Anchoring Australia in Asia

Can the maritime ‘Indo-Pacific’ alleviate insular imaginations?

Christian Wirth

International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

28 June 2018

The Indo-Pacific idea will be a useful guide to the future if its proponents avoid the trappings of civilizational geopolitical delusions, writes Christian Wirth.

Sometimes described as a ‘Western outpost’, Australians are most sensitive about impending changes in the global order.

Deeply wedded to their imagined British cultural and political roots – imagined because modern Australia is much more than a British or European nation – and anchored in the US-led Anglosphere of the post-war era, decision-makers in Canberra have seemingly lost their bearings.

Under President Trump, long-standing fears about abandonment by the US seem to materialise, and the exit of a weakened UK from a disintegrating European Union apparently means that Australia risks confronting an ever-expanding China alone.

Initially successful attempts to create a regional space through the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the ASEAN Regional Forum have faltered. The Asia-Pacific era is over, and Australia has gone adrift in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Thus, the idea of an Indo-Pacific region anchoring Australia within it is promising. Not only can ‘old’ ties with the US be maintained; as it brings in rising India, the imagery also diversifies relations beyond the ever-conflicting Sino-US and Sino-Japanese dyads and assigns Australia’s closest neighbours in Southeast Asia a central position.

More on this: National Security Podcast: the rise of the Indo-Pacific

Rory Medcalf is correct in pointing out that the Indo-Pacific “centre of strategic and economic gravity in a globalised world”, defined “by multi-polarity and connectivity”, is “too large and diverse for hegemony” and therefore most suitable for integrating rising China into new regional and world orders.

Yet, as Medcalf feels compelled to clarify and rebut, the Indo-Pacific has often been perceived – and conceived – as a security-political device for countering, if not containing, China.

The reason for this unhealthy development, including a naval arms race, lies partly in the Chinese Communist Party’s proclivity for succumbing to siege mentality when it struggles with the sea changes brought about by the rush for development in a globalised ‘Western’ world. But there are also other reasons.

After Japan’s growth miracle ended, the Soviet Union disappeared, and ‘lost decades’ continued, Japanese leaders too found themselves adrift amid the moving boundaries between ‘East’ and ‘West’. Facilitated by the geographical condition of an ‘island country’ and isolated by their continuing inability to come to terms with their violent past, the conservative establishment resorted to an insular imagination while clinging to the US alliance anchor.

Even though the bankruptcy of Japan Inc. ended the ‘Japan threat’, the possibility of Tokyo re-entering and making part of an East Asian regional sphere heightened anxieties among Asia hands in Washington, too. Thus, the US-Japan alliance not only secured Japan in and for the ‘West’; together with Washington’s trans-Atlantic ties – strained by the 2003 Iraq invasion – it was also needed for anchoring the US.

More on this: Policy File: what should we make of the ‘Indo-Pacific’?

Yet, as accelerating change has been increasing uncertainty, conservative leaders take recourse to civilizational politics: for rejuvenating the (Han) Chinese nation; making (White) America and (Hindu) India great again; and reclaiming Japan from its post-war constitutional constraints and remodelling it according to the late 19th century Meiji state.

The latter includes the promotion of the Indo-Pacific as a means to revive geopolitics reminiscent of imperial Japan’s pre-World War I alliance with the British Empire, and to forge a balancing coalition against China.

Australia, for its part, has long imagined itself as an island. Safe, free, prosperous, and ‘Western’.

Yet, this insular imagination gave rise to the paradox that Australians, despite or precisely because of the ‘stopping power’ of water – its injection of ideational distance – also feel vulnerable and threatened. Thus, the alliance with the United States (and New Zealand) has been crucial not only for territorially defending, but also for geopolitically keeping Australia in place. Despite continuing entanglements, however, Australian policymakers perceive themselves as largely external to the power struggles in Asia.

Herein lies the principal caveat of how the Indo-Pacific has been put into practice: Rather than alleviating Australia’s insular imagination, it has been appropriated for propping it up. This is because the Indo-Pacific debate has overwhelmingly focussed on ‘maritime democracies’ and most recently been linked to the defence of the ‘liberal rules-based order’.

Particularly revealing are the 2013 and 2016 Defence White Papers and the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, which were all premised on conceptions of a universally beneficial order that has remained unchanged for 70 years. This view disregards very illiberal attempts to defend the ‘liberal order’ in Vietnam, Korea, and elsewhere, while discounting change – including the very end of the Cold War.

More on this: Towards an Indo-Pacific strategic partnership

The renewed commitment to spread ‘our values’, and to defend ‘our way of life’, also through the use of coercive means beyond Australia, endorses the kind of universalism that underpinned past imperial orders. As such, the dominant Australian vision of order is not entirely different from the clashing US, Chinese, Japanese and Indian universalisms, and may easily justify attempts to carve out respective spheres of influence.

New ideas only grow when they have roots in older ones, and they will inevitably be filtered through existing cognitive structures. Yet, if the Indo-Pacific shall succeed, it must stay clear of ‘value-oriented’ politics. This includes the admission that talk about the ‘rules-based order’, prompted largely by China’s expansion in the South China Sea, misses the point and reinforces civilizational geopolitics rather than the authority of international law.

The Indo-Pacific also needs to be disassociated from exclusionary forums like the ‘Quad’, or tri-laterals that seek to align, for instance, Japanese-Australian and Indian, or Japanese-Indian-German interests, by exploiting so-called shared values.

If indeed the Indo-Pacific reflects a view of the world that has “deep roots in Australia’s history”, as Allan Gyngell writes, and Australians come to think again about their strategic environment in accordance with the British empire’s “own string of pearls”, then New Delhi is unlikely to subscribe to it.

Medcalf is right: the Indo Pacific is “too large and diverse for hegemony”. Anyone’s hegemony.

This is why it may well be the most promising solution to the quest for order, not only for Australia.

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