Origins of the Indo-Pacific

Our program focuses on the Indo-Pacific, but we want to start broad in order to understand this unique and emerging region.


Out of the world’s seven continents, Asia is by far the largest in area and most populated. The population on the entire Asian continent is 4.56 billion people, which is approximately 58% of the world’s entire population. The largest country in the world by land area is located in Asia—Russia—at 6,323,482 square miles. This accounts for 11% of the world’s entire land mass.

The two most populous countries in the world are also located in Asia—China and India, at 1.4 billion people and 1.3 billion people, respectively. These two countries alone account for 35% of the world’s entire population. Asia boasts 49 sovereign countries with UN membership. The world’s tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, is located in Asia, specifically along the border of China and Nepal.

Sub regions

Asia is typically split into five sub-regions, plus Russia. Russia is considered part of both the European and Asian continents. We will go from west to east.

Western Asia

This sub-region is more commonly known as the Middle East. Generally speaking, Western Asia is comprised of majority-Muslim countries, except for Israel, Armenia, and Georgia. Israel is majority-Jewish and both Armenia and Georgia are majority-Orthodox Christian. The typical conception of the Middle East does not include Armenia, Azerbaijan, nor Georgia. These three countries form their own, smaller region known as the Caucasus, wedged between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Last, many debate whether Afghanistan should be included in the Western Asian sub-region or the Southern Asia sub-region.

Central Asia

Or as I like to refer to the region—the “Stans.” The name of these five countries all end with -stan, and they are all former territories of the Soviet Union. Russian is widely spoken across all five, though Arabic is increasing in popularity as every single Central Asian country is majority-Muslim, with four of the five having at least 88% of their population practicing Islam.

Note: since this map was created, the name of Astana has been changed to Nur-Sultan

South Asia

As I previously mentioned, Afghanistan is sometimes included in the Middle East and sometimes in Southern Asia. This sub-region is often referred to as the Indian subcontinent, too. Beside Afghanistan, Southern Asia always includes Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh [the three countries born out of the partition of British India], Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. South Asia is home to the world’s largest share of Hindus (98%), Sikhs (90%), and Muslims (31%).

East Asia

This sub-region is home to five UN member countries: China, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies, respectively, as measured by nominal GDP. South Korea is not far behind at 12th place. Eastern Asia is by far the most developed sub-region of Asia. The total population of Eastern Asia is 1.7 billion people, which makes up 22% of the world’s total population. Of course the largest share of that comes from China, which has 1.4 billion people alone. The largest metropolitan area in the world is Tokyo, home to more than 38 million people.

Southeast Asia

This sub-region includes eleven nations, and is the least physically connected sub-region of Asia. Overall, it is the poorest sub-region in Asia, and has the greatest wealth disparity among nations of any sub-region in Asia. Cambodia has a GDP per capita income of $4,322, while Singapore has a GDP per capita income of $102,027. Southeast Asia is central to global maritime trade, and the Port of Singapore is the busiest container port in the world.

What is a regional intergovernmental organization (IGO)?

At its most basic definition, an intergovernmental organization (IGO) is a membership body comprised of government representatives from different sovereign nations. The United Nations is the largest intergovernmental organization in the world, and is largely considered the world’s parliament. The UN has 193 member countries, and two observer states [Palestine and the Holy See]. Countries also seek and maintain membership in slightly-smaller, regional IGOs. For example, the United States is a member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, OAS, the Organization of American States, G7, Group of Seven, G20, Group of Twenty, and many others. Additional well-known regional IGOs include the European Union and the African Union. Countries join IGOs for a variety of reasons, but it could be for economic reasons, security reasons, cultural reasons, or another reason. Most IGOs have an administrative headquarters, which is called a Secretariat. It is a permanent office that houses the staff of that IGO. For example, the Secretariat of the United Nations is in New York City, and the Secretariat of NATO is in Brussels, Belgium.

Map of NATO members

Members of the Organization of American States (OAS)

The continent of Asia is home to at least a dozen different IGOs; some of the largest ones include Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), East Asia Summit (EAS), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sector Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and most pertinent to our continued discussion—the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is an IGO, comprised of all but one of the Southeast Asian countries mapped above. The only one of 11 that is not a member is Timor Leste, whose independence was restored on May 20, 2002. Timor Leste is in dialogue to become the newest member of ASEAN. There are currently ten member countries of ASEAN: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. There are also two observer countries: Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea. As a block, ASEAN is a force to be reckoned with. ASEAN has a total population of 650 million, half under the age of 30, and a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion.
ASEAN also maintains ten official Dialogue Partners (DPs). These DPs are important for us to pay attention to when discussing the Indo-Pacific. The ten DPs include Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States of America. Dialogue Partners cannot become members of ASEAN, but they can provide ASEAN countries with technical and economic assistance, and collaborate on the promotion of trade and investment, enhancing social and cultural links, and working together to address non-traditional security threats such as terrorism and other forms of transnational crime. In the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, it is stated that the member countries “envision ASEAN as an outward-looking region within a global community of nations, while maintaining ASEAN centrality.” Their Dialogue Partnerships are certainly a testament to ASEAN relevancy on the global stage.

ASEAN flag

Let’s step back and look at the history of ASEAN. It was established on August 8, 1967; therefore, this year marks 53 years of ASEAN prosperity. It was not the first alliance between Southeast Asian countries. ASEAN was preceded by another organization in the early 1960’s, called the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), that was made up of just three countries— Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. ASEAN came next, and started with five members—Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. These five founding members signed the Bangkok Declaration, which is the founding document of ASEAN. After these five original members, Brunei joined in January 1984, Vietnam in July 1995, Laos and Myanmar in July 1997, and Cambodia in April 1999.

The members of ASEAN have adopted six fundamental principles, outlined in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. They include:
1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations;
2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;
3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means;
5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and
6. Effective cooperation among themselves.

Further, ASEAN has three pillars: Political-Security Community, Economic Community, and Socio-Cultural Community.

The Secretariat of ASEAN is located in Jakarta, Indonesia. The highest level meeting of ASEAN is called the ASEAN Summit, which takes place two times per year, and rotates annually between the ten member countries. In 2019, Thailand held the ASEAN Chairmanship. Thailand held the 34th and 35th ASEAN Summits in Bangkok, in June and November 2019, respectively. This year’s ASEAN Chair is Vietnam. Vietnam originally planed the first of their two ASEAN Summits for April 2020 in Da Nang. Due to COVID-19, Vietnam postponed the 36th ASEAN Summit, and eventually held it virtually on June 26, 2020.

Vietnam is still hoping to hold its second ASEAN Summit, number 37, in November 2020 in Hanoi. As we look ahead to 2021, Brunei will hold the Chairmanship. Brunei hopes to host their summits in Bandar Seri Begawan in May and November 2021, respectively.

What is important to add is during each year’s second ASEAN Summit, there is another related summit held in tandem, called the East Asia Summit (EAS). Unlike its name, the Summit is not reserved for East Asian countries. Instead, it brings together leaders of ASEAN Countries, plus leaders from many of its Dialogue Partners, such as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. EAS is hosted during the ASEAN Summit; therefore, most recently, the 14th East Asia Summit took place in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2019. This year’s EAS is scheduled for November 2020 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Asia Pacific

In the realm of foreign relations, governments do not operate strictly according to continents and sub-continents. Rather, foreign policy is conducted according to geopolitical regions, which certainly shift throughout history. Over the past half-century, one of the most prominent geopolitical regions has been the Asia Pacific. It is non-controversial to say that China has dominated the Asia Pacific region for decades. Asia Pacific typically has included countries in Asia that have a “border” with the Pacific Ocean, plus Australia, New Zealand, and island nations that lie wholly within the Pacific Ocean. In practice, that has included ASEAN countries, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and a whole bunch of small island nations such as Fiji, Tonga, Nauru, Vanuatu, etcetera. Although, many times these small island nations have not been included in Asia Pacific, and instead are grouped alone as the Pacific Islands. They even have their own intergovernmental organization, called the Pacific Islands Forum, with a Secretariat in Suva, Fiji.

Back to Asia Pacific, this geopolitical region also has its own IGO, called the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), with 21 member countries.

APEC member economies


We have finally reached the Indo-Pacific, our focus for the Youth Dialogue. “Indo-Pacific” is still a relatively newly coined geopolitical region. Most countries recognize the term “Indo-Pacific” was first uttered by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe way back in 2007, though the concept of an Indo-Pacific region has gained most of its traction in the past five years. Prime Minister Abe introduced the concept during his address to India’s Parliament, in a speech titled, “Confluence of the Two Seas.”

Let’s think about the name. In moving away from Asia Pacific toward Indo-Pacific, we believe this has two primary implications. First, the name recognizes the rise of India on the global stage, whose population and economy has grown tremendously over the past 5-10 years. Second, the name literally welcomes countries in the Indian Ocean, not only the Pacific Ocean. There is no strict definition of what countries are included in the Indo-Pacific, there is no Indo-Pacific intergovernmental organization.

What we can look to in making the term “Indo-Pacific” officially recognized by governments is May 30, 2018. This is the day the US Department of Defense re-named the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) to the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). Then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated the name change was “in recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific oceans.” From an American perspective, there are two key documents that speak to the US vision and commitment to the Indo-Pacific as a priority theater. They most recently were released in 2019, by the Department of Defense and Department of States. The first was released on June 1, 2019 and is called the “Department Of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, And Promoting A Networked Region.” The second was released by the State Department on November 4, 2019 and is called “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision.”

The shift in terminology from Asia Pacific to Indo-Pacific will be one of the main focuses for our delegates. There is no doubt the shift highlights India’s rise on the world stage, and adds not only India, but other countries that have a “border” with the Indian Ocean, such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Unequivocally, we recognize the centrality of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific region. ASEAN is a unifying force between all of the large and middle powers that consider themselves part of the Indo-Pacific. This is why we purposely chose for our Indo-Pacific Youth Dialogue to take place in tandem with the ASEAN Summit.

We want to highlight once again there is no agreed-upon definition of who is a member of the Indo-Pacific, yet we can draw on several maps to get the conversation started. One such map is of the US Indo-Pacific Command.

Beside the United States, other key players in the region have officially recognized the Indo-Pacific as an emerging geopolitical region. For example, Australia re-named its largest annual maritime activity as the “Indo-Pacific Endeavor.” In their 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, the government of Australia wrote they are “determined to realise a secure, open and prosperous Indo–Pacific.” Further, within the White Paper it is stated that “Australia’s interests are clear as the distribution of power in the Indo–Pacific changes. We want peace to help sustain the growth that has brought the region to the centre of the global economy.”

In April 2019, Australia’s Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Miss Frances Adamson, delivered a speech in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia titled, “Indo-Pacific: Australia’s Perspective.” Her intention was to “set out Australia’s views on the region’s changing dynamics, and our vision for a peaceful Indo-Pacific, with ASEAN at its core, international law supporting its stability, and open markets driving its prosperity.” She concluded by saying that “Australia has a vision for a prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and will continue to work hard to achieve that goal.”

One of Australia’s nearby allies, New Zealand, published in July 2018 a Strategic Defence Policy Statement. Within that publication, the government asserts, “As a linchpin between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and home to the trade-critical Strait of Malacca, Southeast Asia is at the centre of an expansive geostrategic area referred to as the Indo-Pacific.” It goes on to state, “Japan, Australia, and the United States have promoted Indo-Pacific concepts, all presenting India as an important strategic partner.” New Zealand further signaled their commitment to the Indo-Pacific on February 27, 2020 when Foreign Minister Winston Peters met India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Minister Peters made unequivocally clear that “India is a priority relationship for New Zealand. We share common democratic traditions, growing two-way trade, extensive people-to-people links, and a common strategic interest in the Indo-Pacific region.”

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