The Indo-Pacific and its Imagined Futures

Dr. Mahesh Ranjan Debata
April 14, 2019


The Asia Pacific region, which includes a significant portion of Asia (East, South, and Southeast Asia) and Oceania, witnesses a realignment of global power dynamics in the recent times that are being played out in small, medium and large scales across the region. In this context, it is important to analyse the contributions made by regionalism “as an imagined form of post-nationalism era”, which not only highlights the aims and objectives of the regional grouping of countries, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), but also underscores its importance in aspiring for a sort of ‘Asian Union’, somewhat in the line of the European Union (EU).

However, these movements are countered by a significant surge in global populism, which was initially associated with Latin America in the 1990s and the post-communist democracies in Eastern Europe after the Soviet collapse. Populist parties and politicians have now been enthroned in the citadels of power in established democracies in Europe (the UK, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, etc.) as well. Of all populist surges in various parts of the world, the most striking one has been the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as the President of the world’s strongest democracy, the United States of America. An important facet of global populism has been the motive to confer “sovereignty” to the local communities who have been marginalized and exploited left and right for long.

While the “Hawaiian sovereignty movement being dubbed as a grass-root political and cultural campaign made relentless efforts to achieve 3Ss (sovereignty, self-determination, and self-governance) for native Hawaiians, all naturalized Hawaiian subject descendants, etc., by carving out a separate autonomous or independent nation within the Asia Pacific”, the disgruntled lot in Papua New Guinea brave the dramatic changes the small island underwent due to development of large scale mines (especially gold mines). Further, the trans-Pacific diasporic communities, be they from Hawaii or Papua New Guinea, left no stone unturned to affect the politico-religious situation in their home countries.

The above-mentioned movements have resemblance with Caodaism, a syncretic religious movement that appeared in the 1920s in Cochinchina – then a colony of French Indochina. Caodaism gained momentum through “spirit-writing and spirit–mediumship”, in addition to the charisma of mythological deity Cao Dai, who injected pep into the helpless and hapless Cochinchinese population with an “indigenous, universalistic, millenarian and patriotic ideology.” At the crux of all of these significant developments are “a set of particular imaginations of the future that underpin them.”

These imagined futures have a considerable impact on policy making and policy planning, its proper implementation and execution, judging and analyzing social reactions to these policies, identity movements, and their mobilizations, developmental works, conflict management, and conflict resolution, cultural revitalization movements, etc. And of course, these imagined futures are inextricably interwoven to the imagined histories with which they make up larger scales of “temporal imagination.”

 At this crucial juncture, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undertaken by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) too imagines a future in the Asia Pacific in which the name, fame, and glory of the Han dynasty and the legacy of the fabled Silk Road have been brought back from the ancient past into the near future. The effects of BRI are ironically felt across the globe through political re-orientations as well as machinations, significant economic development, and cultural efflorescence. However, this grandiose transnational network, connectivity, and infrastructure project of China faces an uphill task in the Asia Pacific region that has become the cradle of global geopolitics in recent times. The Chinese bid to become a global power, both economically and militarily, through a trillion-dollar economic and security umbrella spreading across the world has become a cause of consternation between the no. 1 (USA) and no. 2 (China) economies of the world.

The failure to reach an agreement (no joint statement signed) during the recently held Asia Pacific Economic Summit (APEC) summit held in Papua New Guinea in the year 2018 is a clear cut example that showcases the gulf between USA and China. Further, in this geopolitical ballgame, three Asian powers (Australia, Japan, and India) have joined the US by apparently creating the Quad to stop the Chinese juggernaut. Indian opposition to BRI as the only country in the world stems from that fact that it has skipped the first BRI forum meeting held in May 2017.

It is argued that the BRI will not have smooth sailing in the Indo-Pacific region as long as China takes the powers above, especially the USA, into confidence. The Indo-Pacific has been and will remain important in the theatre of global politics as long as the local, regional, national and international issues of the region thrive and put challenges before the regional and global powers to maintain peace and stability and pay attention to the imagined progress and prosperity of the region.

*** The author is the Director of UGC Area Studies Programme, Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU ***