The Trump administration’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific strategic construct has made this notion of crucial importance to the region. While the adoption by the U.S. has been the most symbolically important component of the rise of this super-sized regional concept, allies and partners of the U.S. have been advocating for just such a concept for some time.
Since the publication of the 2016 Defence Policy White paper and the corresponding 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, the Indo-Pacific has become Australia’s principal regional point of reference. A stable regional order in the Indo-Pacific is officially one of Australia’s strategic interests.
Equally, it is the destination of the government’s signature educational study abroad initiative, the New Colombo Plan, which sends thousands of Australian university students to spend time studying in the Indo-Pacific. Canberra has fully embraced this wide-ranging strategic construct.
From the mid-1990s until recently, Australia saw itself as part of the Asia-Pacific and organised its strategic and defence interests within that regional frame of reference.
The move away from that began in 2012 as, in a series of policy documents and public pronouncements, the government began to explore the emergence of a new strategic arc of connectivity across the Indian Ocean region and the Western Pacific.
There were several factors driving this. Most immediately, the growing flows of energy, resources and goods travelling across the vital sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific were becoming the arteries of a more integrated regional order. The old division between the two great oceanic systems was breaking down as economic growth on both sides bound them together.
Equally, strategists recognised that as the economic interests of Asia’s major powers were increasingly tied into extensive trading networks they would begin to reconfigure their strategic policy to be able to defend those interests. In the past, China’s core strategic interests were largely limited to the Northeast Asian theatre.
Now, as its prosperity depends ever more on things that go on beyond its borders and in particular on its capacity to trade, it is likely to have a broader and more expansive strategic outlook.
The Indo-Pacific also serves a strategic purpose. It is not just about describing a region but about shaping a conception of the region that gives India much stronger conceptual and functional prominence. As China has become more powerful and confident and as it has begun to act to defend its interests further from home, India has taken on significantly increased importance.
From Australia’s point of view, India is a country with a shared interest in constraining China’s regional and global influence and with whom Australia shares values. This has led to the country enhancing its engagement with India.
The Indo-Pacific construct provides a broader frame of reference for regional strategic policy that gives India greater weight and helps bind the two countries’ broader endeavours.
The Indo-Pacific is also a view of the region that gives Australia a greater degree of centrality. The Asia-Pacific was a way of thinking about the region that implied that Australia was somewhat peripheral. Under this new perspective, Australia takes on a more pivotal role.
The forces that have driven the emergence of the Indo-Pacific in the Australian strategic imagination, the growing strategic weight and influence of China and the increasing connectivity between disparate parts of Asia also present some challenges for Australia. This is most obvious in the growing divergence between its important economic ties with China and its profound strategic dependence on the United States. But it is also evident in the country’s somewhat uncertain approach to China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI is China’s expansive plan to use huge infrastructure projects to advance a series of long-term goals. Indeed, one thing that makes the BRI so challenging from Australia’s point of view is that it has so many aims.
At once the BRI is an attempt to improve infrastructure in Asia, which is badly needed, to develop the countries around China’s periphery, increase the country’s global standing, set new economic standards and improve its strategic position.
Australia has been hesitant and uncertain in its approach to the BRI. It has refused to sign a broad ranging memorandum of understanding (MOU) with China and has not committed to the BRI Forum for Cooperation in a serious way, although it has signed a third-party servicing agreement.
More importantly, Australia has been openly critical of “debt trap diplomacy” and sceptical of China’s motives in putting forward this major infrastructure project. Indeed, Australia has agreed to join a fund with Japan and the U.S. to compete for infrastructure investment with China and has also refocused its efforts on the South Pacific, fearing that Chinese development aid could undermine its influence in an area that Canberra regards as its sphere of influence.
Yet Australian mining, engineering and consulting firms would do well from the vast program. Canberra’s approach reflects the broader difficulty Australia faces when it tries to grapple with aspects of China’s rise that do not fit neatly into either the economic or strategic policy play book.
In short, the BRI is a microcosm of the broader challenges that have created the Indo-Pacific as a strategic construct that is the creation of a region in which U.S. power is reduced and economics and strategic policy are becoming impossible to pick apart.
Over time Australia is likely to engage with some aspects of the BRI. Canberra is trying to reset its relationship with China after a long period in the diplomatic freezer following a more robust approach to China, in declaratory policy terms at least, in 2017.
More substantive engagement with the BRI might be a way in which this can be done. But more broadly, Australia’s approach to the BRI reflects the gap that exists between its rhetorical embrace of the Indo-Pacific and the reality of a strategic policy that remains largely Asia-Pacific in its orientation, structure and investment.
Given the scale of the region and Australia’s relatively modest resources, this is not entirely surprising but it is also a reminder of the inherent challenges that come from a region that is bigger, in which great power competition plays an ever-greater role and in which strategic interests are increasingly intertwined with economic interests.
For a middle-ranking country with complex economic and strategic interests, the Indo-Pacific era will be very challenging indeed.