Jack Georgieff is a Lowy Institute Research Associate.
Is the 'Indo-Pacific' a universally accepted idea? Far from it. Harry White’s recent piece rejecting its usefulness as a strategic framework for Australia is thought provoking, but ultimately it misfires.
White says the Indo-Pacific is not a coherent notion for making strategy. But he quotes Rory Medcalf's definition of the Indo-Pacific (‘an emerging Asian strategic system that encompasses both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, defined in part by the geographically expanding interests and reach of China and India, and the continued strategic role and presence of the United States in both’), which illustrates that 'Indo-Pacific' is all about the growing centrality of these two emerging powers to global geopolitics.
The Indo-Pacific idea is not just (or even mostly) about India, as White seems to suggest, and nor is it a mere list, another of White's arguments. It is a strategic framework that helps to map and calibrate Australia’s interests in a region of increasing strategic and economic importance.
White says the Indo-Pacific is too large a construct to be able to clearly identify security priorities. But the Indo-Pacific idea does bring with it its own strategic priorities, including ensuring the peaceful rise of China and India, together with the continued maritime power of the US and our alliance commitments to it.
White also writes that the core of strategy is to ‘arrive at those features of the international system where we can focus our efforts and scarce resources most effectively in order to secure our interests.’
It sounds neat, but such a definition is only part of the story. Governments have a say in defining their nations’ interests, but they do not have full discretion in deciding exactly what defines their own strategic space. Australia does not have complete control over deciding what constitutes or defines our interests. The wider currents of the international system do much of that for us. We must move within those currents.
White says the Indian Ocean is more pacific than the Pacific. But the Indian Ocean is a growing theatre for Sino-Indian strategic competition, which directly affects Australia’s strategic interests and that of our major ally. It is in our strategic interests to see two of our largest economic partners and two key players in the Asian century rise together peacefully. Leading Indian strategist Raja Mohan notes in his book Samudra Manthan:
As Beijing and New Delhi acquire, for the first time in centuries, the ability to exercise significant influence in their wider maritime neighbourhood, the other great powers, their allies, and various independent actors will respond vigorously to the rise of China and India.
This is an Indo-Pacific dynamic, whether we like it or not.
Naturally, questions arise about whether adequate defence funding can be found to match the scale of our interests in such a vast region. But even without increased capabilities, Australia cannot simply choose to ignore such a large strategic space. Indonesia isn’t doing so. Neither is the US.
Two final points. Firstly, White’s implicit criticism of the 2013 Defence White Paper's endorsement of 'Indo-Pacific' as a strategic construct misses an important point made in that paper. Paragraph 2.9 identifies South East Asia as the geographic centre of the Indo-Pacific, which is precisely where Australia can and does have strategic influence.
Finally, White says the Asia Pacific is somehow big enough for our strategy and our interests. Yet by White’s own logic, the Asia Pacific, like the Indo-Pacific, is too big. If we were to stick to the letter of the Asia Pacific definition and measure our region of strategic interest in terms of the 'overwhelming effects' we can achieve, would our region and interests not merely consist of Melanesia and New Zealand? It is hard to see how we can make any more strategic difference in North Asia than in the Indian Ocean.
Photo by Flickr user Jarle "Speedemon08" Dixon.