Sunny Asian century versus dark Indo-Pacific
8 Jul 2019|

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.

— Australia in the Asian century white paper, 2012

The sunny optimism of the ‘Asian century’ faces the dark 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 versus Indo-Pacific is crude simplification. Simplicity, though, has its uses. Journalists want headlines. Politicians need slogans and stories. The headline has the single merit of setting up this biggest of questions.

Crudely, 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 describe an arena for surging strategic rivalry, now the label for a US strategy. 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.

Canberra’s explanation for replacing Asia-Pacific with Indo-Pacific this decade was to broaden the frame of reference and factor in India. There was another compelling reason that was fudged in the telling: come up with a frame big enough to handle (or contain or engage or balance) the giant dragon in the room.

When Australia’s defenceniks started using the term Indo-Pacific six years ago, they emphasised it was merely a useful policy construct—a tool for understanding—but not a force determinant. The US Indo-Pacific strategy means the tool has been weaponised. US President Donald Trump weaponises the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ just as he weaponises globalisation. Lots of stuff around here is loaded with explosives.

Asian century versus Indo-Pacific also describes a Canberra fight: econocrats facing off against the defenceniks. The econocrats bleat that the security agencies are running the show. Or as the ever-vivid former prime minister Paul Keating puts it, ‘the nutters are in charge’.

Asian century had a brief starring moment during Julia Gillard’s time as prime minister, cresting with the white paper in October 2012. Gillard needed some foreign policy not owned by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, and Asian century was it.

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. While it’s 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 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reside, sometimes the Kings Avenue bridge marks a major conceptual chasm.

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

The 2013 defence white paper gave minimal linguistic obeisance rather than conceptual obedience to Gillard’s vision: the document used the Indo-Pacific 58 times while mentioning the Asian century white paper 10 times.

When the Liberal–National coalition won the 2013 election, the Asian century usage became Canberra cactus, too prickly to touch. Change the government, change the language. As 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 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 the uniform usage in Canberra. 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.

Canberra agrees on the language, but the fundamentals of the argument rage. Australia’s economic dependence on China keeps growing, as Greg Earl observes: ‘Short of a Chinese economic catastrophe, this is an integrated bilateral economic relationship that is not going to be wished away.’

Trace the debate through four contributions from one of our finest diplomatic minds, Peter Varghese.

As DFAT secretary, Varghese gave a typically thoughtful speech in 2013, in which he neatly laid out the Oz idea of Asia and the Indo-Pacific strategic framework—a masterful exercise of diplomacy in the Gillard era.

Consider Varghese’s recent report to the government on an India economic strategy to 2035, where 31 mentions of Indo-Pacific are swamped by 150 sightings of Asia.

Varghese’s third contribution (in a report on getting India into APEC) offers these reasons for the Indo-Pacific construct:

  • to return India to Asia’s strategic matrix
  • to find a new strategic equilibrium for a multipolar region while balancing China’s ‘ambitions to be the predominant power in the region’

As Varghese observes: ‘A common understanding of the Indo-Pacific will not however in itself alleviate strategic tensions, or ensure enhanced economic integration.’

And, fourth, Varghese’s ASPI speech on what’s coming at us: ‘Trends are like waves. We can see them on the horizon but we don’t know exactly when they will break and in what pattern they will reach the shore.’

This is a debate with no easy end in sight. Questions of definition and understanding come no harder or heavier.