Re-hyphenating the Indo-Pacific
2 Nov 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Sheri De Vries.

In the wonderfully-titled ‘From Hollywood to Bollywood’, Andrew Phillips questions the utility of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept. He thinks it’s less than the sum of its parts. Australian strategists, he argues, need to acknowledge the existence of two very different regional security orders, one Asia-Pacific and one South Asian. The first has ‘architecture’, provided by the US-centred ‘hub-and-spokes’ alliance system; the second doesn’t, as its main player, India, favours ‘non-alignment’ over alliances and multilateral institutions. Australians need to recognise those differences, Phillips asserts, if they’re to craft the right approach to what he calls the ‘Indo/Pacific’.

Phillips recognises that there’s now far more economic, diplomatic and security-focused interaction between East and South Asia than there was 25 years ago. These extend far beyond the oft-mentioned Sea Lines of Communication that run from the Arabian Gulf to Pacific. Trade and investment flows between the two regions are growing fast. China’s westward push promises even deeper economic integration, as its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative builds road and rail networks into Central Asia, and its maritime ‘Silk Road’ runs the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. East and South Asian states are also forging wide-ranging strategic partnerships that involve more than just promises to boost trade and investment, but also commitments to more frequent political discussions, upgraded defence ties, intelligence-sharing, technology transfer and co-development, regular strategic dialogues, and so on.

Yet Phillips contends that these intensifying diplomatic, economic and military ties across the Indo-Pacific haven’t changed the essential structures of its two regional security orders, arguing that new alliances and new or significantly strengthened security-focused multilateral institutions, especially in South Asia, haven’t emerged.

This argument doesn’t quite convince, I think, for three reasons.

First, the absence of new alliances in the Indo-Pacific isn’t just an Indo-Pacific phenomenon. No new formal pacts, committing the parties to mutual assistance in wartime, have been concluded anywhere in the world by major powers since the 1950s. What change we have seen in alliances has come within pre-existing arrangements. Quite why military alliances have become unfashionable is hard to explain, but it’s clear that it’s a global phenomenon: it can’t be attributed to a South Asian predilection for non-alignment.

Second, we’ve seen the proliferation across the Indo-Pacific of other instruments for managing regional security challenges, and it’s at least plausible that these are having some effect on the security order or orders. These include new multilateral initiatives that provide opportunities for government-to-government dialogue, like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) or the East Asia Summit (EAS), as well as 1.5 track conversations like the Shangri-La Dialogue. They also include the bilateral ‘strategic partnership’ arrangements noted above, involving wide-ranging cooperation on defence and security. Together, these multilateral and bilateral instruments are binding East and South Asian states together, through the exchange of information, confidence-building, and policy coordination among the like-minded, and close observation of behaviour among the more suspicious.

Third, and most importantly, security orders depend on tacit understandings as well as the formal treaty commitments. In East Asia, for example, the US-centred order has had two elements since the early 1970s, not just one. Washington’s formal pledges to defend its allies are balanced by something else: the unspoken commitment not to intervene militarily in internal affairs of East Asian states. It’s that tacit understanding which permitted American disengagement from Vietnam and—because it gave sufficient reassurance to China—allowed Washington to come to terms with Beijing in 1972.

Contra Phillips, I think the Indo-Pacific concept is potentially useful as it highlights the novel and the emerging: on one hand, the growing and overlapping use of dialogue forums and strategic partnerships to manage security challenges in East and South Asia; on the other, a changing understanding of the roles of the major players in both regions.

It also allows us to appreciate the changing positions of key actors like India. True, India isn’t a US treaty ally, and it won’t become one any time soon, because it prizes ‘strategic autonomy’. But India is also now a player in East Asia in a way it simply wasn’t 25 years ago. It’s a member of ARF and EAS, is engaged in multiple track 1.5 and track 2 processes, and boasts strategic partnerships of various kinds with significant East Asian players, including Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, the US and Vietnam. It has declared interests in South East Asia—not least in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea—and has signalled the intent to try to uphold them.

Moreover, the 2005 US–India Nuclear Deal and Defence Cooperation Agreement have established far higher levels of strategic trust than have ever existed between those two powers. Alongside burgeoning economic and people-to-people ties, the two states have built a robust (though far from perfect) strategic partnership from the ground up, making India a major consumer of US defence technology and committing India to the ‘ruled-based’ order in a Joint Strategic Vision document (2015).

What’s evolving in the Indo-Pacific, in other words, isn’t a neatly structured, ‘architectural’ security order, but a messy, changeable order that combines formal alliances, mostly ASEAN-centric multilateral institutions, minilateral initiatives and bilateral strategic partnerships, and a mix of declared commitments and tacit agreements around major power behaviour. The concept is useful, even if the policy challenges it throws up are going to be hard to manage.