The Indo-Pacific concept might not provide all the answers for Australia’s strategic questions, but it could help light the way, David Brewster writes.
The Indo-Pacific construct, in which the Indian and Pacific Oceans are seen as an increasingly interdependent strategic and economic space, is changing the way Australia thinks about its region. That includes having to think more coherently about how the Indian Ocean fits into our broader regional strategy.
Traditionally, the Pacific and Indian Oceans were seen as largely separate strategic spheres. East Asia and the Pacific operated with one set of economic, political and security dynamics, and the Indian Ocean with another. Interactions between the two were relatively limited.
But this is now changing, led by the expansion of the economic and security interests of countries such as China and Japan into the Indian Ocean and India’s growing role in the Pacific. It no longer works to put the Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres into separate boxes in understanding major power interactions, especially in the maritime realm. It is clear that Australia needs a more unified view of its region.
The long-term shift in Australian strategic perspectives from one focused on the ‘Asia-Pacific’ towards a broader view of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has important implications for Australia’s approach towards the Indian Ocean.
For example, the Indo-Pacific provides a useful framework for approaching Australia’s relationship with India. The relationship reflects shared interests in the Indian Ocean but also across the Indo-Pacific.
Similarly, threats to the security of vital sea lines of communication across the Indian Ocean may reflect the interactions among major Indo-Pacific powers, not just local considerations (such as Somali pirates).
But despite its name, the Indo-Pacific does not provide an all-encompassing and exclusive framework for Australia’s engagement across the entire Pacific or Indian Oceans. The ‘Indo-Pacific,’ ‘Asia-Pacific,’ ‘South Pacific’ and the ‘Indian Ocean’ regions are different, if overlapping, geographic spaces that we might put together for some purposes, but not for others. Australia needs to work with several regional concepts at the same time.
For one thing, the Indo-Pacific does not involve the agglomeration of the entire Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper defines the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as including essentially the northeast quadrant of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. This may reflect concerns about ensuring that Australia’s limited diplomatic and military resources are properly focused on key areas of the Indo-Pacific and not dispersed.
Certainly, there would be no good reason to see the Indo-Pacific as combining the entire Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres, including the space from, say, Peru to Madagascar. That would not be useful or meaningful in practical or policy terms.
But nor does it make much sense to cut the Indian Ocean in half. The interactions of India and China in the Indian Ocean region do not divide that region between east and west. Nor do the sea lines of communication across the Indian Ocean respect boundaries between the eastern and western halves of that ocean.
These problems of drawing lines on the map point to the need to understand the Indo-Pacific as more of a functional than a strictly geographic concept. That is, the Indo-Pacific provides a useful framework for responding to changes in our strategic environment involving growing military and economic interactions between East Asia and the Indian Ocean.
The Indo-Pacific concept can be used to give greater coherence to different elements of Australia’s maritime strategy. By linking Australia’s most important maritime zones, the Indo-Pacific calls for a coherent strategy to address Australia’s maritime interests across the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. For example, the long-term transfer of many naval assets to Western Australia should not be seen as a reflection of not just Australia’s interests in the Indian Ocean, but also the need to swing naval resources across the two theatres. A quick look at the map will tell us why.
So where does the Indo-Pacific leave Australia’s Indian Ocean strategy? The latter must be consistent with and contribute towards an overall Indo-Pacific strategy, but it also can’t just be a subset of it.
Australia’s strategy towards the Indian Ocean needs to be driven by the specific challenges of that region. The Indian Ocean encompasses a vast area, including the northwestern Indian Ocean, East Africa, and areas between. Many of the threats there are sub-strategic in nature. Some, such as people smuggling, have been a major security focus of Australia for decades.
But the Indo-Pacific concept does give some important pointers for Australia’s priorities in the Indian Ocean. One is that Australia must avoid diffusing its limited resources and prioritise its efforts towards the eastern Indian Ocean, which includes countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as well as the ASEAN states.
Another implication is that growing interactions between the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific will, over time, affect the shape of governance arrangements in each theatre. This doesn’t mean that East Asian-centred institutions such as the East Asia Summit should be extended to encompass the Indian Ocean. But it may, for example, mean that Indian Ocean institutions need to constructively engage with major East Asian states such as China and Japan if they are to be more effective.
The Indo-Pacific concept doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but can help us arrive at them.