Like the term Asia-Pacific, the Indo-Pacific is such a large concept that it conceals as much as it conveys.
Why is the idea of the Indo-Pacific so powerful that it is a key motif of the Defence White Paper? This column will lead you to an ASPI interview with a Canberra luminary who is both a wise owl and a hard head: Ric Smith.
The former secretary of Defence and senior diplomat has, in recent times, served as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, co-authored the ADF force posture review (more than you ever wanted to know here, here, here, here and here), did owl oversight duty on the Defence White Paper and served as a member of an Australia India Task Force on Indian Ocean Security.
To understand the significance of the new Indo-Pacific construct, first, consider the official prominence Defence gives it in the White Paper’s Strategic Outlook chapter. The Indo-Pacific is ranked second behind the ‘critical’ issue of the US–China relationship among the forces that will shape the strategic environment over coming decades. Defence is all about hierarchy in the way it structures and organises and thinks, and ranking the Indo-Pacific that high is a big call.
Ric Smith’s thinking on the Indo-Pacific is that of one who started out a bit sceptical and has come to some levels of acceptance. The weight Smith gives the Indo-Pacific—and what he denies to the concept—are equally significant.
Crucially, the Indo-Pacific is not so strong a paradigm shift that it changes the way Australia will structure its defence. In the Smith universe, the Indo-Pacific is a useful policy construct (and politically handy, too) but it isn’t a force determinant. And, as Smith stresses, it’s all about SLOCs (Sea Lines of Communication). If it is all about sea lanes, then you can quickly zoom down to choke points and the Straits of Malacca and suddenly we’re back in Southeast Asia. That’s the wonderful thing about policy constructs; you can build them in lots of different ways.
The interview I did with Smith had at its core the Australia India Task Force he served on and their report, ‘The Indian Ocean Region: Security, Stability and Sustainability in the 21th Century‘. The report is a fascinating work because of its effort to articulate some view of the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific that could unite Canberra and New Delhi. Among the big hopes the report proposes are that India and Australia can agree that they are uniquely placed to lead the effort to create a new security architecture and that they are natural maritime partners in the Indian Ocean.
These must rank as ambitions that have not yet risen to aims, given the great difficulty India and Australia usually have in getting even basic agreement on how they see the world. This is a bilateral relationship of false starts, missed opportunities and extraordinarily different perspectives. Not least of the problems is whether India can ever view Australia as anything other than a useful strategic adjunct to the US.
The Task Force muses on how hard it’s going to be to get India to even accept that China has legitimate interests in the Indian Ocean. And if the current argument in Oz is about the pain and danger of ever having to choose between the US and China, imagine the choice between China and India.
Credit the report with one bit of inspired phrase making on p. 41 (with the medal, I’m told, going to the editor, Dennis Rumley). In the competition for influence in the Indian Ocean, China is seeking relationships with countries it views as ‘pearls’, the US is after ‘diamonds’ and India seeks ‘nuggets’. The pearls, diamonds and nuggets are being amassed because of concerns over energy security and secure access to SLOCS. The score card offered puts the US well in the lead with 12 diamonds, while China has four pearls and India has three nuggets.
With all that is mere interlude, turn now to the thoughts of Ric Smith.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image credit: Luke Wilson, ASPI.