Mapping the Multinodal Terrain of the Indo-Pacific


The premise of my argument is that international politics is becoming increasingly multinodal.  A multinodal world is one in which power matters in relationships, but it is difficult if not impossible for the more powerful to simply impose their preferences on the less powerful.  While “multipolar” can be used in this way, multipolar is used more broadly to refer to situations in which hegemons, the poles, contend for control.  In a multinodal situation, power matters, and it structures the patterns of international attention, but it does not control.   The reasons for the current multinodal trend are complex, but the most basic is that globalization gives all participants more options than they used to have in a more isolated, hub-and-spoke political economy.[1]  If the more powerful cannot corner the less powerful, then it is more difficult to force submission.  But asymmetries of power still matter, and therefore regional powers are the centers of regional attention and are the default venues of regional leadership.


Since countries do not choose their neighborhood, the existing geopolitical pattern of relationships and relative resources provides the foundational framing of regions.  I call this “locatedness.”[2]  While locatedness does not dictate regional relationships, it is literally the ground on which decisions are made.  States may or may not bloom, but they are planted.  Nevertheless, the salience of locatedness is affected by globalization.  While globalization does not change location, it expands and diversifies horizons of contact.

India’s region, China’s non-region

The situations of regional locatedness of India and China could hardly be more different.  The geography of South Asia is naturally defined by the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean.  India is in the middle, and India has two-thirds of the region’s population and four-fifths of its economy.   By contrast, it is difficult to define a region for China.  China has been called a “region-state” because of its internal diversity, and its neighborhood reaches well beyond the 14 other states with which it shares land borders.[3]   Southeast Asia is organized under the ASEAN umbrella and does not include China.  Northeast Asia is not organized, and while China is a major actor so is the United States.  Central Asia is even more ambiguous, in part because of the continuing expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

China’s growing centrality

Despite the ambiguities of China’s regional identity, the growth of the Chinese economy since 1980, its policies of reform and openness, and its current multilateral development initiatives have made it the center of attention in its neighborhood.  Moreover, the projects included in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as “One Belt One Road” OBOR) and financed by China through various channels promise to transform China’s connectivity in its region and beyond.  In addition, the uncertainties in American politics created by the Trump administration weaken the capacity of China’s neighbors to hedge against China’s growing influence by leaning on a global power.  It could be said, therefore, that while China’s regionality is hard to specify, its centrality to many of Asia’s current and prospective activities is increasing rapidly.

The Indo-Pacific?

If China’s regional identity is problematic, the notion of an “Indo-Pacific region” is even more so.  If we assume that it includes the littorals of both oceans, then it stretches through three quarters of the world’s longitude and all of the world’s habitable latitude. [4]  Moreover, the maritime connection is restricted by the various Southeast Asian peninsulas and islands.  And yet “Indo-Pacific” does suggest geographic contiguity rather than a general category such as “the developing world.”  The most plausible reason for the recent flourishing of the term “Indo-Pacific” is the confluence and overlap of China’s policy horizons expanding beyond the Pacific and of India’s ambitions expanding beyond the Indian Ocean.  The Indo-Pacific can thus be seen as the grand theater of contact between the two emerging Asian giants, with of course many other countries and regions also inside the ring.

China in India’s neighborhood

By far the most significant extension of one ocean’s reach into the other is the southern, maritime route of China’s BRI initiative.  As with the northern, overland route, the “maritime silk road” is billed as both a global initiative ultimately aimed at connectivity between China and Europe and a major infrastructure development in each of China’s partners, including partners in the Indian Ocean.  The most prominent dimension is the creation of modern ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, though there are large projects in Myanmar and Pakistan linking the new ports overland directly to China.[5]  These are not China’s only port projects; it is globally engaged in port construction and management, including in Europe and Latin America.  However, the South Asian ports, the “string of pearls,” will play a key role in bulk transport with the Middle East, Europe, and Africa as well as with the host countries.  In any case, China is already the top source of imports for India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

India in China’s neighborhood

Compared to China’s merchandise trade and current BRI plans, India’s expansion into the Pacific is more aspirational than accomplished.  Since its independence in 1947 India has had political and economic relationships throughout the Pacific, and its cultural influence can be seen in the Pali scripts of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos as well as in the presence of Hindu and Muslim religions in Southeast Asia.  But India’s interest in the Pacific increased after the Cold War.  India initiated its “Look East” policy in 1992, and in 2014, at the suggestion of Hillary Clinton,[6]  it changed the slogan to “Act East.”  India has improved its ties with all Pacific countries and paid special attention to Southeast Asia.  India aceded to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity in 2002 and the India-ASEAN Free Trade Area came into effect in 2010.   Along with the United States and Japan India has been vocal in supporting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.  Although India’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in ASEAN has grown rapidly and exceeds its investment in China, it is only one percent of ASEAN’s total FDI in 2016 while China’s FDI is ten percent of ASEAN’s total.[7]  India has also expanded its presence in Southeast Asia in terms of merchandise trade, but in 2015 it stood at 3 percent of ASEAN’s total in contrast to China’s 15 percent.

What do the neighbors want?

When considering the relationship of two giants like China and India it is easy to overlook the role of their smaller regional partners in determining regional leadership.  By default, they are often ignored as active decision-makers.  In fact, however, if we accept the multinodal premise that the neighbors cannot be successfully coerced, then regional leadership and integration depends as much on the neighbors as it does on the regional power.  For the neighbors to support regional leadership they must view a more integrated region as in their interest.  Moreover, their interest is not simply the benefits promised but also the preservation or even enhancement of their autonomy.  Dependency does not automatically create deference, as China knows from its experience with North Korea or with the June 2017 election in Mongolia.[8]   India’s experience with Pakistan demonstrates that hostility is also unlikely to encourage integration.

A tale of two regions

What produces a successful region?  After the Second World War, South America seemed to be a more promising prospect for regional integration than Southeast Asia.  South America had only two, related, major languages, the members had been independent for more than a century, with no major wars since 1903, and Brazil was the obvious candidate for leadership.  Southeast Asia suffered under four different and competing colonial masters as well as Japanese occupation, and then the new nationalism of independence encouraged a variety of border conflicts and mutual threats.  Last but not least there were the French and then the American wars in Indochina, utilizing bases in the other Southeast Asian countries.  And yet August 2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of ASEAN, and there is no major regional integration in sight for South America.  Brazil’s attempt at regional leadership from 2000 to 2013 was successfully resisted by Chile, Venezuela, and Argentina.[9]

In brief, ASEAN succeeded because it reduced the common vulnerabilities of its members to internal and external risks while its consultative, consensus-based style did not threaten member autonomy.  Also credit should be given to the cooperative leadership of key actors.[10]  By contrast, Brazil’s attempt to create a regional institution under its leadership served only its interest.  Regional tariffs would have cost Chile some of its international partners, Venezuela was pursuing its own initiatives under its own banner, and Argentina did not want to be overshadowed by its neighbor.  It is important to note that Brazil’s neighbors did not oppose Brazil’s continued growth and global role.  But Brazil did not (and after 2013 could not) provide sufficient incentives to make regional institutionalization attractive, and its neighbors did not want their autonomy reduced by regional enclosure.

India’s China challenge

According to the World Bank, South Asia is the “least economically integrated region in the world.”[11]  The lack of positive connectivity between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh[12] makes more attractive the new opportunities that China’s BRI presents.  At the same time it raises grave concerns in India about the diminution of its monopoly status (however undeveloped) as the chief power in the region.  India is not likely to be strangled by a string of pearls, but China is more likely to be engaged with the neighbors in the development of new routes of connectivity than the United States or the Soviet Union were.  The periphery has choices that it did not have before, and at present they do not include India.

While the most immediate cause of confrontation with China are the contested border areas, the presence of new alternatives for regional development should be a deeper regional concern.  While the 350 million people on the sides of India are poorer and currently not growing quite as fast, China is opening up options for internal infrastructure and external connectivity that could change their prospects.  India still would have more to offer its neighbors potentially in terms of cooperation.  However, now that their other options are improving, India would have to show more respect for their autonomy.  Having oceans and mountains at one’s back is no longer a dead end.  Greater openness in the region is not necessarily against India’s interest, but it requires a strategic regional reorientation that cannot be based on the exclusion of China.  China’s initiatives are a threat to the isolation of South Asia, but it is up to India to decide whether isolation is essential to India’s regional identity.

China’s India challenge

The effect of India’s ambitions on China’s spheres of influence is quite different from vice versa.  In Northeast Asia, the uncertainties and turmoil created by the regional actors plus the United States leaves other countries on the sidelines.  In Central Asia, India’s influence is limited by the intervening presence of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in any case Russia is China’s significant counterpart for regional influence.  But India is gaining clout in Southeast Asia, though the United States and Japan remain more important actors.  Nevertheless, India has a distinctive role to play.  Both the U.S. and Japan are basically trying to reverse or slow the erosion of the Cold War system of alliances, while India’s presence is more independent and future-oriented.  India’s diplomatic culture of non-alignment fits in well with the concerns of Southeast Asian states both about China’s increasing influence and about being forced to choose between China and the United States.

Of course, a greater Indian presence in Southeast Asia is inconvenient for China and therefore unwelcome.  But fortunately China has respected the inclusiveness and openness of Southeast Asia, the signature characteristic of ASEAN foreign policy.  While some might consider India to be part of a grand containment strategy fostered by the United States, in fact it is an independent actor expanding its reach.  China cannot eliminate India’s influence and should not want to. India’s presence increases the region’s autonomy and diversity of relationships.  In a globalized world, the re-centering of Asia around China is not a return to the splendid isolation of the Chinese Empire but rather the expansion of open-ended connectivity, of which India will be an important part.

Conclusion: Realism and structural optimism

“Realism” in international relations theory is often identified with the premise of self-help in an environment of international anarchy.  However, a broader notion of what is realistic in international analysis must include the parameters of feasibility under which states perceive and pursue their national interests and which to a great degree determine the success or failure of their initiatives.  In the contemporary world coercion is more likely to generate resistance than compliance, and sustainable leadership requires the credibility of pursuing shared goals.  While it would be hopelessly naïve to assume that states will always act in their strategic interest, it would be just as unrealistic to assume that acting against their long term interest will not have deleterious consequences.  Of course, the ultimate deleterious consequence, the mutually assured destruction of thermonuclear war, eliminates the possibility of later correction.  However, lesser errors of realistic judgment are more likely to be self-limiting and therefore corrigible.

The term “rivalry” originally referred to the relationship of two groups on opposite sides of a river.  The two contiguous oceans of the Indo-Pacific certainly create the conditions for competitive juxtaposition between their two leading powers.  While there are many opportunities for win-win collaboration, there will also be the tendency to judge one’s own progress in relative terms – not quite win-lose, but up a notch or down a notch.  Each is sufficiently well established in its own region not to worry about displacement.  However, the increasing presence of the other gives regional partners more options and raises thereby the challenge of adjusting to the greater openness of one’s “own” region.  The challenge is unwelcome, but not necessarily counterproductive.  India has more to offer South Asia, and China has more to offer its neighbors.

[1] Brantly Womack, Asymmetry and International Relationships (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), especially Ch 6.
[2] Asymmetry and International Relationships, especially Ch 1.
[3] Brantly Womack, “China between Region and World”, China Journal no. 61 (January 2009), pp. 1-20.
[4] Counting from Port Elizabeth, South Africa (26 E longitude) to Chile (71 W), and from the Bering Sea to Tierra del Fuego.
[5] Chas Freeman, “The Maritime Dimension of “One Belt, One Road” in Strategic Perspective”, 20 June 2016.
[6] Sampa Kunda, “India’s ASEAN Approach: Acting East”, The Diplomat April 8, 2016.
[7] Calculated from ASEAN’s statistics.
[8] For Mongolia see Heng Qin, “The Recent Election in Mongolia and the Future of Northeast Asia: An Interview with Alicia Campi”, National Bureau of Research, August 9, 2017.
[9] Rita Giacalone, “El regionalismo asimétrico como eje de la resistencia sudamericana a Brasil 2000-2013” [asymmetric regionalism as the axis of South American resistance to Brazil, 2000-2013], paper presented at the Ninth Conference of Latin American Political Science, Montevideo, July 25-29, 2017.
[10] Alice Ba, [Re]Negotiating East and Southeast Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).
[11] World Bank, “Benefits and Opportunities of Regional Cooperation in South Asia”, (August 3, 2017).
[12] The economies of Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan (total population 51 million) are more integrated with India’s.

Brantly Womack is Professor of Foreign Affairs at University of Virginia.

The present work have been presented at: Changing Asia 2017: Perspectives on Regional and Global Cooperation, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, September 2017.


Building on previous research that analyses the multinodal rather than multipolar character of post-2008 globalization, this paper will explore how the locatedness of states affects their various relationships.  The Indo-Pacific is particularly interesting because it is the emerging confluence of several established regions and it affects the options of all.

China and India are by far the most populous countries in the world, and they have dynamic economies and strong leaders.  It is not surprising that attention inside and outside Asia focusses on their bilateral rivalry.  Nevertheless, it is a competition in which neither can consider subduing the other without serious consequences to itself.  Moreover, while each is the most powerful state in its neighborhood, neither can force its smaller neighbors into an exclusive alliance or into submission.

I argue that in this situation China and India present one another with unwelcome but positive challenges in regional configurations.  South Asia is currently a dysfunctional region, in part because India has no competition as the leading power.  The region’s relationships have been defined by domination and resistance rather than by integration.   China’s Belt and Road Initiative opens up options for India’s neighbors that India cannot prevent.  India’s initial reaction is to see China’s initiatives as an intrusion on its pre-eminence, and this is in fact the case.  But India’s only strategic option is to rise to the challenge presented by China by making serious initiatives of its own toward regional integration.  If India can diminish embedded hostilities and suspicions it has a great locational advantage in South Asia vis-à-vis China.  Moreover, South Asian integration would not be based on the exclusion of China, so all would benefit.

Somewhat similarly, China is in an exceptionally strong position because of its own size and dynamic and also because of the uncertainties regarding American intentions and capabilities.  As India extends its diplomatic, political, and economic interests in East Asia and Central Asia, China will not welcome the presence of a competitor.  But in fact China’s neighbors are concerned that the re-centering of mainland East and Northern Asia around China will increase their dependency on China and therefore decrease their autonomy.  The increased presence of India as well as of other states provides an important buffering of their integration with China.  India is especially significant because it is far enough out of China’s orbit to take critical diplomatic postures and yet close enough so that it remains vitally interested in regional outcomes.

Both of these hypothetical trends are premised on China and India maintaining and expanding their regional pre-eminence, but in situations where they must respond to external pressures rather than attempt to exclude them.  Since competition is unwelcome, an undertone of rivalry in the India-China relationship is inevitable.  But in fact the only feasible strategy for each is to adjust to the closer presence of the other.

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