Australia’s Indo–Pacific understanding
17 Aug 2015|

But for the really spicy dishes, come back in a decade or two.

Australia is re-embracing the Indo–Pacific as the defining geographic expression of defence strategy.

The Indo–Pacific was the big new theme of Labor’s 2013 Defence White Paper, and it’ll have the same status in the Coalition’s Defence White Paper.

Canberra is cementing a bipartisan consensus on the Indo–Pacific—a rare continuity in the policy language of the Gillard and Abbott governments. This is some achievement for a geostrategic concept that has a lot of growing to do.

The Abbott government embraced the concept in two speeches in May by the Defence Minister, Kevin Andrews. With just an element of geographic irony, the first speech was to the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia–Pacific, where Andrews declared:

The single most significant trend in the world today is the continued shift of strategic and economic power to the Indo–Pacific region, the security and prosperity of which is vital to Australia’s own security and prosperity.

Following up at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, Andrews said the term ‘Asia–Pacific’ had once symbolised the main focus of Australia’s strategic interests and economic priorities. No longer.

Australia had realised the economic growth and rising strategic weight of the Asia–Pacific rested on freedom of navigation and trade through both the Indian and Pacific Oceans:

These corridors link the Middle East through to North and South East Asia, and the United States. Security of supply right across this corridor, which relies on continued regional stability, will be vital. That’s why we now refer to the ‘Indo–Pacific’ region, by which we mean the maritime and littoral regions that span the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

These deductions were counted out by the Defence Minister (my numbers, his steps):

  1. Underlying tensions amongst regional states will continue
  1. Most East Asian states share dependence on the Indo–Pacific’s maritime corridors
  1. No state can unilaterally secure its shipments
  1. Regional states have a powerful incentive to manage conflicting interests and ensure freedom of navigation and trade.

The Indo–Pacific is a useful catchall that Defence wants to carry a myriad of contrasting or even conflicting elements. The catchall doesn’t offer much direction or definition. See that in the Blamey Oration by the Defence Secretary, Dennis Richardson, also delivered in May.

The speech title expressed Defence’s geographic vision: ‘The Strategic Outlook for the Indo–Pacific Region.’ As you’d expect from Dennis Richardson, he offered a blunt readout. It’s a punchier version of the coming White Paper, especially Richardson’s barbed language about China.

What was absent from the Richardson Strategic Outlook for the Indo–Pacific Region was any discussion, or even usage of the term Indo–Pacific. Yep, nary a mention. The catchall geostrategic descriptor isn’t able to direct Australia’s strategic choices—the problem of the 2013 White Paper is to be repeated.

As Harry White commented after the Indo–Pacific was splashed all over the 2013 White Paper, ‘the Indo–Pacific is more a list of our interests than a strategy.’

Robert Ayson was at his sardonic best, describing the Indo–Pacific as a useful smoke screen:

It means having an Indo–Pacific policy without having to worry too much about building a real defence relationship with India (always problematic). And it means avoiding too many difficult conversations about Australia’s potential involvement in military problems in the harder parts of East Asia (i.e. further north).

While Harry and Robert are still on the money, the Indo–Pacific will get another starring role as both useful catchall and prediction/bet. Defence thinks the Indo–Pacific will grow as a construct and develop strategic weight.

For now, the Indo–Pacific is all about Sea Lines of Communication. For strategists, the SLOCS are ever about choke points. So the Oz analysis quickly narrows to the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea. Surprise, surprise—you’re back in Southeast Asia. See the views of the former Defence Secretary, Ric Smith, on the Indo–Pacific as a useful construct but not a force determinant.

The White Paper focus (2013/2015) is on Indian Ocean shipping lanes and choke points as the immediate priority: India, by contrast, is a strategic player that is coming but yet to fully arrive.

Dennis Richardson gave the flavour: ‘India’s economic and strategic rise probably now has enough momentum not to shift into reverse. Serious structural problems will act as a constraint, but its importance to Australia, and the world at large, will continue to grow.’

A ‘substantive partnership’ with India is in view, Richardson said, but the economic relationship is ‘too narrowly based’ and the defence relationship is still developing: ‘So there is enormous potential for growth over the next twenty years.’

Defence expects more curry with its strategy. But for the really spicy dishes, come back in a decade or two.