The ‘third way’ to the Indo-Pacific : inclusive approaches to power dynamics in Asia

Prime Minister at the QUAD summit


Power dynamics in Asia have been in flux for over a decade. Gradually the older term – ‘Asia-Pacific’ – has been replaced by the 21st century phrase – ‘Indo-Pacific’. States in the region and beyond have been concerned about ensuring its security and economic development. In pursuing this goal, different approaches have been visible; for example, those followed by China and the US, respectively the No.2 and No.1 powers in the world.

This essay examines whether a third way[i]is feasible, such as the one proposed by the European Union (EU). The ‘third way’ has been used in this analysis to reflect another connotation, namely the contribution made by the ‘Third Space’ i.e., civil society and all elements of a polity other than the government and corporate sector. There is little doubt that multiple actors – civil groups, universities, think tanks, youth, and women organisations, media, and informed citizenry – have a role to play in shaping the trajectory of inter-state relations. This is particularly applicable to democratic societies in the Global South in this vital region of the globe.

Indo-Pacific. The green circle covers ASEAN.
Indo-Pacific. The green circle covers ASEAN.

What is Indo-Pacific?

Experts often struggle to explain the basic meaning of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in simple words. It refers to a new geographical space; it is a new geopolitical construct; it is also a strategy or policy.

When treated as a new geographical space, it stands for the continuum of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean and all the lands washed by their waters. But many states were reluctant to accept such a vast geographical expanse to define the Indo-Pacific. For example, initially, the US government and its allies treated the old Asia-Pacific plus India as the Indo-Pacific. This conception was captured in a popular definition of the Indo-Pacific as the area stretching from ‘Hollywood to Bollywood’. Later, the US view evolved as the US Pacific Command was renamed the US Indo-Pacific Command. On the other hand, Indian policymakers (and scholars) have been consistent in maintaining that the Indo-Pacific is “the vast maritime space stretching from the western coast of North America to the eastern shores of Africa.”[ii]

It is evident that the replacement of ‘Asia-Pacific’ with ‘Indo-Pacific was driven by an important motivation, namely to emphasise that China could not be allowed to dominate the affairs of maritime Asia and that, therefore, the US and others would collaborate closely with the other major Asian power – India – to ensure a better balance of power in the region. India's size and unique geographical location in the middle of the combined ocean space, along with its rising economic, military, political, and diplomatic profile, gives it a special place in the Indo-Pacific. Thus, it is not surprising that China sticks to the older term, while India prefers the new phrase. In this sense, the Indo-Pacific is an innovative geopolitical construct, based on the idea that the challenges of security and economic development in the Pacific region now stand intertwined with those in the Indian Ocean region. Therefore, they demand an integrated and holistic approach, policy, or strategy.

Two contending camps

To appreciate the full implications of the third way, it is necessary to evaluate the pattern of geopolitical equations that emerged in Asia in the last decade.

China’s meteoric economic rise led to a substantive and speedy augmentation of its military power. This in turn engendered a new, assertive foreign policy approach under the leadership of President Xi Jinping who at home was seen emerging as the ‘Emperor of Everything’. He is now well placed to secure the unprecedented third term at the helm. Meanwhile, China's assertiveness acquired clear aggressive elements as evident from its controversial actions concerning the South and East China Seas, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and eastern Ladakh.

Seriously concerned about China’s rise and activities along its periphery four Indo-Pacific democracies – the US, India, Japan and Australia – initiated their consultations under the aegis of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, later formally named the Quad. As China's will to dominate Asia became increasingly apparent, Quad consultations were elevated from the mid-level officials to foreign ministers in September 2019. The past year, 2021, witnessed two Quad summits. The current year, 2022 saw the third summit on 3 March and the fourth summit is due to be held in Tokyo by June.

The Quad strategy strives “for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”.[iii] The Indo-Pacific region should be one where freedom of navigation and overflight is assured; states follow international law and a rules-based order; and disputes are resolved peacefully. The Quad powers emphasise that they offer a positive and constructive agenda of cooperation in several sectors such as vaccine partnership, climate change, critical and emerging technologies, cyber security, space, infrastructure coordination, and people-to-people exchanges. In particular, India expects to strengthen its technological linkages with the US and other partners, which helps it to accelerate its march toward self-reliance.

Significantly, just before the Quad summit in Washington in 2021, two of its members – the US and Australia – joined the UK to announce the formation of a new security alliance named AUKUS (Australia, UK, US). This is anchored on the production and deployment of nuclear-powered submarines in Australia. It came in wake of the cancellation of the Australia-France deal on the sale of French-made conventional submarines. The AUKUS was seen as a strategic game-changer, a serious challenge to China's growing naval power. As far as India is concerned, the government has maintained a sphinx like silence, whereas most elements of the strategic community maintain that AUKUS strengthens the Quad.

Both China and its close strategic partner Russia have been quite explicit in criticising the AUKUS and Quad as “cliques” that showed the Cold War mindset. After the recent summit meeting of their leaders, the two governments expressed their opposition against “the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region and remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States' Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region”.[iv]

EU strategy as a third way

As the US-China contestation sharpened, the EU stepped up its policy engagement and activism in the region. First, individual EU member states – France, Netherlands and Germany – announced their Indo-Pacific policies. This was followed by the presentation of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy in September 2021. Subsequently, France as the EU presidency country hosted the Ministerial Forum on Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in February 2022.

Informal meeting of EU foreign ministers, Indo-Pacific Forum on 02/22
Informal meeting of EU foreign ministers, Indo-Pacific Forum on 02/22

The EU’s strategy document defines the region as stretching from “the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island States”.[v] It projects the grouping’s intention to increase its engagement with the region, stressing that the EU and the Indo-Pacific are “natural partner regions in terms of trade and investment”. This partnership, based on the principles of democracy and human rights, seeks “to defend the rules-based international order by promoting inclusive and effective multilateral cooperation” and supports “truly inclusive policymaking and cooperation where the voices of civil society, the private sector, social partners and other key stakeholders count”. Seven priority sectors were listed for enhanced cooperation: Sustainable and inclusive prosperity (including trade and investment), green transition, ocean governance, digital governance and partnership, connectivity, security and defence, and human security.

Identifying specific partners, the EU expressed its resolve to deepen engagement with those partners that already have Indo-Pacific approaches such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the UK and the US. It stressed the significance of Japan, India and ASEAN as “the connectivity partners of EU”. In this context, the EU’s plan named ‘Global Gateway’ assumes considerable significance.[vi] The EU policy document has made two important observations. First, it articulates interest in engaging with the Quad “on issues of common interest such as climate change, technology or vaccines”. Second, its formulation on ties with China is finely nuanced, as below:

The EU will also pursue its multifaceted engagement with China engaging bilaterally to promote solutions to common challenges, cooperating on issues of common interest and encouraging China to play its part in a peaceful and thriving Indo-Pacific region. At the same time, and working with international partners who share similar concerns, the EU will continue to protect its essential interests and promote its values while pushing back where fundamental disagreements exist with China, such as on human rights.[vii]

India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar welcomed the EU’s commitment to contribute to the region’s security, terming its strategy as “consistent with India’s vision of a free, open, balanced and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, anchored in ASEAN centrality”.[viii] He noted that with “its economic heft and expertise”, the EU can also promote economic development. Analysts argue that the choice of sectors for cooperation and the principles on which future endeavours may be based are welcome. EU’s success, however, would depend on its capability to generate additional finance and its managerial astuteness: The two should combine to produce new connectivity and new development projects in the short to medium term. Only then, the EU’s influence could rise in the region. The other critical factor in measuring the EU’s success will be its ability to navigate through the sea of tensions between the Quad and the China-Russia axis. “The EU can create a vantage position for itself in the Indo-Pacific by being more candid with itself, more assertive with China, and more cooperative with India.”[ix]

Germany in Indo-Pacific

The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy grew out of the deliberations and development of policy in key member-states. Here, specific attention may be accorded to Germany’s role. A close look at the Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific[x] issued by the federal German government in September 2020 is essential. The document defines the Indo-Pacific as “the entire region characterised by the Indian Ocean and the Pacific”, noting meaningfully, “Strategic projections compete with each other and global value chains are intertwined here”.[xi]As a leading trading nation and an ardent advocate of the rules-based order, Germany has a deep interest in participating in Asia’s growth dynamics, upholding global norms in regional structures, and thus moulding the Indo-Pacific.

Germany’s Indo-Pacific policy represents a judicious blend between its interests and principles. Eight principal interests have been identified: i) maintaining peace and security amidst disputes over boundaries and cross-border conflicts, ii) diversifying and deepening relations, while closing “ranks with democracies and partners with shared values”, iii) promoting multipolarity by opposing hegemony caused either by unipolarity or bipolarity, iv) ensuring open shipping routes, v) promoting open markets and free trade, vi) working for digital transformation and connectivity, vii) protecting the planet, and viii) widening access to fact-based information when “authoritarian actors” use communication to manipulate and influence civil societies.

The principles on which German policy is based range from stressing the value of multilateralism and collective action by the EU to the rules-based order, UN development goals, human rights, and inclusivity. Another welcome norm is Germany’s commitment to forging a partnership among equals by stepping up its cooperation with the Indo-Pacific states “on an equal footing and in a spirit of global responsibility”.

Germany has identified a number of institutions for according special attention and financial support. These include several ASEAN-related bodies, BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). From the region’s viewpoint, Berlin’s commitment to “step up its security policy engagement” is significant, especially as it encompasses safeguarding the principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). A sensitive issue is Germany’s inclination to engage in “open and critical dialogue with governments” on human rights in multilateral forums such as the Human Rights Council. While authoritarian regimes like Myanmar are strongly opposed to this, democratic states such as India feel uncomfortable with a one-sided examination of the human rights situation, questioning if the West enjoys any special privilege to do so.

A year after the publication of policy guidelines, the government presented a progress report listing several successes.[xii]  Under Germany’s EU presidency, EU-ASEAN relations were upgraded to “strategic partnership”. Germany acceded to the International Solar Alliance initiated by India and France. Germany enjoys a positive reputation as a source of the latest in technology and business acumen. Broadly, it follows an apolitical approach. These strengths need to be leveraged optimally. A noteworthy development was the patrol and training mission in the region undertaken by the frigate Bayern from August 2021 to February 2022. In conjunction with France and the UK, Germany made a joint demarche to uphold “the integrity and universality” of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Finally, German accession to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) in August 2021 was another important step towards strengthening maritime security in the region. The present assessment indicates that these initial steps may lead to a more robust posture on maritime security.

The Ukraine impact

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that regions other than the Indo-Pacific are also relevant to peace and security in the world. Continuing hostilities between the combatants and severe economic sanctions imposed on Russia will have wider repercussions internationally.

Governments and strategic communities alike are busy deciphering the implications of Ukraine on power equations within the Indo-Pacific. Initially, a view emerged that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may embolden China to contemplate a sudden operation in respect of Taiwan. Sober voices, however, dismissed it as a mere mechanical interpretation, with reliable reports suggesting that the policy community in China was divided on whether to support Russia or side with the West on Ukraine.

Apparently, the virtual meeting between the Presidents of the US and China on 18 March did not elicit any assurance from the latter to assist the US-NATO in their conflict with Russia. A widespread perception is that geopolitically China has gained from the conflict, whereas the US has strengthened its leadership in Europe. This implies that the US-China strife may rise – not subside – in the Indo-Pacific. Of late, the western pressure on India to tilt its neutrality in favour of Ukraine/ West has been considerable. Will this weaken the solidarity within the Quad? The forthcoming summit in Tokyo should provide some useful clues.


The foregoing study indicates that the polarisation between the US-led Quad and China backed by Russia is here to stay. It could sharpen further, despite – or because of – the war in Ukraine and its aftermath. Against this backdrop, the EU strategy offers a third way, promising to be inclusive. For it to be successful in reality, the EU, wiser by the Ukraine experience, should become deeply aware of the dangers of dealing with an authoritarian state headed by a strong leader. The EU’s economic interests will need to be suitably balanced by its commitment to its fundamental principles and values. Hence, its natural impulse to work closely with the Quad should be strengthened.

Germany has undoubtedly a pivotal role to play, perhaps in coordination with France. German diplomacy should further strengthen relations with the region’s democracies. Germany’s public diplomacy has considerable room to grow, by deepening ties with the civil society and the ‘Third Space’ actors as long as local sensitivities are understood and respected. The key elements of ‘a new India strategy’ of Germany could be an expansion of institutional linkages outside the national capital (New Delhi); dissemination of reliable information about the different political tendencies represented in the new German government; and a special media campaign to drive home the point that India-Germany relations are entering a novel phase, which may help Asia to become more inclusive, secure, peaceful and prosperous.



[i]The term ‘third way’ is often used to describe a third or middle path with reference to two clashing approaches. A recent example is the usage by a scholar. For details, seePhilippe Le Corre ‘France’s Indo-Pacific “Third Way”‘, Carnegie Europe, 7 October 2021.

[ii] ‘Foreign Secretary’s Speech at Policy Exchange’. Ministry of External Affairs, 3 November 2020.

[iii] ‘Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: “The Spirit of the Quad”‘, The White House, 12 March 2022.

[iv] ‘Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development’, 4 February 2022.

[v] ‘The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’, European Commission, 16 September 2021.

[vii]The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’, European Commission, 16 September 2021.

[viii] ‘Address by External Affairs Minister at French Institute of International Relations on ‘How India sees France’, Ministry of External Affairs, 22 February 2022.

[ix] Rajiv Bhatia, ‘The EU’s role in the Indo-Pacific’,The Hindu, 16 November 2021.

[x] ‘Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region’, The Federal Government, September 2020.


[xii]‘One year of the German Government policy guidelines on the Indo‑Pacific region: Taking stock’, Federal Foreign Office, 13 September 2021.