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

What’s in a name?

Martin Blaszczyk

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

21 May 2018

Is the ‘Indo-Pacific’ a way to create a better ‘mental map’ of our region or an unhelpful abstraction? Martin Blaszczyk takes a look.

For millennia, the West knew only ‘Asia’. With the entrenchment of American hegemony in the 20th Century, the ‘Asia-Pacific’ came to define how Australians conceptualise their region. But with the inexorable march of globalisation, is it time for our horizons to shift again?

Far from simply delimiting a sphere of the globe stretching from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of the Americas, the Indo-Pacific is “a globally-central, two-ocean strategic system with fluid boundaries and an Asian core” according to Rory Medcalf. Writing in the South China Morning Post, he takes a look at the recent “buzz” over the term.

For David Brewster, the Indo-Pacific century is defined by the growing rivalry between two rising superpowers.

“How India and China get along in the shared Indo-Pacific space – cooperation, coexistence, competition, or confrontation – may be one of the key strategic challenges of the 21st century,” Brewster writes in Policy Forum.

With Anthony Bergin, Brewster charts China’s rising assertiveness in the region, much to India’s chagrin, while Darshana Baruah calls the Indo-Pacific “a new single strategic arc” that will complicate the maritime strategies of both Australia and India.

With its two-ocean geography, the concept seems to fit well with Australia’s strategic perspective. The first time the government formally adopted the term was in the 2013 Defence White Paper. By the time we asked experts to comment on last year’s Australian Foreign Policy White Paper, the term was common parlance, with Indonesia, Japan, India, and South Korea identified as Australia’s “Indo-Pacific partners.”

Australia has been busy reifying the Indo-Pacific with talk of a revived ‘Quadrilateral’ dialogue with the US, India and Japan, as Graeme Dobell explains in The Strategist. Even Donald Trump is on board, having used the term repeatedly, and adopting it in his administration’s national security strategy and national defence strategy.

However, Brad Glosserman from the Centre for Strategic Studies says the goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” remains amorphous even as it informs US policy. Similarly, as Asha Sundaramurthy points out in The Diplomat, India’s recent decision to again exclude Australia from its Malabar naval exercise highlights the fine line it walks with its great and powerful neighbour.

For China, naturally, both the Indo-Pacific concept and associated Quad smack of containment. Beijing has not failed to express its displeasure at the moves, even mocking Australia’s use of the term.

The Indo-Pacific concept has other detractors. Joshua Kurlantzik calls it “nebulous” and “ hard to pull off” while Andrew Phillips argues for a more regionally differentiated ‘Indo/Pacific’ alternative for Australia’s foreign policy.

To answer the sceptics and critics, Rory Medcalf will speak on an Indo-pacific strategy for Australia on 21 May – watch it live here and judge for yourself.

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2 Responses

  1. ANIL JAI SINGH says:

    While it was Shinzo Abe who first spoke of the Confluence of Two oceans when addressing the Indian Parliament in 2007 which gave rise to this term, the roots of this can be traced back to history eg the Hindu influence in SE Asia (:Angkor Vat et al).
    However that notwithstanding,, while it means different things tothe US, Australia, Japan and India it is China which has embraced it wholeheartedly from Djibouti to Japan and is integral to their Far Seas strategy and Mahanian aspirations of Maritime power.
    As India also looks at this larger geostrategic seascape, competition is inevitable, confrontation very possible and conflict a distant but distinct possibility. We are looking at Cold War 2.0 in the Indo-Pacific from 2025 onwards.

  2. Cmde Anil Jai Singh, IN (Retd) says:

    Ever since Shinzo Abe spoke of the confluence of Two Oceans at the Indian Parliament in 2007, the Indo-Pacific has become part of the geostrategic lexicon. However, to this day it means different things to different people notwithstanding President Trump’s endorsement of the term last year during his Asia visit. However while the US, Australia, Japan and India still differ on its geographical extent depending on their perceived interests, China has understood its full import and geographic extremities and is present from Djibouti in the west to the eastern end of the Western Pacific in the east.
    China is today the dominant maritime power east of the Malacca Straits, the imposing presence of the USN notwithstanding. Extending this reach into the Indian Ocean is integral to its Far Seas strategy in its relentless Mahanian quest for maritime power as the forerunner to eventual global power status. There is little that can be done to stop this Chinese juggernaut without a focussed approach by the ‘arc of maritime democracies’ who are doing little of note at present, either individually or collectively.

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