears to be a coveted strategic area separating the two big rival powers, the USA and China.

The word Indopacific covers a double concept. Firstly, it is a geographical concept which translates the space from East Africa to the Eastern Pacific, illustrating a continuum spanning the Indian and  Pacific Oceans, covering more than 50 % of the Earth’s surface as well as being the home to three quarters of the world’s population. Secondly, it is an ideological concept conveying geopolitical visions acknowledging China’s rising power.

The present article suggests retracing the genesis of this relatively recent concept of the Indopacific in international relations, exploring the underlying ideological visions implied and the challenges it presents to the states.


1. The Indopacific, a geographical space with disputed limits

The concept of an Indopacific space appears more and more often in the vocabulary of international relations although its confines are extremely vague. Two geographic definitions can be observed: a maximalist and a minimalist definition, the latter being centered on the Malacca Straits and Singapore acting as the link between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.

1.1. The Indopacific, a wide geographic expanse composed of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans: the maximalist definition

The Indopacific is a wide expanse comprising of two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific, and the land areas attached to them, from Pacific Asia to the Middle East and to the coasts of Africa and of the Americas. The limits of this expanse are nevertheless unclear: a broad view of the Indopacific area could include the continental states of Asia such as Mongolia. A broad view comprising of all the states with a coastline on either of the two oceans would result in including three quarters of the world population. There are, first of all, the two demographic super powers of China and India with respectively 1.4 and 1.37 billion inhabitants, the two most populated countries of the world. East Asia, i.e. China, Japan, the two Koreas and Taiwan have 1.6 billion people altogether. Adding Southeast Asia with 646 million inhabitants and South Asia, i.e. Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, increases the population by another 1.9 billion people. Less numerous, Oceania has 43 million inhabitants, 30 million of whom come from Australia and New Zealand. The broad definition of the Indopacific comprises also of the Middle East or 444 million inhabitants, the eastern seabord of Africa with Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Madagascar, which total 271 million inhabitants. Finally, the maximalist definition of the Indopacific includes also Russia with 144 million people, as well as all the states on the Pacific coast of the Americas, representing about another 656 million people.

Document 1. The maximalist definition of the Indopacific: all regions with a coastline on at least one of the two oceans


To view this map in large form, click here.

By considering the land around the Indopacific, its broadest definition contains 5.83 billion inhabitants or three quarters of the world population, and half of the word’s land mass: 96 million km² of a total of 148 million km² (65 %). If one were restricted to a maritime definition, the Indian and the Pacific Oceans taken together represent 239.28 million km². The Earth’s surface being 510 million km², the maritime Indopacific would account for almost half of that.

Such a broad definition of the quite literal meaning of Indopacific appears to be of little use because of its scale, unless where it matches a global strategy of certain players or with a will to recenter the world maps on Asia, by pushing the Atlantic spaces to the peripheries of the world maps.

1.2. The most frequent definition of the Indopacific: a space centered around the Chinese and Indian pivots

The maximalist definition of the Indopacific space is not frequentlty used in international relations. In geopolitics, the Indopacific refers above all to the coastlines of Asia and Africa organised around the Chinese and Indian pivot, with Singapore and Malacca at the centre and Suez and Panama as access points.

Adding to that, although the geographical field covered by the Indopacific concept is vast, not all the states which have adopted an Indopacific strategy attribute the same degree of importance to every zone of that space. New Zealand’s approach for instance is more centered on the zone of the Pacific Ocean where it conducts an active neighbourhood policy through granting development aid to the Pacific Island Countries (PICs). Significantly, the strategic documents issued by the region’s states’ offices of Defence or Foreign Affairs often do not show any map (Canada, USA, Netherlands, United Kingdom), or only maps that never outline the defined space as Indopacific (Australia), or again very vague maps (Japan). Russia is never named, although it has a Pacific coastline, except perhaps implicitly by the Dutch in their name of “Northern Asia”. By superimposing the different definitions emanating from the studied strategic documents one obtains a space of variable geometry, the heart of which is constituted by India, China, Southeast Asia and Australia.

Document 2. Boundaries of the Indopacific space according to several strategic documents


To view this map in large form, click here.


2. The Indopacific space as a field of ideological confrontation

The use of the Indopacific concept in international relations is not neutral: it underpins an ideological vision. Two main visions face each other: a first vision based on the rivalry with China and a second one defending a free and open space including China. The main controversy of the two visions lies in China’s refusal to recognise the geographical and ideological existence of such a space, perceived as a “containment strategy” aimed against it.

2.1. The coexistence of different visions of the Indopacific space

First of all, the Pacific Ocean appears as a strategic space because it both separates and connects the USA and China, the two global powers. It thus has become an object of desire for both of them.  The American policy of protectionism, initiated by Barack Obama and then exacerbated by Donald Trump, has left China with more room for manoeuvre. This is illustrated by America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) in January 2017, signed by the remaining seven states bordering the Pacific. Graham Allison, an American researcher in Political Sciences, theorised the war studies’ concept of the “Thucydides Trap” when speaking of the confrontation opposing China as the rising power, and the United States as the ruling power, by reference to the ancient conflict between Athens on the rise and Sparta, viewed as on the decline (Allison, 2019). To this researcher, it is the fear of being overtaken by China which pushes the United States into a spiral of confrontation which could result, according to Graham Allison, in a military confrontation between the two powers.

For the other states, the claim of an Indopacific centered strategy aims also at being a response to the growing Chinese-American bipolarisation in the area, in order to avoid alignment or taking sides in that confrontation.

In this way, the Indopacific is the object of defence strategies and specific foreign policies in many different states, including states that are not present in this area.

Document 3. Summary table showing the states with an Indopacific strategy
State Indopacific strategy Date Summary of the strategic objectives
Germany « Leitlinien zum Indo-Pazifik » August 2020

♦ Favour a free and open space that integrates China

 Australia « A Stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific » (p. 37-47) in « Foreign Policy White Paper »  November 2017

♦ Counteract the influence of China
♦ Favour a stable and prosperous space

 Canada « Canada and the Indo-Pacific : ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’, not ‘free’ and ‘open’ » September 2020

♦ Favour a stable and prosperous space that integrates China

United States « Indo-Pacific Strategy Report »  June 2019

♦ Counteract the influence of China
♦ Increase its own influence in the Indopacific
♦ Favour a stable and prosperous space

 France « Stratégie de défense française en Indo-pacifique » Juin 2019

♦ Favour a free and open space that integrates China
♦ Favour a stable and prosperous space
♦ ​Favour the insertion of its own overseas communities in the Indopacific

 India « India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific » (The Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore) June 2018

♦ Counteract the influence of China
♦ Increase its own influence in the Indopacific
♦ Favour a stable and prosperous space

 Japan « Free and open Indo-Pacific strategy » in « Japan Diplomatic Bluebook »  October 2020

♦ Counteract the influence of China
♦ Favour a stable and prosperous space

 New Zealand « Pacific Reset Policy »  March 2018

♦ Favour a stable and prosperous space
♦ Maintain its influence on the small countries in the Pacific

Netherlands « Indo-Pacific : Guidelines for strengthening Dutch and EU cooperation with partners in Asia » November 2020

♦ Favour a free and open space that integrates China
♦ Participate in a European global strategy  in the Indopacific

United Kingdom « The Indo-Pacific Tilt : A framework » (p. 68-69) in « Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy » March 2021

♦ Counteract the influence of China
♦ Favour a stable and prosperous space

European Union

“The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, Joint Communication to the European Parliament and Council.

September 2021

♦ Favour a free and open space that integrates China
♦ Favour a stable and prosperous space
♦ Secure the supplies of the EU

 China None -

♦ Refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Indopacific
♦ Refer to Indopacific strategies as « containment » policies against China

These different strategies reveal different geopolitical visions. The main fault line lies in the strategy adopted regarding China.

2.2. A first - inclusive - vision of the Indopacific based on the defence of a free and open space

To begin with, the vision that is advocated, amongst others, by France, is one of a “free and open” space integrating China. One of the priorities of this understanding is to ensure maritime safety, to guarantee the freedom of navigation and overflying high seas, as well as continuing a pragmatic dialogue with China. In his “Speech at the Conference of the Ambassadors” in August 2018, the French President insisted on this multilateral understanding of the Indopacific space, underligning the fact that it should not be diverted into a fight against China. To Emmanuel Macron it is “a question of working on a new Indopacific strategy axis, which should not be directed against anybody and which could be an essential contribution to international stability. (…) We must build a new relationship with Asia. It will be constructed in particular around our essential and  productive dialogue with China.”

This multilateral vision of the Indopacific is shared by New Zealand and German strategies. It is for instance interesting to note that the New Zealand MFAT (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) carefully avoids in its strategic documents posing China as a direct competitor. On the contrary, it hints at a partner with differing value sets:


"How do we influence Pacific Islands countries to pursue their social and economic objectives in a way that promotes our values and mitigates the risks posed by partners with quite different values sets?"

Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. « New Zealand in the Pacific », 2018, p. 6.


Regarding Germany, its adoption of a multilateral Indopacific strategy is conducted by its will to develop its commercial links and exports to that region. In this instance, the Indopacific should not transform itself into a field of confrontation between the Chinese and American powers, but on the contrary, promote a pragmatic dialogue.

Although the European Union was late, in September 2021,  in devising a proper strategy concerning the Indopacific (being perhaps made easier by the departure of the United Kingdom), it is nevertheless far from not having vested interests in the area, as recalled 2020 in a Dutch report:


"While we should not exaggerate the EU’s role, we should not underestimate ourselves either. The EU has the world’s biggest market, and its approximately $90 billion in annual investments in the Indo-Pacific (roughly equivalent to total FDI flows within Europe itself) make it one of the main investors and donors in the region. For its part the Netherlands is one of the EU’s biggest investors and donors (in the top five)."

Government of the Netherlands, Indo-Pacific: Guidelines for strengthening Dutch and EU cooperation with partners in Asia, 2020, p. 1.


The competition with China is not explicitly expressed in the European Commission document (cf. Document 3 below), but several of the 27’s strategic points allude more or less openly to the Chinese question, notably on the importance of an international order founded on rules (in particular concerning maritime traffic) or on the defence of Human and democratic rights. This strategy belongs nevertheless to the group advocating multilateral approaches, as expressed in this passage: “Furthermore, the EU will pursue its multifaceted relations with China by a bilateral dialogue to promote solutions to common challenges, by cooperation in questions of common interest and by encourageing China to play its role in a peaceful and prosperous Indopacific region.” In this it differs from a strategy based on the combat against the Chinese hegemony, which will be analysed in the following section.

2.3. A second – exclusive - vision of the Indopacific based on competition with China

In opposition to this first and inclusive approach is a second, more exclusive one. For the USA (and their British ally), the interest in the Indopacific approach consists of federating an alliance around themselves to oppose the Chinese power economically, politically and militarily. The former US-President Donald Trump thus laid down the principles of the US-American strategy during the Summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Vietnam in November 2017. The trilateral agreement of the USA and the United Kingdom on the delivery of nuclear attack submarines to Australia which was revealed in September 2021 also derives from this strategy.

The expressions used in the American Indo-Pacific Strategy Report of June 2019 name China as a direct opponent of the USA:


« In particular, the People’s Republic China, under the leadership of the Communist Party, seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations. In contrast, the Department of Defense supports choices that promote long-term peace and prosperity for all the Indo-Pacific. »

U.S. Department of Defense, « Indo-Pacific Strategy Report », 2019, p. 4.


This strategy devotes a complete chapter to China, designated as a “revisionist power”, which poses a risk  for the geopolitical stability in the Indopacific through its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. The document gives for instance the example of the 2018 deployment of antiship cruise missiles and long range ground-air missiles on the Spratley Islands, the sovereignty of which is contested in violation of the commitment made by Xi Jinping in 2015.

Between these two positions regarding the Chinese player, one inclusive, the other exclusive, India is careful to present its Indopacific strategy as non hostile towards China, following its traditional position of non-alignment and its will not to further deteriorate relations with China. This cautious approach is however evolving towards a more hostile positioning regarding the Chinese state in the context of border disputes and confrontations in Ladakh/Himalaya during the year of 2020.


2.4. China’s refusal of the Indopacific as a geographic and ideological space


In front of its rivals, China refuses to admit even to the existence of a geographical Indopacific space. In fact it perceives this Indopacific policy as a “containment” strategy, one of encirclement or even as military pressure. It considers the use of the expression of “Indopacific” as an instrument of the American imperialism which strives to impose its geopolitical vision in a space where China would be an opponent. Indeed, the word Indopacific itself is not insignificant, as it erases any reference to China or Asia.

Still, although China refutes the existence of such a geographical space, its economic and political action can be understood on the Indopacific scale. It deploys in fact a policy of influence on two scales: regionally, regarding its neighbours, by practising politics of domination on Southeast Asia and the adjacent seas; and on a global scale with the OBOR project “One Belt One Road” and by development of its high seas navy.


3. The Indopacific, a space with issues of economy, energy and security

Being the main global maritime route with the Malacca Straits, the Indopacific is a key space regarding economy, trade and energy, making it also critical for supply security. The importance of this region explains the growing military structuring of the Indopacific, mainly with the increasing power of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as QUAD, an informal arrangement for military and diplomatic cooperation between the USA, India, Japan and Australia.

More particularly to France, the Indopacific poses an economy and sovereignty issue with the presence of French overseas communities, of which the Island department of Réunion is also an EU outermost region. France is thus torn between centrifugal forces resulting in more autonomy for some of its communities, the will to sustain its control on the world’s second EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and its policy of neighbourhood with players situated half a world away from metropolitan France.

3.1. The global issues of economy, energy and security of the Indopacific space

The Indopacific is a strategic space concerning the national interests of countries, the future of multilateralism and the global economy, energy and security issues. The Indian and the Pacific Oceans must be perceived as a continuum as of now. The construction of this new geopolitical space is favoured by the recent strategic convergence between India and its main partners, the USA, Australia and Japan (Peron-Doise, 2019). The common word used to designate this space, the Indopacific, is, by the way, not neutral: like all the other regional names, it was imposed by the western countries (Grataloup, 2015).

First of all, the Indopacific is a key area for economy and energy. The transatlantic trade routes weaken proportionally to the increasing prevalence of the maritime trade routes connecting Europe and the Persian Gulf with the Pacific Ocean via the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. In fact the so-called Sea Lanes of Communication, i.e. the maritime energy and merchandise highways, pass through the northern parts of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. The economic and commercial issues are thus concentrated on the axis of Djibouti – Colombo - Singapore – Shanghai, whereas there are fewer exchanges in the southern parts of the two oceans. In the matter of energy resources, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reckons that the oil reserves of the Eastern Chinese Sea amount to 200 million barrels, meaning that the USA sees the necessity of defending its free access.

The Indopacific is articulated around several strategic choke points: Suez, Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz in the West, Panama in the East, and above all, Malacca in pivot position. The Malacca Straits play a major role for supply security in that area. They connect both the oil production zones of the Persian Gulf and the consumption zones of East Asia, facilitating their transport to Europe via the Suez Canal. As a “Bottleneck of transport” the Malacca Straits are an obligatory maritime passage crystallising regional and global tensions, though less so than the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf. The first concern of neighbouring states, user states and shipping companies is therefore navigation security in the strait, always at risk from terrorism and pirates. The second concern is to ensure free movement, particularly guarded by the USA in order to guarantee rapid deployment of naval vessels between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Middle East.

The challenge posed by global warming is particularly strong in this region with its frequent natural disasters (tsunamis, cyclones, etc.), with its biodiversity, and the matter of climate refugees, all mentioned in the national strategies, but which have not achieved any international consensus as to which solutions to offer.

The Indopacific also raises major security issues in the face of multiple challenges perceived as geopolitical and strategic threats to the protection of the interests of the involved countries. The first threat comes from non-state players, in particular with the battle against illegal activities like drug trafficking, illegal fishing or piracy, especially in the Malacca Straits. The second threat comes from the competition between the different states to territorialize the sea by constituting their Exclusive Economic Zone as well as by extending the rights of the continental shelves to exploit the subsurface resources. The expanse of the maritime Indopacific explains the importance of the EEZ issues: of the first twenty EEZs, only the ones of Brazil, Norway and Denmark are not in the Indopacific, which means it concerns the seventeen largest EEZs. The sovereignty of the South China Sea is claimed by competing coastal states of the area. The Chinese demands on the South China Sea are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, Taïwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, and Japan challenges the Chinese claims on the East China Sea. In 2016, the Philippines brought the matter to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague which denied any legal basis for these Chinese claims, arguing that Beijing had no historical rights to the South China Sea. Nevertheless, China still considers that 90 % of this zone falls under its own exploitation rights: the “nine-dash line” is a demarcation defined by the People’s Republic of China and it delineates a portion of the South China Sea on which China asserts territorial sovereignty.

This sea is highly strategic as more than 40 % of global maritime traffic passes through it, and it also contains submarine oil and gas deposits as well as fishery resources. In March 2021, 220 fishing vessels believed to be owned by Chinese militias were stationed near the Whitson Reef belonging to the Philippines. Fears of a military escalation between the two countries came up as the Philippines’ Defence Secretary declared that the country was prepared to defend its sovereignty and protect its maritime resources.

3.2. The place of France in the Indopacific

The strategic document of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces  (2019) ((Ministère des Armées. « La France et la sécurité en Indopacifique », p. 3, 2019.)) defines the region as incorporating the Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans, forming a security continuum stretching from the East-African coasts to the western coasts of the Americas. The Indopacific thus defined unites in the same geographical concept the French Overseas territories: Réunion, Mayotte, French Polynesia, Wallis-and-Futuna, New Caledonia, the Southern and Antarctic Territories as well as Clipperton Island. This space also includes military bases abroad, such as Djibouti, giving France a projecting force in the region. Thanks to its overseas communities and EEZs they provide, France is a fully fledged Indopacific power. However, the White Book of the EU Ministry of Foreign Affairs, published in 2019 ((Ministère de l’Europe et des affaires étrangères, « Stratégie française en Asie-Océanie à l’horizon 2030. Vers un espace asiatique indopacifique inclusif », 2019.)), concentrates on the Asian Indopacific space and thus centres the French action on the Malacca Straits and Australia. This is explained by the very important economy and trade issues around these straits, but also the challenge of defending the French EEZ conferred by its overseas communities. It could be considered noteworthy that the island of Réunion is absent on the Ministry’s map.

Box 1. France in the Indopacific in figures
  • 465,422 km2 in the Indian et Pacific Oceans (or the equivalent of the surface of Sweden)
  • About 9 million km2 of Exclusive Economic Zone in the Indopacific (or the global 2nd EEZ)
  • 1.6 million French citizens in the overseas departments and territories in the Indopacific (2.7 million French citizens altogether in the overseas departments and territories including the French West Indies)
  • About 200,000 French residents in the Indopacific states
  • In 2018, 34% of France’s non EU exports went to the Indopacific (14% in total). In reverse, the Indopacific represents 40 % of French non EU imports (17% in total)
  • Source : the French Ministries of the Army and of Foreign Affairs

Sources : ministères en charge des armées et des affaires étrangères

Document 4. The “Asian Indopacific” as defined by the Ministry of Europe and of Foreign Affairs, 2019

espace asiatique indopacifique

Source : Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires Étrangères, « Stratégie française en Asie-Océanie à l’horizon 2030. Vers un espace asiatique indopacifique inclusif », p. 3.

In the same way, the USA entertains a whole network of military bases and territorial possessions, anchoring them in the Pacific (Théry, 2021).

3.3. The Indopacific, a space for the recomposition of state alliances : towards an Indopacific NATO?

Although the opposition between China and the USA structures the understanding of Indopacific geopolitics, there are other regional powers of importance in the area, which sometimes attempt to free themselves from this bilateral opposition, or sometimes participate by taking sides for the one or the other power.

Historically, India has recently turned to the western block and developped an alliance with the USA, in particular through arms purchases. Nevertheless, against the presence of an overwhelming antichinese public opinion and despite confrontations on the borders in the Ladakh region, India cannot take the risk of antagonizing China, and as a regional power, it cannot align itself with the USA.

Since the end of WWII a system of alliances was initiated including Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. These alliances are nowadays reinforced by their opposition to China’s economic expansion and its claims to the South China Sea. ASEAN is a political and economic organisation of ten Southeast Asian countries of which China has been a dialogue partner since the ASEAN + 3 Summits (with Japan and South Korea). Within ASEAN, Vietnam and Indonesia have to find a balance between economic dependency on China, an attraction to its economy model combining authoritarianism and neoliberal globalisation and their distrust of its territorial policy considered as aggressive, as it threatens directly the free navigation on the seas.

Regarding security matters, one of the most structuring cooperations in the Indopacific is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue known as QUAD, a group formed by the USA, India, Japan and Australia for military cooperation and informal diplomacy, born from the necessity of cooperating in the Indian Ocean after the 2004 tsunami. Temporarily shelved for more than a decade, the initiative was revived in 2017 during the ASEAN Summit in the context of China’s assertiveness, in order to install a “democratic security diamond” which would connect the four capitals: Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra. In their Joint Declaration of 21 March 2021 with the title “The Spirit of the QUAD”, the four Quad countries’ representatives stressed their vision of a free and open Indopacific, based on a maritime order and on rules in the East and South China Seas. In this Declaration they also committed to respond to the economy and health consequences of the covid-19 virus ((Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: “The Spirit of the Quad”, 12 mars 2021.)). QUAD equally lets India affirm its power facing China in the Indian Ocean. This is the aim of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) too, an intergovernmental organization created in 1997, pooling 23 members, of which India is the principal one, with China being just a dialogue partner.

This cooperation takes concrete shape with common military exercises under the name of Malabar Manoeuvres, the latest being performed from 17 to 20 December 2020. The American Navy has also reinforced its own capacities in the South China Sea, with a supplementary budget and a more visible sea presence. Narendra Modi’s India has equally strengthened its participation in the QUAD, leaving its customary caution behind, by signing security agreements which concern the sharing of satellite images with the USA.

Document 5. American, Indian and Japanese ships in the Bay of Bengal during the Exercise Malabar 2017

Manœuvres Malabar 2017

Photography by US Navy, public domain, July 2017 (source).

On the other side, through the Chinese daily newspaper Global Times, the Communist Party’s voice, Beijing opposes the QUAD as being an “Asian NATO serving American hegemonic ambitions”. The QUAD is effectively emblematic of the shift of international relations from the Atlantic towards the Pacific: the capacities of the traditional NATO alliance between Europe and the USA seem insufficient to the American power in view of defending their interests in the Indopacific. To the University of Canberra researcher Rory Medcalf (2020) the sum of demographic, political, economic, commercial and military resources of the four QUAD countries (USA, India, Japan, Australia) would reach the critical size to compete with China, of which results the incentive to strengthen the ties to counterbalance the Chinese power.



The concept of the Indopacific, totally created to reflect the integration of economy and security between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, has entered the vocabulary of international relations. It is a performative word, as it shapes the existence of what it describes, and it reflects concerns of some of the involved states in face of China’s ascending power, very much so for the USA which sees its influence decline in this region.  Around this concept of an Indopacific space, Washington hopes to federate an axis to oppose Beijing, with the military alliance QUAD illustrating this. But there is a more inclusive alternative vision of the Indopacific, challenging the US logic of confrontation. In that view China is a key player who needs to be contended with in a demanding and pragmatic dialogue.

The absence of a consensual Indopacific borderline, with or without the East African Coast, with or without Russia or South America, makes the concept hazy and flexible at the same time, allowing for future adjustments to suit the strategies and interests of the players.

Finally, the Indopacific concept also reflects the importance of this region, with its blurred contours, in the operating of the global space: a vital space for global trade with its numerous naval routes; a crucial space to guarantee energy supplies for both Europe and Asia; and finally, a space of tensions because of the threats weighing on free maritime traffic and of the Chinese claims on the South China Sea.





Vaimiti GOIN
Master's degree in geography, aspiring army commissioner, École normale supérieure de Lyon, École du commissariat aux Armées

Traduction from French by Charlotte MUSSELWHITE-SCHWEITZER


Web layout : Jean-Benoît Bouron

Pour citer cet article :

Vaimiti Goin, « L’espace indopacifique, un concept géopolitique à géométrie variable face aux rivalités de puissance », Géoconfluences, octobre 2021.
URL : http://geoconfluences.ens-lyon.fr/informations-scientifiques/dossiers-thematiques/oceans-et-mondialisation/articles-scientifiques/espace-indopacifique-geopolitique

Cite this text:

Vaimiti Goin, « The Indopacific space, a geopolitical concept with varying geometry in a field of competing powers », Géoconfluences, October 2021. Translated from French by Charlotte Musselwhite-Schweitzer in March 2024.
URL: https://geoconfluences.ens-lyon.fr/programmes/dnl/dnl-hg-anglais/indopacific-space-geopolitics

Pour citer cet article :  

Vaimiti Goin, Traduction : et Charlotte Musselwhite-Schweitzer, « The Indopacific space, a geopolitical concept with varying geometry in a field of competing powers », Géoconfluences, mars 2024.