Australia’s great expectations in the Indo-Pacific
24 Aug 2012|

The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has recently slipped into the lexicon of Australian policymakers, in quiet supplement to ‘Asian Century’ and ‘Asia–Pacific Century’, with little questioning as to what this semantic shift actually means and achieves in strategic terms.

There’s nothing wrong with placing Australia in the spotlight and geographic centre of these two oceans and vast surrounding region; it cements Australia’s identity and role as a potential key actor in this emerging epoch, yet I would suggest that there is limited utility in defining Australian interests so broadly.

If you accept the broad concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’—and there would be many that would stumble at this first hurdle—it would be hard to refute the importance of what happens both on land and within the maritime domain encapsulated by its vast boundaries (from the shores of East Africa to the western seaboard of the United States). What is of primary importance when defining our own region and area of strategic interest is our ability to influence and shape what happens within that region, and create favourable outcomes.

Key to this is presence, and presence credibility. Two core tools that enable states to project successfully are reflected in both the strength of their diplomatic representation (and overseas presence), and military strength and capabilities (including actual and perceived ability to have and sustain overseas presence). Geographically characterising and increasing Australia’s strategic region as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ would require quantum shifts, on both these fronts, in both will and capacity; two things that prima facie under the current environment look unlikely to happen.

Australia, on comparative global terms, is diplomatically under-represented, sitting 25th out of 34 OECD states (PDF) on a comparison of overseas diplomatic networks. DFAT’s budget remains modest and despite recent gestures made in the right direction, looks set to remain so for the foreseeable future. With deep cuts to the Australian Defence budget, debate rages on as to defining the ADF’s core capabilities and what we want and expect the ADF to do with them. A shrinking defence budget shouldn’t precipitate increasing expectations of the ADF and a widening of the region’s perimeters within which we expect it to successfully and credibly operate.

Australia has grappled for many years now with both defining what it wants and determining how it can achieve it within our near neighbourhood. As far back as 1964 Donald Horne recognised this as a necessary evil to be overcome in ‘The Lucky country’ and more recently Michael Wesley in 2011 in ‘There goes the neighbourhood’ (in which Wesley also defines Australia’s region as ‘Indo-Pacific’). If we can’t decide what we want and how to exert influence in order to achieve it within an area at relative close proximity to us, how do we then project it further afield in accordance to our increasingly greater defined areas of strategic interest like the ‘Indo-Pacific’?

Australia, as much as we might like it to be, certainly isn’t an ‘Indo-Pacific actor’ nor is the ‘Indo-Pacific’ our strategic region. Our strategic region does, however, lie much closer to these shores but there is clearly still confusion as to exactly what that area is. As Churchill once stated, that it is indeed wise to look forward but foolish to look further than one can see. It might be that the answer also begins with Indo- but sits under our very noses.

Ben Moles holds a Master of International Security from the University of Sydney and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute.