The ‘Indo-Pacific’ places Australia at the centre of the action
7 May 2013|

The Strategist is giving the White Paper’s newest strategic construct—the ‘Indo-Pacific strategic arc’—short shrift. Peter Jennings suggests it still needs thinking through. Rob Ayson sees it as nothing more than a smokescreen. I’m not sure I can agree with them.

Strategists notoriously crave neat metaphors. This latest one contains echoes of Paul Dibb’s famous ‘arc of instability’ which, with characteristic precision, Dibb used to describe the area to the North and East of Australia (PDF) that ‘stretches from the Indonesian archipelago, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea in the North, to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia and New Zealand in the East.’

This degree of precision has thus far been absent from discussions on the Indo-Pacific. The National Security Strategy (PDF) was unduly sloppy in this regard, asserting that ‘use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ complements the term ‘Asia-Pacific’—they’re both useful frames through which to view Australia’s national security interests’. Such an approach served only to undermine the sense of coherence that the Gillard government has sought to achieve by releasing a trio of White Papers in such close succession.

Some Indo-Pacific enthusiasts have used the term quite broadly. In his inaugural SDSC Centre of Gravity paper, for instance, Rory Medcalf of the Lowy Institute saw the Indo-Pacific as ‘encompassing 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’.

Defence Minister Smith favours a similar broad brush approach, referring to the Indo-Pacific as an amalgam of ‘the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Rim’. Others adopt a far narrower conception. DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese, for instance, sees the Indo-Pacific construct matching ‘neatly’ with the expanded East Asia Summit. In a recent speech to the Asia Society, Varghese referred to an emerging Indo-Pacific strategic arc that extends ‘from India, through Southeast Asia toNortheast Asia.’

Yet none of these formulations is completely satisfactory. Insufficient strategic interdependence exists between the relatively large and diverse range of countries encompassed in the Medcalf and Smith approaches to justify calling the Indo-Pacific a ‘strategic system.’ For instance, the relevance to Australian strategy of Indian Ocean Rim countries such as Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles and Tanzania is presently unclear.

Similarly, there is little substantive difference between Varghese’s narrower Indo-Pacific conception and existing regional descriptors, namely the Asia-Pacific. To be sure, India is arguably not an Asia-Pacific country—a fact reflected by its continued exclusion from APEC. Yet other institutions with a distinctly Asia-Pacific flavor—namely the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)—have shown sufficient flexibility here.

Clearly some middle ground between the Medcalf/Smith and Varghese approaches could usefully be found. Before contemplating what that might be, however, it’s important to acknowledge the case for throwing up one’s hands and abandoning the Indo-Pacific term altogether.

While that may seem pointless given that the construct has now officially become part of Australian Defence policy, the White Paper implicitly—and probably quite unintentionally—actually calls its own Indo-Pacific construct into question. The vast majority of the regional flashpoints it refers to, for instance, are concentrated in discrete sub-regions where no clear Indo-Pacific logic applies. Take the Korean Peninsula, East China Sea and Taiwan tensions in Northeast Asia. The fact that these flashpoints are arguably alsoAsia’s most dangerous suggests that this particular deficiency with the Indo-Pacific construct cannot be too readily dismissed.

Likewise, the US-China dynamic that the White Paper suggests will be central to shaping order in the coming decades will be played out predominantly in the Western Pacific. For as Michael Green and Andrew Shearer have recently observed (PDF), American leadership in the Indian Ocean isn’t a core US national interest.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, there is a strong Australian logic for persevering with the Indo-Pacific concept. As the White Paper notes, achieving and influencing strategic outcomes is going to become more difficult for Australia is an increasingly complex Asian security environment.

The Indo-Pacific places Australia at the centre of the action and there is thus some political mileage to be gained from encouraging strategic partners—particularly India and Indonesia—to think about the region in such terms. For regions, above all else, are essentially political constructs. The utility of the ‘strategic arc’ is that it allows us to specify—taking a leaf out of Dibb’s book—precisely where the Indo-Pacific begins, which key players it encompasses, and where it ultimately ends. That’s a useful step forward.

Brendan Taylor is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.