Australia's place in the Indo-Pacific

23 November 2012


OLIVIA CABLE looks at whether Australia can be a promoter of peace in the Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific is a significant strategic concept and while it's appearing more frequently in policy lexicon, it's certainly not new.

In fact, its history can be traced back to two seminars held at The Australian National University in 1964, when the Defence Studies Project brought together policymakers and academics for two seminars examining the risk of nuclear dispersal in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region, and Commonwealth responsibilities for security in the Indo-Pacific region.

Speaking at Wednesday's launch of a new Strategic and Defence Studies Centre policy paper series, Centre of Gravity, Rory Medcalf from the Lowy Institute for International Policy talked about the reawakening of the idea of the Indo-Pacific as a region and questioned why we should refer to the region in this way. Most importantly, he looked at what this strategic term and concept might mean for Australia.

According to Medcalf, if Australia is serious about engaging our full region in this so-called Asian century, the sea compels us to look towards our neighbours' backyards. As an American ally, Australia must also engage economically, socially and strategically beyond East Asia, to the Indo-Pacific; a grouping that includes Asia's emerging powers like India and more adequately reflects the shift of the centre of gravity.

Long accepted as a geographic region, the strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific has re-emerged over the past seven years. The term appeared in an Australian government ‘think piece’ in 2005-6; the same time Australian journalist Michael Richardson wrote that the new East Asia Summit could be the peak body for an Indo-Pacific order.

Today, as Washington continues to push its strategy of reorienting back to Asia, and relies on its partners to emphasise alliances, Medcalf claims that “Australia’s qualities mean Australia does and will play an important part in this reorientation. Australia’s trade corridors are strategically significant and vulnerable. The rise of China and India and expansions of economic interests and energy reliance brings validation for Australia to engage in the Indo-Pacific in both an economic and strategic sense”.

As China sees the area as a strategic imperative, Medcalf explained, there are “great prospects of a naval challenge between China and India. India sees the Indian Ocean as its own, particularly as its trade expands with the rest of Southeast Asia”.

Yet in many ways, there are strategic implications when defining the region as the Indo-Pacific. For instance, if the Indo-Pacific is code for excluding or balancing against China, can Medcalf’s view – that China will not be a major player in the Indian Ocean – have implications for regional peace and stability? Against the backdrop of great power competition, how does China’s strategy sit in the orbit of India, America and their allies?

Medcalf asks where, how and on what terms should China be included in Indo-Pacific power. According to him China “has legitimate interests, and its exclusion from order would be unjust and destabilising. To lock China out would be folly and unsustainable”.

For these reasons, it is important to ask whether the Indo-Pacific is a useful concept for regional cooperation. Multilateralism doesn’t seem to be working well-enough to address conflicting interests in the South China Sea. Medcalf offers an alternative which he terms minilateralism, asserting that Australia can play a role in such an initiative.

In an order based on minilateralism, Australia is well positioned to take the initiative as a hub for selective, functional security minilateralism, bringing together key powers from across the Indo-Pacific, to promote enhanced security dialogue, exercises and operational co-ordination with different combinations of countries.

As Medcalf points out, “this is where map making ends, and the statecraft begins”.

Download Rory Medcalf’s paper for the Centre of Gravity series at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

The Centre of Gravity series hosts internationally-renowned scholars and former policymakers to address security and strategy problems Australia and the wider region faces.In 2013, the series will host Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb, who will examine Australia’s defence requirements, and Dr Raja Mohan, who will look at India-China rivalry.

Olivia Cable is a postgraduate student in the Graduate Studies in International Affairs program in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and Project Coordinator for the College’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies.

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