Why is the Indo-Pacific often considered the most important region for a battle of superpower confrontation?
The Indo-Pacific is where US-China competition—the most consequential great power rivalry of our time—is playing out most vividly, and in ways that are increasingly dangerous. There are multiple flashpoints: The Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and, increasingly, the India-China border. Chinese provocations have been ramping up in all those spaces in recent years. Additionally, the Indo Pacific is home to the US treaty allies—Japan and South Korea especially—that most robustly support the US in its efforts to counter China.
I'd argue that while traditionally the Indo-Pacific has largely been framed, from a US perspective, as encompassing East and Southeast Asia, recent years have enlarged that geographic frame as China's activities and footprint take it further west. This is why the western Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has come into sharper focus in US strategic thinking: China's growing naval presence in that area, as well as its military base off Djibouti, mean that the IOR and the Bay of Bengal are becoming major new focus areas for US-China competition. This has implications for the littoral states of South Asia, including Bangladesh.
How will the US alliance system evolve in the Indo-Pacific region in response to the changing power dynamics and security threats resulting from China's expanding influence and the West's divided focus due to Russia's aggression towards Ukraine?
For me, one of the big headlines here has been Washington's struggle to build a broader coalition of like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific to counter growing Chinese power. The US can bank on the unequivocal support of its core Asia treaty allies. But many if not most of the other countries in the region, including in South Asia, aren't willing to jump into the US-led camp. In fact, as China has ramped up its presence in the Indo-Pacific, which includes scaling up economic investment, many countries have recognized the need to maintain commercial relations with Beijing. There are countries like the Philippines that wish to maintain commercial cooperation with Beijing even while continuing security partnership with Washington. Whereas there are others, like Vietnam and Singapore, that are keen to balance economic cooperation with both the US and China. In many South Asian countries, the goal is to balance relations on the whole with the US, China, and India.
In effect, against the backdrop of rapidly growing Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific, the US is struggling to build up a bigger coalition of the willing at a moment when shoring up that support is especially critical, from a Washington perspective. What is the role of Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific dynamics, and can Bangladesh effectively balance between competing powers?
Bangladesh, like other non-aligned states in the region, will face some major foreign policy tests amid intensifying great power rivalry. It must grapple with the reality that both US-China and India-China competition are playing out more robustly across South Asia, including in Bangladesh. Washington is stepping up engagement with Dhaka, as it is in Kathmandu, Male, and Colombo, in order to try to reduce Bangladesh's reliance on China. New Delhi is trying to push back against Beijing's deepening footprint in the region, including Bangladesh, with its own engagement in Bangladesh—and with the ruling AL enjoying close ties with India's BJP, that's not hard to do.
Dhaka's challenge is to navigate these two different geopolitical rivalries—a task made all the more challenging given that we're now starting to see US-Russia rivalry play out in Bangladesh as well. For Dhaka, the mantra remains "friendship toward all, malice toward none," but it will find itself under increasing pressure to show more friendship to some than others.
Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, discusses the sudden rise in geopolitical importance of the Indo-Pacific and how it could affect South Asian nations.