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Books | How the Asia-Pacific became the Indo-Pacific, with a brief stop-off in the Asian century

Graeme Dobell 23 March 2020 3166 words

Australia’s jump-off point: Julia Gillard launching the 2013 defence white paper. Lukas Koch/AAP Image


Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future
By Rory Medcalf | La Trobe University Press | $32.99 | 320 pages

The “Indo-Pacific” is a new geographic idea with a crucial purpose — avoiding war. It’s a lot to ask of a construct that barely existed a decade ago.

In those ten years or so, “Indo-Pacific” shifted from a way of looking at the map to an arena for a mounting contest — and a label for a US strategy (the “free and open Indo-Pacific”). From mental map to military map, the journey has been short and sharp.

“Asia-Pacific” had dominated for thirty years, from 1980 to 2010. In a swift remaking, Indo-Pacific became its replacement for the United States, Japan, India, Australia, the ten ASEAN states of Southeast Asia, and Europe.

The crucial absence from the convert list is China. Beijing charges that the Indo-Pacific is a device to contain and constrain its ambitions. That’s true. An equal truth, though, is that China reaps what it sows; its behaviour made pushback inevitable.

The Indo-Pacific is pushback aimed at achieving balance. Uniting the two oceans is ambitious and driven by power. Much meaning crowds onto the new map:

• the rise of China and its ambition to dominate Asia

• India’s arrival as a major player

• the relative decline of US power

• the need to achieve balance in a multipolar system (or avoid war)

• the geoeconomics and geostrategy of the two joined oceans, webbed by the shipping lanes that are the Indo-Pacific’s arteries

Rory Medcalf, an Australian apostle of the Indo-Pacific, says that the idea’s rise has heralded a new era of power rivalry, a world away from the optimism of globalisation. The Indo-Pacific became the “global centre of gravity, in wealth and population, but also the heartland of military might and latent conflict,” he writes. “Confrontation was trumping cooperation. From the Gulf of Aden to Papua New Guinea, the board was uncomfortably set for a great game with many layers and many players.”

Medcalf’s book expresses his hope that the Indo-Pacific will become a metaphor for collective action. If diplomacy fails, he fears, it will be the theatre of the first general war since 1945.

One of Medcalf’s many strengths is that he’s an intellectual who writes like a journalist; he started in hackdom, getting a Walkley commendation in 1991 for his reporting for the Northern Star newspaper in Lismore. From journalism, he became an Australian intelligence analyst and diplomat (postings to New Delhi, Tokyo and, as a truce monitor, Bougainville), then took think-tank duty at the Lowy Institute. Now he’s the professor heading the National Security College at the Australian National University.

Many moons ago, introducing him as a speaker, I listed his CV and asked if he’d ever had a real job. It’s the jibe of one journalist to another, because all hacks are plagued by the question of what they’ll do when they grow up (happily, after forty-nine years of hackdom, I’m still to decide). In Rory’s case, the jest is a tribute to someone from that nebulous place where strategists and analysts try to pin down what’s happening and imagine what’ll happen next. It’s a job you hold in your head, not your hands.

Medcalf has helped redefine the way Australia thinks of its region, bringing into being the geographic realm in which the hard-edged realists will do duty seeking balance or fighting the battle. “Words shape the world,” he writes. “An imagined space on a map both reflects and influences real and palpable things like military deployments, patterns of prosperity, and calculations of risk among the world’s most powerful leaders.”

His book offers an origin story for today’s Indo-Pacific, and some fine thinkers step forward. The first modern academic article to mention the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical term, by the Canadian naval scholar James Boutilier (a bon vivant who savours all the joys of strategy jousts), appeared in 2004.

The following year, the term was used by the New Zealand strategist Peter Cozens (who also champions Kiwi wine as “liquid sunshine”). Catching an idea arriving with the times, a great Australian journalist in Asia, Michael Richardson (late of the Age and the International Herald Tribune), wrote in the Australian Journal of International Affairs in 2005 about what Australia should aim for as a founding member of the East Asia Summit:

The economic and geopolitical landscape of Asia has changed dramatically in recent years, providing Australia with an unprecedented opportunity to become an integral and significant player in a wider Indo-Pacific region as it charts its future and seeks to manage tensions while shaping a new architecture of cooperation.

By then, having served as an Australian diplomat in New Delhi from 2000 to 2003, Medcalf was back in Canberra as an intelligence analyst, and he was an early adopter:

The logic that Australia’s region was changing to a two-ocean system, with China turning south and west and India turning east, accorded both with the evidence and the need to define Australia’s place in the world.

That word “logic” is at the heart of Medcalf’s Indo-Pacific explanation. The logic is driven by those key factors — China up, America down, India in — and by the geostrategic and geoeconomic drives of a multipolar system.

In the Medcalf telling, this logic sweeps aside other important constructs, such as the Asia-Pacific and the “Asian century.” The logic case he builds is strong, but logic doesn’t explain everything. It’s not to deny Medcalf’s argument to note that other factors were in play. As a former secretary of Australia’s defence department, Tony Ayers, used to chide his minions: “You’re being logical again, stupid, I’ve warned you about that!” Ayers was a supremely logical operator, but his jest was tough and true.

Logic can crash against personality and power and history and happenstance and pride and… (please add your pick). As Medcalf says, “Mistakes happen and accidents matter.”

Beyond logic, why were Japan and Australia among the first countries to place the Indo-Pacific atop their foreign policy? The question has weight because Japan and Australia were crucial players in the creation and embrace of the Asia-Pacific, especially in forming the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, or APEC, back in 1989.

Medcalf argues that the Asia-Pacific was overthrown by history and geography and the shifting balance of power, whereas an integrated two-ocean perspective has an ancient pedigree:

It is a more enduring way of understanding Asia than twentieth-century notions like the Asia-Pacific… [T]he precursors of the Indo-Pacific in this geopolitical sense also go back thousands of years, to a proto-economy of regional maritime trade and migration beyond recorded history.

The two-ocean view is a frame, rather than explanation, for the surprisingly rapid shift by Japan, a conservative, bureaucratic state that mirrors the consensus culture of its society. The change agent wasn’t just logic, but the character and drive of a single leader, Abe Shinzo. (One Abe-era change: Japan drops Western name order and turns back to Asian tradition, putting the surname first.)

In fact, Medcalf begins his book with a meeting between Abe and India’s Narendra Modi on a Japanese bullet train in 2016. He gives much credit to Abe for the creation of what he calls the Indo-Pacific “fever” that has since swept governments.

Adopting the new geographic vision feeds into the effort by Abe to remake how his nation acts in the world. A more conventional Japanese leader (or leaders) wouldn’t have overturned the Asia-Pacific consensus. Japan still puzzles about whether Abe, its longest-serving prime minister, is a one-off outlier or the model for future leaders.

Australia’s abandonment of the Asia-Pacific identity it had done so much to create wasn’t achieved by the push of a strong leader. The shift emerged from strong cross-currents within a Canberra wavering between the sunny optimism of the Asian century and the darker forebodings of the “Indo-Pacific.” The two terms describe the same set of players and forces, but arrange them in different orders with different weightings.

Asian-century usage blends liberal internationalism with an optimistic view of Asia entering a new phase of deeper and broader engagement, privileging geoeconomics over geopolitics. The Indo-Pacific gives more weight to geopolitics, shifting the focus from economic bonanza to surging strategic rivalry. Little wonder ASEAN’s new Indo-Pacific Outlook seeks “dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry.” Cooperation is what we desire, rivalry is what we’ve got.

“Asian century” versus “Indo-Pacific” is also a way to describe a Canberra debate among diplomats, econocrats and defenceniks. The econocrats bleat that the security agencies are today running the show. Or as the ever-vivid former prime minister Paul Keating puts it, “the nutters are in charge.”

The econocrats describe Medcalf’s book as “the American alliance framework resuscitated and reimagined with Indian heft.” The Indo-Pacific is seen as a maritime security construct trying to tie together the four democracies, Australia, Japan, India and the United States, in the Quad security dialogue: “It’s sure in its distrust of China but unsure of whether and how to build a coalition to counter it.”

The Asian century hit its Canberra high point in 2012 with the Gillard government’s Australia in the Asian Century white paper, which opened this way:

Asia’s rise is changing the world. This is a defining feature of the 21st century — the Asian century. These developments have profound implications for people everywhere. Asia’s extraordinary ascent has already changed the Australian economy, society and strategic environment… The Asian century is an Australian opportunity. As the global centre of gravity shifts to our region, the tyranny of distance is being replaced by the prospects of proximity. Australia is located in the right place at the right time — in the Asian region in the Asian century.

Whatever truths the white paper delivered, Gillard also served political and personal interests — she had to create foreign policy not owned by the man she’d toppled, Kevin Rudd. The Asian century was Gillard making her own big-P policy.

The Asian-century language came from Treasury, and the quintessential Treasury man of his generation, Ken Henry, got to write the policy (although as Henry’s draft blew out towards 500 pages, the head of the Office of National Assessments, Allan Gyngell, was drafted to slash it to 300 pages and add a pinch of foreign policy coherence).

While Gillard had most of Canberra doing Asian-century duty, the defence department defected to the Indo-Pacific. Although it takes only a few minutes’ drive from the Russell Hill defence complex to the other side of the lake where parliament, the PM’s department and Foreign Affairs reside, sometimes the Kings Avenue bridge marks a major conceptual chasm.

Defence hated the Asian century tag because the headline dropped the United States from the equation. That’s conceptual poison for a department that sees anchoring America in Asia as a fundamental interest.

The 2013 defence white paper gave minimal linguistic obeisance rather than conceptual obedience to Gillard’s vision, citing the Indo-Pacific fifty-eight times and the Asian century white paper just ten times.

When the Liberal–National coalition won the 2013 election, the Asian-century usage became Canberra cactus — too prickly to touch and quickly discarded. Change the government, change the language. As Ken Henry laments, his paper has had “no impact on policy, not even on the tenor of public policy debate in Australia.”

Political cleansing was delivered as policy vandalism when the prime minister’s department deleted the Asian century white paper from its digital record (the polite term is archived). Savour the irony that the Asian century paper is still available on the defence web site. Defence understands the need to record the history of your victories; and it’s a major win when your department hands Canberra the new construct for the region.

Indo-Pacific has become Canberra’s uniform usage. The 2013 defence white paper marked the jump-off point, with further restatements in the 2016 defence white paper and the 2017 foreign policy white paper.

Medcalf reports that when the Indo-Pacific map was promoted by the official in charge of writing the 2013 defence white paper, Brendan Sargeant, “it was initially controversial within parts of the Australian defence establishment and reportedly met bewilderment among American officials still focused on the Middle East.”

Medcalf dismisses as “rather conspiratorial” the view that “Australian defence officials promoted the Indo-Pacific to gain ascendancy over economic agencies that had pushed the Asian Century idea — but this overlooks that the Indo-Pacific had already been aired in the Asian Century white paper and was being taken seriously in foreign policy circles too.”

Australia doesn’t get too many masterworks on foreign policy, but we are in a fertile period, as tough times summon books to define the era. Three important books in three years — each distinctly different — have responded to an age that ponders US resolve, China’s purpose and possible paths for Australia.

Medcalf sits beside Allan Gyngell’s Fear of Abandonment on the fearfully pragmatic heart of Oz diplomacy, both offering magisterial views that highlight and explain.

With them on this literary peak is Hugh White’s How to Defend Australia, calling for a massive remaking of Australia’s defence force and an equally dramatic rethink of strategy. White presents Australia with a binary choice, while Medcalf sees a multipolar solution (“a many-sided world with no nation especially in charge”). White thinks that without the United States we’re on our own. Medcalf says many partners are available.

White says Medcalf portrays a vast region stretching from Hollywood to Bollywood that “will stand united and work together to contain China.” White’s riposte is that India is more likely to cut a deal with China to divide the region between them. India, White writes, won’t save Australia:

The Indo-Pacific concept is so popular in Canberra and elsewhere precisely because it is so reassuring. It is an invitation and an excuse to assume that Australia’s worries about its future in Asia will be solved by other countries, especially India, without much effort of its own. It is the old, familiar story of Australians expecting a “great and powerful friend” to look after it. Australia should be so lucky.

Medcalf argues that New Delhi won’t accept a deal on Beijing’s terms, relegating India to the role of a permanent second-tier power, restricted to South Asia. “Ultimately, India fears China’s superior economic and strategic weight,” Medcalf writes, and will resist by tilting away from its habit of strategic autonomy. “India is getting serious about cooperating with Indo-Pacific democracies to slow and moderate China’s expansion in the Indian Ocean.” He sets out what the newly imagined region must achieve by describing the dangers it faces.

China is joining a race to establish military bases to do dual-use duty with the networks of trade, investment and infrastructure. The bases are “less mighty bastions of territorial dominance and more lightly fortified lily pads” yet the race feeds the fears of a region “under the nuclear shadow of mutually assured destruction, and the cyber cloud of mutually assured disruption.”

This is not yet a region gripped by the prospect of total war, says Medcalf, but neither is it business as usual in the military balance. The Indo-Pacific has become “the vast ground zero for nuclear deterrence and risk: it is the epicentre of a ‘second nuclear age.’”

A plausible security future for the region is “a state of permanent coercion,” where the shadow of nuclear war doesn’t discourage conflict but exacerbates it at a lower but still dangerous level: “If nuclear weapons become the lone pillar for deterring China in the ocean of ambiguity between peace and Armageddon, then the contest is lost.” Nukes won’t deliver peace in a shifting system, “especially when the new geopolitical motorway is being built faster than drivers can learn the rules of the road.”

The potential crash points proliferate. What’s crucial, and far more contestable, is Medcalf’s contention that time isn’t automatically on Beijing’s side.

Widen the equation beyond the relative decline of the United States and China’s rise. Judged against the dynamic Indo-Pacific, Medcalf says, there’s good reason to think Chinese power “has already peaked.” He offers four factors limiting China’s ability to dominate or map the future:

• China’s Indo-Pacific and Eurasian ambitions along the Belt and Road have a perilous momentum: “pushback is happening and more is inevitable.”

• The rest of the Indo-Pacific is becoming wealthier and stronger too: “China’s power relative to its region may never be so great again.”

• America may be down but it’s far from out. Rather than having to dominate, the United States can work with others to balance China’s power.

• China’s internal problems — debt, demographics, environmental stress, discontent and now the Covid-19 crisis — could compound the external challenges to China’s “imperial over-stretch.”

If fully fledged cooperation with China is unrealistic for the foreseeable future, Medcalf writes, try to discourage confrontation and move the dial towards “competitive coexistence.”

Medcalf’s instruments to construct an Indo-Pacific to “absorb or deflect” China will be development, deterrence and diplomacy. The qualities underpinning the instruments will be solidarity and resilience.

The United States is vital — for investment, trade, alliances, technology and security — even if it can’t or won’t lead. Just as important will be the ambition and action of “the middle”: Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Australia. By the 2040s, he writes, “the combination of Japan, India and Indonesia is projected to outweigh China in GDP, military spending and population. Add just one or two more nations and this would be a hefty coalition, especially given the natural advantages of geography, namely its combined oversight of much of the strategic waterways of the Indo-Pacific.”

Dealing with China will require a fresh, if fraught, regional order. The task will be to stop China ruling or writing all the rules. Medcalf ends with an upbeat flourish, rendered in dark colours:

A path can be charted between conflict and capitulation. The future is not solely in the hands of an authoritarian China or an unpredictable, self-centred America. In the end, the Indo-Pacific is both a region and an idea: a metaphor for collective action, self-help combined with mutual help. If things go badly awry, it could be the place of the first general and catastrophic war since 1945. But if its future can be secured, it can flourish as a shared space at the heart of a reconnected world, in ways its early voyagers could have scarcely imagined.

The new Indo-Pacific will be built by pushback against China, the rise and strength of the rest, and American endurance.

The recipe is for what Medcalf calls “a kind of full-spectrum staring contest.” The vision is of a multipolar Indo-Pacific where lots of the poles line up together. The great staring contest will have myriad players. Protect the wealth, avoid the war. Lots of staring mediated by lots of sharing.

Hang together or hang separately. Hang tough or go hang. •