From Hollywood to Bollywood? Australia’s Indo/Pacific future in a contested Asia
12 Oct 2016|

Our thinking about Australia’s strategic geography is being revolutionised. Having historically embraced an Asia-Pacific understanding of our region from the 1970s, many policy-makers and commentators now increasingly imagine an Indo-Pacific future for Australia. Despite this growing Indo-Pacific clamour, the idea remains a Rorschach inkblot, capable of multiple and contradictory interpretations, and revealing much about the hopes and fears of its would-be champions.

In my ASPI report, ‘From Hollywood to Bollywood? Recasting Australia’s Indo/Pacific Strategic Geography’, released today, I disentangle competing Indo-Pacific visions of Asia’s future. I identify the different models of international order these visions embody, and clarify the strategic choices they imply for Australia.

For many, the Indo-Pacific revolution is all about cultivating India as a counterweight to a rising China. For these Indo-Pacific ‘minimalists’, American primacy is irretrievably in decline. An enduring peace in Asia must consequently depend on the maintenance of an effective balance of power. Through this lens, India’s the only country in Asia with the potential strategic weight to help the United States to balance China over the long term. In that view, Australia must embrace an Indo-Pacific strategy prioritising working with likeminded democratic allies to foster India’s rise, and so check the danger to international order presented by Chinese revisionism.

Conversely, Indo-Pacific maximalists are more optimistic. They reject the minimalists’ overtly adversarial balance of power order for Indo-Pacific Asia. Instead, they favour a more expansive and inclusive vision that would rest on an expanded Concert of Powers, and include India and Indonesia alongside Japan, the US and China as primary guarantors of regional stability. This strategy foresees an important role for Australia in prosecuting a regional strategy that promotes India and Indonesia’s emergence as full-fledged participants in the Asian security order, but not at the expense of China’s legitimate interests and aspirations as a rising maritime power.

Indo-Pacific functionalists differ again, confining their focus to maritime security concerns flowing from the growing importance of the energy Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) linking ‘factory Asia’ to Middle Eastern energy reserves via the Straits of Malacca. From this standpoint, Indo-Pacific maritime energy security concerns constitute a discrete policy problem, which can and should form the priority focus for regional cooperation. This perspective is notable for advocating enhanced Australia–Indonesia maritime security cooperation as the fulcrum for Australia’s Indo-Pacific engagement strategy.

These contending Indo-Pacific visions each possess advantages over an exclusively Asia-Pacific First (AP1) strategy for Australia. But Indo-Pacific strategies also suffer two common flaws that policy-makers ignore at their peril. First, the hyphen at the heart of the Indo-Pacific concept falsely aggregates two distinct and durably different security orders—the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions. Second, as the Indo-Pacific idea mistakenly conceives the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region as forming two halves of an increasingly integrated strategic system, it also mistakenly implies that Australian policy-makers should accord equal importance to both.

Left unchallenged, these misconceptions risk tying Australia’s fortunes to a grand strategy that fails to distinguish between the two regions, and that also fails to customise our regional engagement strategies accordingly.

In the Asia-Pacific, the United States has maintained a densely institutionalised security order for more than six decades, built on an extensive network of bases, bilateral alliances, and forward-deployed military assets. America’s order-shaping capacities remain strong in the Asia-Pacific. The threat of Chinese revisionism, and the fact that East Asia contains the vast majority of Asia’s maritime territorial disputes, meanwhile presents urgent incentives for Australia to work with Washington to refurbish the San Francisco alliance system to meet this new challenge.

The Indian Ocean region has evolved in ways that radically distinguish it from the Asia-Pacific. In contrast to the Asia-Pacific’s ‘hub and spokes’ alliance system, the Indian Ocean Region was the cradle of the Non-Aligned Movement. So America’s order-shaping capacities in the region are far smaller than in the Asia-Pacific. And the region’s many fragile and failing states present a qualitatively different set of security challenges to those found in maritime East Asia. Despite its growing dynamism, the Indian economy meanwhile remains only a fifth the size of China’s, and New Delhi has shown no stomach for enlisting in the anti-China entente some Indo-Pacific advocates favour.

For those reasons, Australia should adopt an Indo/Pacific—rather than Indo-Pacific—reading of strategic geography. An Indo/Pacific outlook would recognize the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region as increasingly interconnected, but still durably distinct regional orders. And it would embrace an ‘ambidextrous’ grand strategy that entails alliance modernisation and refurbishment in East Asia, alongside bilateral and minilateral security cooperation with non-traditional security partners in the Indian Ocean. The end goal is an expansive and open model of Asian security architecture, centred on an Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue including all the region’s Great and middle powers.

An Indo/Pacific strategic geography best captures the competing trends of integration and regional differentiation now reshaping Asia. Embracing an Indo/Pacific mindset is key, if we’re to preserve our influence in an era when Australia’s neighbourhood is rapidly expanding, but our relative material power to shape that neighbourhood is in decline.