An Indo-Pacific strategy for Australia is essential, but difficult. The country must think big, but start small, Andrew Phillips writes.
The United States Navy’s decision to redesignate Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command marks a pivotal moment in the expansion of Australia’s strategic geography. As the guarantor of international order in maritime Asia, the US Navy’s embrace of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ will further fast-track regional acceptance of the concept among American allies and adversaries alike.
Prominent Australian analysts have long advocated an Indo-Pacific redefinition of our region. But as the concept takes hold regionally, we must recognise the focused commitment an effective Australian Indo-Pacific strategy demands.
Australians are used to thinking of our neighbourhood as the Asia-Pacific. But three trends have recently stretched our horizons to encompass the Indo-Pacific.
The first is China and India’s growing commercial and strategic extraversion. Having abandoned autarky for integration with the global economy, both countries have enjoyed massive economic growth in recent decades. This has hugely increased their dependence on trade as a source of prosperity – trade that continues to be conducted overwhelmingly via sea rather than overland.
Second, increased maritime trade has brought with it increasing perceptions of vulnerability. Traditionally continental powers, China and India have lately invested significantly in their navies. A nascent Sino-Indian rivalry has resulted, as both seek to secure the sea lines of communication linking them to crucial overseas markets.
Third, maritime Asia is consequently becoming far more crowded and contested, and regional powers are already recalibrating their outlooks to reflect this reality. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and even Indonesia’s ‘Indo-Pacific cooperation concept’ all evidence this tendency.
More recent Trump-fuelled concerns about America’s reliability as a security partner have only accelerated this trend, as states diversify their partnerships to hedge against the risk of American introversion.
As maritime Asia becomes more contested, Australia’s need for a precisely focused and practically sustainable Indo-Pacific strategy has never been greater.
Australia’s core Indo-Pacific interests are to contain Great Power rivalry; to guarantee the freedom of navigation on which our trade and prosperity depend; and to effectively manage transnational security threats, from piracy to people smuggling.
Australia’s ability to independently influence great power rivalries is minimal. It does, however, have far greater opportunities and capacity to help uphold freedom of the seas and to address transnational threats.
Doing so nevertheless demands that the country work far more closely with non-traditional security partners – notably India and Indonesia – that have historically favoured radically different visions of regional order to our own.
Australia has always depended heavily on alliances with Western great power patrons to assure our security. We like American hegemony and are sorry to see it fading. Conversely, India and Indonesia have historically preferred a regional order that minimises the involvement of external great powers as far as possible.
Besides these historic differences, Australia’s contemporary strategic interests do not neatly align with those of Jakarta or New Delhi. Indonesia’s ‘China problem’ (let alone India’s) is not the same as Australia’s ‘China problem’. The resulting dissonance in priorities places real upper limits on the scope for developing comprehensive strategic partnerships with these states at this time.
Given these challenges, a top-down Indo-Pacific strategy that rests either on multilateral grand designs, or on minilateral ententes such as the resuscitated US-Japan-India-Australia Quad, is likely to fail.
The region is simply too big and too diverse to converge on the shared vision of international order necessary to support such lofty enterprises.
Instead, Australia should for now pursue a more focused but incremental, ‘bottom-up’ strategy for building regional order.
This would in the first instance mean working with India and Indonesia as priority partners to entrench habits of security cooperation, in particular through building collective capacities to combat shared threats to the maritime commons, such as piracy.
Besides the immediate practical payoffs of such low-key cooperation, these types of initiatives may help hasten India and Indonesia’s emergence as net regional security providers. This has the potential to enhance regional resilience by moderating Asia’s historic over-reliance on the United States to defend against the full gamut of maritime security challenges.
Finally, an initial focus on maritime security initiatives could test the realistic scope – if any – for Australia to build up to far more comprehensive strategic partnerships with India and Indonesia over the longer term.
As we pivot to the Indo-Pacific, we confront a growing gap between our expanding strategic geography, and our limited capacity to shape this larger neighbourhood in ways that best advance our interests and values. Divergent histories and partially discordant strategic outlooks separate us from the key regional partners we need to help close that gap.
These differences cannot be willed away. But an incremental approach to building order offers the best means to practically manage these differences, and so promote the inclusive, peaceful and resilient Indo-Pacific so necessary to Australia’s continuing security and prosperity.