Australia needs Indo-Pacific clarity

Conceptual ambiguity won’t cut it as a strategy

Denise Fisher

Government and governance, International relations | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

3 July 2018

If the Indo-Pacific is to guide Australian strategy, policymakers must be clearer on what it means for Australian interests, partners, and regional organisations, Denise Fisher writes.

Alan Gyngell recently summed up the ambiguities of the Indo-Pacific concept, noting incontrovertibly that, “There is, of course, no such thing as the Indo-Pacific. Like the Asia-Pacific, or Asia itself, the Indo-Pacific is simply a way for governments to frame the international environment to suit their policy objectives in particular circumstances.”

This simple truth points to the need for Australia to be clear on what we mean by the Indo-Pacific, if we are going to use the strategic concept. This means being crystal clear on our overall interests, on useful partners, and on forums to advance our interests.

Any defined geographic region minimises the enormous, and unique, strategic reach Australia possesses. Australia has direct strategic interest and influence to our east in the South Pacific, to our northeast into the Asia-Pacific and East Asia, to our north to Southeast Asia, to our northwest and west into the Indian Ocean, and south to Antarctica. We tend not to talk about this major strategic reach. Our instrumentation of it has often been through specific architectures within prescribed regional areas.

There have been three notable successes.

First, Australia is part of a complex of regional organisations in the South Pacific. These include the 1947 South Pacific Community, renamed Secretariat for the Pacific Community, which is even today the pre-eminent technical organisation; the 1971 South Pacific Forum, now known as the Pacific Islands Forum, which, while being contested, remains the most influential political forum; and the range of day-to-day practical, technical bodies known as the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific.

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The second success is the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) concept, brainchild of the Hawke years, which began as a core group of 12 countries, and continues to be a thriving economic forum of 21 countries, now including China.

The third is the East Asian Summit (EAS), in which Australia has participated as a founding member from 2005. The EAS grew from a concept advanced by the Malaysian Government based on ASEAN plus China, Japan, and Korea. But Australia had first begun using the term ‘East Asia’ under the Howard Government in its 1997 White Paper In the National Interest. The EAS gave form and structure to the regional concept.

All three may be defined as Australian successes. In every case, we were in on the ground floor, if not the prime initiator, and they are all functioning organisations to this day.

What are the lessons from these Australian regional success stories for our approach to the Indo-Pacific?

The first is that in each case, clear primary interests were at the heart of our regional leadership effort: security, economic cooperation and development in the South Pacific; economic cooperation to advance a rules-based system in the case of APEC; and strategic interest in ongoing dialogue with China in the EAS.

Second, we identified early a limited number of countries with shared overlapping interests, confining our efforts to those countries in the initial instance. While remaining selective, we welcomed newcomers to these groupings over time.

Third, we devoted significant diplomatic effort to laying the groundwork and mustering support and participation from these partners in a pertinent grouping. Our diplomacy included ongoing engagement and lobbying by our regional missions, shuttle diplomacy, considered invitations for high-level visits to Australia, and medium- as well as high-level dialogue. Relevant defence and military contacts were complementary rather than at the top of our efforts.

In contrast, our Indo-Pacific concept is unclear on all three fronts.

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In terms of setting out our interest, our early references to the idea were vague but situated in the context of security – the 2013 Defence White Paper and 2013 National Security Strategy.

More recently, the 2017 Foreign Affairs White Paper talks about economic growth in the Indo-Pacific, but sets this firmly in a context of “changing power balances” and security. Yet a whole chapter is entitled ‘The Indo-Pacific will create opportunity’. We seem unsure how to marry our security and economic objectives.

Definitions of what we mean by ‘Indo-Pacific’ vary. The 2013 Defence White paper refers to a strategic arc “from India through Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia”. The 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper refers to the “Western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean”. The 2013 National Security Strategy lumped together China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.

Last year’s Foreign Affairs White Paper defined the Indo-Pacific as “the region ranging from the eastern Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean connected by Southeast Asia, including India, North Asia, and the United States” – somewhat oddly not even mentioning China by name. The paper went on to discuss our relationship with China. When referring to Indo-Pacific cooperation, it skirted around where China might come in, singling out India, Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam as partners.

The link between these latter potential partners within an Indo-Pacific umbrella, and our interests is also unclear. India for example, the recurrent new partner, has a long history of hostility to China and is hardly a model of regional cooperation within its immediate neighbourhood. It is China’s thirteenth-largest trading partner, whereas we are China’s seventh-largest, with China being our major trading partner. In terms of regional cooperation and trade, our interests don’t seem to coincide.

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In terms of architecture, we haven’t even pretended to aim at some kind of grouping to advance our idea of shared Indo-Pacific interests. The closest we get, for some, is the Quadrilateral grouping engaging the US, India, Japan and Australia, but which excludes China.

What does this loose comparison between our idea of Indo-Pacific and other Asia-Pacific and South Pacific success stories tell us? If we continue to be vague about the concept, the Indo-Pacific seems doomed to fail as a vehicle for advancing our interests. In the worst scenario, given the potential for misunderstanding about where China comes in, the concept could harm our interests.

If our policymakers see advantage for Australia in the concept, we need to get down to the hard work of clearly defining what our overall objectives are, who shares them, and so who should be consulted and encouraged into some kind of shared dialogue. We can then put the diplomatic resources into elaborating a complementary architecture.

This piece is part of Policy Forum‘s In Focus: Indo-Pacific special section. Read more great pieces about the Indo-Pacific concept here: https://www.policyforum.net/focus-indo-pacific/ 

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