Indo-Pacific: listing our interests not making strategy
20 Aug 2013|

The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is gaining currency. It appeared in this year’s Defence White Paper as an alternative to ‘Asia–Pacific’, and although the formulation varies slightly, it has been picked up by both sides of Australian politics (here and here for example). US Vice President Joe Biden used a similar idea a few weeks ago. Although he called it the Asia–Pacific, he said the region stretches ‘…from India to the Pacific nations of the Americas’. Among Australian commentators, Rory Medcalf is a staunch supporter, and the Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Ray Griggs used the term in a speech at an ASPI conference last week.

But the Indo-Pacific is more a list of our interests than a strategy. And this isn’t just semantics. We want a smaller, not larger strategic framework, because the space in which Australia frames its interests will shape our strategic objectives. And the smaller our list of core strategic objectives, the more resources we have available to pursue each of them.

The 2013 White Paper announced that:

A new Indo-Pacific strategic arc is beginning to emerge, connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia. … The 2009 Defence White Paper made clear Australia’s enduring interest in the stability of what it called the wider Asia-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific is a logical extension of this concept, and adjusts Australia’s priority strategic focus to the arc extending from India though Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia, including the sea lines of communication on which the region depends.

The best argument for the idea is that it incorporates the massive trade (in particular energy) routes of the Indian Ocean, and India herself into the strategic framework through which we view Australia’s strategic circumstances.

But listing places where Australia has interests located isn’t strategic analysis. What we want from a strategic construct (and from the Defence White Paper/new defence policy which will likely follow this election) is an analysis of where the highest concentration of both Australia’s interests and risks are located, as well as where we see ourselves as able (or potentially able) to mitigate those risks.

A mere vision of Asia–Pacific (East and Southeast Asia, the US, and the islands of the Western Pacific) does the job. Eight of our top ten trade partners, and almost 60% of our global trade come from this region, along with almost all of our strategic risk.

That’s not to say that India doesn’t matter to us; it’s important to Australia in two ways. The first is the bilateral relationship in a broad sense, including things like trade and diplomatic links. But it’s hard to see how that warrants the shift from Asia–Pacific to Indo-Pacific. The second is in the role India plays in Asia—which is already accounted for in the idea of the Asia–Pacific.

To test this idea, we can try to imagine what action of India’s would both be important to Australia, and would affect neither the Asia–Pacific nor our bilateral relationship. The possible exceptions are the (global) ramifications of some kinds of nuclear events, or a major war with Pakistan. But a potentially global impact isn’t an argument for the inclusion of India into a regional system. And for all this, despite the ‘Looking East’ policy, India remains essentially strategically inert.

The other element is the importance of energy and trade flows into Asia. To start with, that seems a thin feature of the international order on which to extend the Asia–Pacific system into the Indian Ocean. And, importantly for Australian strategists, this trade route doesn’t present the kind of operational challenges that Asia does.

The Indian Ocean is a large and largely empty body of water with an important trade route strung across the top of it. That trade route is protected by the close attention and considerable resources of India, the US (via the 5th fleet), and China for a start—here at least their interests converge. That doesn’t leave a lot of space for meaningful and cost-effective involvement on any serious scale by the RAN.

Compared to the fraught waters of Asia and the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean does look pacific. There isn’t a sufficient concentration of risks or of contested interests for it to be a useful inclusion into our strategic construct.

Ultimately, ‘the Indo-Pacific’ amounts to a list of things that matter to us, without much prioritising. But strategy involves paring that list back as far as we can, until we 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. And this isn’t just abstract. The smaller our definition of our strategic environment, the fewer objectives we set ourselves. The fewer objectives we set, the more resources we can put into those that really are core interests—and the more chance we have of success. The Asia–Pacific is quite big enough.

Harry White is an analyst at ASPI.