Belt and Road, Trade and industry, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific

1 June 2018

China may not like it, but this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue will reinforce the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific concept, Rory Medcalf writes.

Several new developments reinforce the growing importance of what can be termed the ‘Indo-Pacific concept’ to the future security and stability of the maritime region centred on Southeast Asia.

Of course, the reflexive late 20th-century orthodoxy of the Asia-Pacific may linger on. This was the idea, accurate in its time, that North America, Oceania and East Asia constituted a coherent strategic system, in which India and the Indian Ocean played at best a peripheral role.

But this weekend, when the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue (technically called the Asia Security Summit) convenes in Singapore, its discussions among defence ministers and academics will focus largely on issues related to China’s growing presence and influence across a two-ocean system.

Fittingly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be the keynote speaker. Perhaps in time, the annual forum will be renamed the Indo-Pacific Summit, not least in honour of the pivotal geography of its Singapore location.

Another of the summit’s headline speeches this weekend will be from US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who earlier this week officially renamed America’s strategic engagement in Asia in Indo-Pacific terms. He announced the renaming of the American combatant command in Asia, Pacific Command, to fit the broad two-ocean theatre across which it has long operated: it will officially be called Indo-Pacific Command.

More on this: Podcast: Diving into the Indo-Pacific debate

This may seem largely symbolic, but it reflects both what (Indo)PACOM already does – providing US strategic presence ‘from Hollywood to Bollywood’ – and the deeper rethink occurring in the US system about sustained engagement and strategic competition with China across the region.

China may not necessarily like the term Indo-Pacific, but a glance at a map shows that the geography of its so-called Maritime Silk Road policy, part of the wider Belt and Road Initiative, is the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics.

Understandably, there remain real uncertainties among US allies and partners about the top-level volatility in American policy rhetoric and behaviour at present, and prospectively for some years to come. However, recent US policy documents, notably the December 2017 National Security Strategy and January 2018 Defense Strategy, point to a growing recognition across the US policy community that if the US is to seek to maintain a long-term global leadership role, the outcome will be to a large degree determined by how it contests and manages China’s challenge in the Indo-Pacific.

Of course, questions remain about whether the United States is willing to sustain the comprehensive commitment – economic, societal, diplomatic as well as military – that this will entail.

However, the US commitment to the wider Indo-Pacific (and not just the old Asia-Pacific) began well before Trump – think George W Bush’s strategic partnership with India or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2011 reframing of ANZUS as an “Indo-Pacific alliance”.

My assessment is that a US Indo-Pacific strategy, while it will take time fully to form, will outlast the Trump Administration, with bipartisan blessing.

More on this: India’s expanding security sphere

But the Indo-Pacific is not all about what America says – far from it. The more intriguing news this week is unequivocally Asian: the joint statement on a shared vision of Indo-Pacific maritime cooperation released by Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This marks a turning point in Asian acceptance of the Indo-Pacific idea. Analysts and journalists would do well to read the communique in full. It reflects considerably more substance and likemindedness than, say, the statements emerging from the recent India-China and Japan-China leadership meetings, the outcomes of which generally amounted to agreeing to disagree, and pragmatically trying a little harder to keep out of each other’s way.

Especially striking is the language Jokowi and Modi have agreed to on “the importance of achieving a free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” involving “sovereignty and territorial integrity, international law, in particular UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), freedom of navigation and overflight, sustainable development and an open, free, fair and mutually beneficial trade and investment system”.

This should be music to Australian ears, and indeed to all who want to preserve a regional order based on equal sovereignty, non-coercion and mutual respect.

The Modi-Jokowi statement – reflecting the foreign policy choices of Indo-Pacific Asia’s two largest democracies – exposes the emptiness of claims by some commentators, such as Beijing-based businessman and former Australian ambassador Geoff Raby, that the idea of the Indo-Pacific is an “Orwellian” idea of no greater substance than, say, “the Atlanto-Pacific”. There is actually quite a lot in a name, it turns out.

More pointedly, the willingness of India and Indonesia to move towards a new common vision of an Indo-Pacific region that cannot and should not be dominated by China is evidence quite at odds with certain assertions by those who appear to privilege a Chinese perspective, not only Raby but also former Australian political figure and now China relations think tank director Bob Carr.

More on this: India’s challenge to China

Those commentators have claimed that countries such as India and Japan are essentially shifting closer to respecting China’s way of seeing the world, by implication leaving Australia isolated in criticising Chinese assertiveness.

The reality is more complicated and, thankfully, somewhat more conducive to Australia’s interests as a democratic middle power. Japan remains wedded to the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ vision that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in Kenya in 2016. In Jakarta, Modi has made it clear where India stands. And now his Indonesian counterpart is well-placed to advance a Jakarta-Delhi version of the Indo-Pacific message within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to prove it is an idea that Southeast Asians can not only live with, but that gives ASEAN more centrality and more agency, than a unilateral, made-in-Beijing Belt and Road Initiative.

A long game is unfolding in the region, with variants of the Indo-Pacific idea now being unfurled to contest the China-centric geo-economic and strategic narrative of One Belt and One Road. Each year, in fact, each week, as I teach one of the world’s first Master’s courses on specifically Indo-Pacific security, we find a trove of newly-generated content and argument.

There is not, and should not be, a single Indo-Pacific doctrine, for this is a region made for multipolarity, as I argued in this recent public lecture.

It is worth repeating here an expression that Defense Secretary Mattis likes to deploy, and as I have also shamelessly borrowed from my Indian colleague Nitin Pai, who introduced it here at an ANU National Security College conference in 2016 (see pages 84-87 of this very relevant set of papers on the Indo-Pacific). The Indo-Pacific will be a place of many belts and many roads.

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  1. […] Dialogue. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened the summit yesterday with a keynote address establishing India’s role in the region as a focus area for the conference. With the US Pacific Command having […]

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