New Zealand seems to have finally been able to shed its long reticence, if not ambivalence, toward acknowledging the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as the alternative geopolitical label to the old ‘Asia Pacific’.
A seemingly innocuous press release from the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade on August 1 affirmed, “New Zealand enjoyed engaging with our regional partners on the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific and discussing how to deepen our cooperation.”
This is a remarkable departure from the past, where for a quite a long time New Zealand has remained persistent, even stubborn, to avoid the use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ from any official communiqué – suggesting the deep-down mental block within its strategic community.
Experts of international relations are of the opinion that the concept of the Indo-Pacific has been rapidly gaining precedence, gradually pushing the long-preferred strategic order of the ‘Asia-Pacific.’
The concept of Asia-Pacific visualised Asia and Pacific as a strategic continuum enmeshing economies of the West Pacific with those of East Asia and to some extent South East Asia.
As opposed to this, the concept of the Indo-Pacific is based on the premise that the Indian and the Pacific Oceans form a single strategic space and underscores the growing importance of India as a strategic player in Asia's regional security architecture.
New Zealand’s foreign policy mandarins have consciously refrained from officially acknowledging this fast-changing paradigm, despite having an acute understanding of the changing strategic realities.
Just last year in June 2018 during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Defence Minister Ron Mark was notably adamant to use the term Asia-Pacific as opposed to his peers from the region, when the idea of Indo-Pacific was being trumpeted in Asia's premier security conference.
In fact, in the following Q + A session, Minister Mark was categorically asked why in his speech he preferred to use the term Asia-Pacific.
As late as in October 2018, Ben King, Deputy Secretary Americas and Asia Group at Ministry of Foreign and Trade Affairs (MFAT), speaking at the MFAT@75 Conference in Wellington, accentuated the preference toward Asia-Pacific instead of the emerging Indo-Pacific.
To be fair to Wellingtonian foreign policy mandarins, and the academic community, not only are they supremely aware of the fast-changing strategic situation in its proximity and beyond but have held to its preference for Asia-Pacific purely because it served New Zealand's most critical interest.
The Asia-Pacific has harnessed and underpinned regional peace and prosperity for decades and served New Zealand's interests in forging access to its small, advanced trading economy with the vast markets of Asia.
NZ strategic experts have been closely following the rise and the rise of the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’ in the preceding decade, however more so robustly in the last few years.
They are also closely following the fact that international commentators have begun using ‘Indo-Pacific’ in a strategic sense from about 2005, and by 2010-2014 gaining precedence in Indian, Australian, and US official documents and speeches.
However, despite this, their collective preference has always been toward ‘Asia-Pacific’ and not ‘Indo-Pacific.’
Probably, there has been something deep down within New Zealand's strategic DNA – of being different than others – in its strategic choices.
In part, the reticence of embracing the Indo-Pacific as a new strategic concept was also driven by some views within strategic and policy circles that hold the Indo-Pacific concept as an attempt to contain or balance rising Chinese maritime activity.
Indeed, as a remotely situated South Pacific country, watching an increasingly rising and assertive China, embracing the Indo-Pacific concept posed challenges to the New Zealand strategic community.
This is despite repeated assertions of world leaders backing Indo-Pacific as an open and inclusive regional framework.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while delivering his keynote address in 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore has defined Indo-Pacific as "a free, open, inclusive region, which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity. It includes all nations in this geography as also others beyond who have a stake in it."
In this regard, the latest change brings a long overdue, fresh and bold political insight from the highest level of political decision making.
Given that the Indo-Pacific is fast gaining precedence, it is in New Zealand's best interests to shed away long-held reticence toward the concept.
Indeed, it is one of the rarer, but definitely, a bold initiative taken by the current government.
It's another matter that sooner or later, New Zealand's strategic community will once again be facing the dilemma of supporting one of the two mutually competitive initiatives, the Indo-Pacific and the Belt and Road initiatives.
Maybe, that's for the near future – for now, the government must be congratulated for taking a bold step forward.