Major Powers in the Indo-Pacific

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Role of Major Powers in the Indo-Pacific Region’ in Gurpreet S Khurana and Antara Ghosal Singh (eds). India and China: Constructing A Peaceful Order in the Indo-Pacific (New Delhi: National Maritime Foundation, 2016), pp. 79-89.

The conversion of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ into the ‘Indo-Pacific’ – a construct of fairly recent vintage – is of somewhat varying legitimacy depending on the issues one is dealing with. From an economic perspective, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ makes sense given the long energy supply lines between West Asia and East Asia and also from a goods trade perspective. The ‘Indo-Pacific’ is also increasingly relevant on the basis of various new and specific themes such as climate change, theft of intellectual property, currency manipulation and cyber-security.

However, from a traditional security perspective, the new nomenclature appears rather contrived still even if energy security or nuclear proliferation – that link the Indian and Pacific Oceans – are major issues for the growing powers in Asia. This is so because it is only truly the United States that links the two geographies in terms of credible security capacity. Further, concerns of piracy in the Indian Ocean apart, it is the East Asian half of the Indo-Pacific that is the more critical region from a maritime security perspective given the various maritime disputes involving China and its neighbours, the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula and the incipient great power competition between China and the United States. Keeping this context in mind, this essay will examine the role of three major powers in East Asia, namely, Japan, Russia and the United States, and their interactions with China as a way of understanding evolving dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.


As neighbours and sibling civilizations, China and Japan have been structurally oriented towards rivalry. China is unwilling to forgive or forget the humiliation by and depredations of the Japanese during WW II and the Japanese elites that matter are unwilling to fully and genuinely apologize or to let go of the chip on their shoulder from having bested and dominated their larger neighbor for however brief a period. The current Chinese territorial claims over the Senkakus are only a manifestation of this historical reality rather than the main problem.

After long decades of foreign policy stupor, Japanese elites appear to have been roused by China’s rise and especially the recent China’s creation and active patrolling of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea covering the disputed Senkakus. Led by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is crafting a robust political role for itself based on an economy of some considerable weight still and a significantly modern military as well as defence industry. In the process, the Japanese have riled the Chinese with their 2014 Defense White Paper, which Beijing called ‘an excuse for its military buildup’.[1]

The Japanese White Paper and Abe’s statements are full of hints about why his cabinet has found it necessary over the last few years to push several new security reforms such as for instance the creation of a National Security Council in 2013, and the release of a National Security Strategy and the National Defense Program Guidelines. While only North Korea has been specifically named as a threat, China is the unnamed elephant in the room. Abe was nearly explicit in his press statement when he told his country, ‘Let us be confident. Let us no longer turn a blind eye to the changes in the environment and remain idle.’[2] This then reflects a call by Abe during the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue for ‘new Japanese’ who ‘are determined ultimately to take on the peace, order, and stability of this region as their own responsibility’.[3]

A theme that has carried over from the Shangri-La speech into the 2015 Cabinet Decision titled, ‘Legislation for Peace and Security’ is Abe’s stress on the strong ideological component of shared values. Of the ‘Three New Conditions’ the Legislation specifically mentions under which Japan will use force, the first condition allows Japan to exercise the option when an armed attack occurs against ‘a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’.[4] While the wording might offer Tokyo a way to still stay out of conflict if it chooses to, it also moves Japan beyond acting only where its ally, the US is concerned.

Abe is clear that Japan ‘shall not fail to prepare for contingencies’. That these contingencies have much to do with China and North Korea is evident in his call to strengthen the US-Japan alliance and the reference to American surveillance operations in ‘waters near Japan’. The strong declaration that Japan ‘will never’ be ‘embroiled into every war fought by the United States’ can only be part of a broad intent. The JSDF has an active role in anti-piracy in the Arabian Sea and Abe’s declaration that Japanese ‘activities will not be limited to situations that have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security’ but that it was ‘determined to contribute even more actively to global peace and stability’, suggests a growing Indo-Pacific security focus.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if Japan can walk the talk. To take the case of India-Japan ties, an improved and expanded security relationship would be crucial to Japan achieving its declared intentions. However, Japanese academics and think-tank researchers appear to be cautious and conservative in their views on prospects for India-Japan relations. This is no doubt because they use a China lens to view the relationship. Noting geographical contiguity and understanding its strategic implications as well as the centrality of China to Japan’s economic prosperity[5], these scholars are unable or unwilling to imagine that India could ever be that important to Japan. Indeed, there is in Japan, a fair degree of complacency on China because of the deep engagements between the two countries in multiple areas, including the economy, student and scholar exchanges, tourist traffic and so on.[6]


The China-Russia relationship has come full circle from the last century when it started out as one between the older Soviet communist regime and the junior Chinese communists. Today, China has largely eclipsed Russia on the world stage through the deft use of its economic might and its diplomacy.[7] Moscow also finds it increasingly outdone in Central Asia by Chinese economic prowess.

With its energy exports subject to the vagaries of the market and its fraught ties with Europe and the West Russia has really had little leverage when it comes to negotiating with the Chinese. One instance of this might be the conclusion of a 30-year deal to supply 30 billion cubic metres of natural gas to China concluded in November 2014 where the actual price Russia was receiving was not revealed.[8]

The Russian legacy of its military power and its UN Security Council veto together with its energy exports might have combined to give it a position in such forums as the BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Russia-India-China trilateral. Today, however, these are increasingly really exercises in Chinese leadership and diplomacy or about the role of other emerging powers and less a reflection of any significant Russian geopolitical weight.

For China, giving substantial play to its ties with Russia, even as it is largely preoccupied with the US and new initiatives to strengthen its presence and influence regionally – in the form of the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative for example –is necessary to prevent Moscow, especially under Vladimir Putin from playing spoilsport in the aforementioned multilateral forums or complicating China’s other bilateral relationships such as those with North Korea, Japan, the United States, Mongolia, or any of the Central Asian countries. A Russo-Japanese territorial settlement would, for instance, work against Beijing’s attempts to diplomatically isolate the Shinzo Abe government. A show of respect for or deference to Russia is also necessary to prevent not just the Russians from being worried about China’s rise[9] but also the Central Asian countries from feeling Russian power is on the decline and that they have little or no defence against China’s increasing dominance of their economies and its attempts to cultivate political influence and soft power among their peoples.

Beijing has tried to stand by Russia’s side in several instances. For instance, China’s permanent representative to the UN told a Security Council meeting in January 2015 that a political solution was ‘the only way out for the Ukrainian issue.’[10] Similarly, editorials in Chinese dailies frequently acknowledged that supporting Russia in the face of the Western sanctions was necessary ‘because if Russia goes down… China will be left alone to face the West’s arm-twisting moves’.[11]

Data from China’s Ministry of Finance and Commerce shows that Sino-Russian bilateral trade in 2014 stood at US$95.28 billion, 6.8% year-on-year increase and higher than the rate of trade growth in either country in 2014. From the Russian point of view given its limited trade basket and Western sanctions, this suggests a greater reliance on China. China has, in fact, offered to help Russia if needed; Premier Li Keqiang offered such help at the Astana meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in December 2014, without specifically mentioning Russia, [12] while a Chinese official spokesperson answered a specific question on the issue in the affirmative.[13]

China and Russia also continue to deepen various forms of infrastructure and connectivity projects. There is a plan on the anvil to build a 7,000km-long high-speed rail line connecting Beijing and Moscow worth US$242 billion[14] while the China Railway Construction Corp is part of a project to build an underground subway between Moscow and New Moscow.[15]

A Chinese Academy of Social Sciences study under its Institute of World Economics and Politics noted that despite the 2014 joint declaration on a ‘new stage of comprehensive strategic partnership’, the gas deals, and frequent military exchanges, the two countries had significantly differing interests in Central Asia. Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union idea would rub up against China’s Silk Road Economic Belt.[16]

Indeed, the Russians themselves are trying to balance their relationship with China and their ambitions to play an important role in Asia.[17] Russia’s role continues to remain important in trying to tame an unpredictable North Korea with its nuclear and missile tests. China has conveyed its displeasure to Pyongyang over its brinksmanship, including its nuclear tests since 2006, but it cannot also push the North Koreans too far for fear of the Russians coming to the latter’s aid.[18] Further, and once again to bring India and the Indian Ocean into the picture, the Russians are now also building ties with Pakistan, including in the defence sector.[19] This might be a signal to India given that the latter has appeared to be tilting heavily towards the US over the years, but these steps vis-à-vis China and India could also be read as attempts by Moscow to maintain its relevance and leverage in the Indo-Pacific.

The United States

Sino-US relations have been particularly fraught in recent years after the failure of American president Barack Obama’s initial attempts to reach out to China and the latter’s own increased assertiveness on territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Particularly problematic, most of these disputes have involved close US allies and clearly target US dominance and legitimacy in the region.

The hard line in Chinese statements regarding the US and its so-called interference in the disputes in the South China Sea are rather well known.[20] Xinhua editorials have gone so far as to talk of ‘irresponsible behaviors of certain countries’ and of ‘instigation from outside’. [21] However, what should not be forgotten is that the Chinese also have a parallel track of trying to bind the US in the ‘new type of great power relations’ formulation for their bilateral ties. This shows the seriousness with which Beijing views the US presence in Asia including a keen and sober understanding of the latter’s dominance and the distance that China has to bridge in order to match capabilities with the world’s only superpower.

Meanwhile, the US under its Freedom of Navigation programme has sought to assert its rights in the South China Sea with innocent passage exercises by the USS Lassen and USS Curtis Wilbur. In the latest of these instances, two claimants Vietnam and Taiwan actually did not protest the US’ legal right to do so, even as they continued to claim sovereignty over the island in question. In other words, the US is managing to not only challenge China but also winning greater adherence to international law in the region.[22] This also substantially undercuts among other things, China’s insistence that international law take into account Chinese emphases on historical claims and at a larger level, its general ‘Asia for Asians’ approach to the role of powers such as the US in the region.

That said it must be noted that US freedom of navigation exercises were preceded by considerable debate between American naval commanders and their government over whether to sail US Navy ships within waters surrounding features in the South China Sea that China is building military facilities on. The fear that the US Navy expressed was that by failing to do so, even though the Chinese facilities did not have a legal claim to exclusive territorial sea, the US was acquiescing in China’s actions and undermining its own alliances in the region.[23] That the US took as long as it did to finally send in the USS Lassen in October 2015 to Subi Reef is reflective of the caution with which Washington views ties with China and its role in the Indo-Pacific.

The US it must be noted does not take sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and has actually sought to encourage China every time that it sees Beijing as exercising various options consistent with international law. Thus, during the 2014 RIMPAC exercises in Hawaii – the first time that China was invited to participate – it did not make a big deal of a PLAN spy ship observing activities just outside American territorial waters[24] even if the Chinese action was inexplicable given that four of their ships were already part of the exercise.

The US displayed similar equanimity when in early September 2015, five Chinese warships returning from exercises with the Russians crossed into American territorial waters near Alaska[25] ostensibly in keeping with their right of ‘innocent passage’. Equally important given the background of tensions in the South China Sea and closely following the USS Lassen passage, is the fact that in November 2015, the US and China held a joint exercise in Western Pacific.[26] The US has also noted China’s interest in attending the RIMPAC exercises a second time in 2016.[27]

Thus, the US has adopted a mix of engagement and confrontation with the Chinese as a way of retaining its dominance as well as peace and by extension, its continued relevance, in the Indo-Pacific.


The Indo-Pacific is currently driven by the centrality of China’s economic and military rise. However, this rise then sets off challenges from the US, which is the current superpower, and other ambitious powers such as India. Indeed, the US’ creation of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is also about bringing in ‘help’ from India and to force other regional powers such as Japan to construct their political and security matrixes with a wider geographical focus.

However, even without this US push, China’s economic and political rise and the concomitant increase in its regional and global interests would make an ‘Indo-Pacific’ framework inevitable to understand and deal with political and security challenges in Asia and the world.

Meanwhile, from the Indian perspective, it is to be noted that official use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has also been rather limited and sporadic. There appears to be a degree of wariness to committing wholeheartedly to the concept, even if Indian scholars are increasingly comfortable using the expression. This official stance might well arise out of doubts about whether India is a ‘major power’ in the Indo-Pacific domain as opposed to just the Indian Ocean half of the formulation.

Indeed, India’s displays of ambition have largely been rhetorical – the switch from ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’, for instance – and theatrical – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bear hugs of Prime Ministers Abe of Japan and Tony Abbot of Australia and of President Barack Obama of the US, for instance. Despite the many meetings and bilateral visits involving the ‘Quadrilateral’, visible results are far from forthcoming and appear stuck at various stages of negotiation over issues of price, technology transfers and other political sensitivities. Perhaps, results are only a matter of time but it is difficult to see any degree of sustainable ‘action’ in the Act East policy when India’s commitment of intellectual and diplomatic resources to the eastern half of the Indo-Pacific, barring perhaps China, is so low.


[1] Xinhua. 2014. ‘China criticizes Japan’s defense white paper’, 6 August. See also Cai Hong and Zhang Yunbi. 2014. ‘China stands firm against Japanese defense paper’, China Daily, 6 August,

[2] Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet. 2015. ‘Press Conference by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Following the Cabinet Decision on the “Legislation for Peace and Security”’, 14 May,

[3] Shinzo Abe. 2014. ‘The 13th IISS Asian Security Summit -The Shangri-La Dialogue-Keynote Address’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 30 May,

[4] Government of Japan. 2015. ‘Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security: Seamless Responses for Peace and Security of Japan and the International Community’, November,

[5] See for instance, Liu Tian, Xu Yuan and Ma Zheng. 2015. ‘Interview: “Chinanomics” could hold key to Japan’s economy recovery, says Japanese economist’, Xinhua, 16 April,

[6] Arjun Asrani. 2015. ‘Keynote Address’, Regional and Global Dynamics in India-Japan Relations, organized by Institute of Chinese Studies and the Embassy of Japan in India, India International Centre, New Delhi, 8 October.

[7] See also Han Dongping. 2014. ‘China could help Russia in trying times’, China Daily, 30 December,

[8] BBC News. 2014. ‘Russia signs 30-year gas deal with China’, 21 May,

[9] See for instance, Xiao Bin. 2015. ‘Growing Sino-Russian ties helpful, but not critical, for national rise’, Global Times, 6 January,

[10] Xinhua. 2015. ‘Political solution the only way out for Ukrainian issue: Chinese envoy’, 22 January,

[11] Han Dongping. 2014. ‘China could help Russia in trying times’, China Daily, 30 December,

[12] Bloomberg. 2014. ‘China Offers Enhanced Cooperation as Russia Struggles’, 19 December,

[13] Global Times. 2015. ‘China willing to help Russia if required’ 21 January,

[14] Michael S. Arnold. 2015. ‘China, Russia Plan $242 Billion Beijing-Moscow Rail Link’, Bloomberg, 22 January,

[15] See China Daily. 2014. ‘A friend in need during hard times’, 23 December 2014,

[16] Xiao Bin. 2015. ‘Growing Sino-Russian ties helpful, but not critical, for national rise’, Global Times, 6 January,

[17] Jeffrey Mankoff. 2015. ‘Russia’s Asia Pivot: Confrontation or Cooperation?’, Asia Policy, No. 19, January 2015,

[18] Doug Bandow. 2016. ‘Persuading China to Cooperate against North Korea’, National Interest, 15 January,

[19] Mateen Haider. 2016. ‘Pakistan, Russia sign landmark defence deal’, Dawn, 20 August,, The Times of India. 2015. ‘Russia-Pakistan defence ties discomfit India’, 1 September,

[20] See for instance, Zhang Junshe. 2014. ‘Fine twist in Sino-US military ties’, China Daily, 26 June, and Zhang Zhengwen. 2014. ‘US risks being drawn into conflict with China by third parties’ provocations’, Global Times, 24 June,

[21] Xinhua. 2015. ‘Spotlight: What has Really Happened in South China Sea?’, 15 December,

[22] Julian Ku. 2016. ‘Isolating China: Why the Latest U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operation May Have Already Succeeded’, Lawfare, 1 February,

[23] Austin Wright, Bryan Bender and Philip Ewing. 2015. ‘Obama team, military at odds over South China Sea’, Politico,

31 July,

[24] VOA. 2014. ‘China Ship Sent to Spy on RIMPAC Naval Exercises’, 21 July,

[25] Sam LaGrone. 2015. ‘Chinese Warships Made “Innocent Passage” Through U.S. Territorial Waters off Alaska’, USNI News, 3 September,

[26] Defense News. 2015. ‘US, Chinese Navies Train Together Despite Tensions’, 16 November,

[27] Christopher P. Cavas. 2015. ‘New CNO Richardson Invited To Visit China’, Defense News, 25 August,–naval-operations-cno-greenert-richardson-wu-shengli-russia-iran-relations-cues-encounters–sea/32354479/


Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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