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The Indo-Pacific for Australia’s Asian Century: Is That Even a Thing?

The Indo-Pacific is an increasingly important formulation emerging in Australian and global strategic calculations. At base, the Indo-Pacific encompasses the Indian Ocean and much of the Asia-Pacific as a super-region stretching from the Eastern coast of Africa across the Indian Ocean through the Malacca Strait into the Pacific and North Asia. But while the Indo-Pacific concept has gained currency, doubts continue to plague actors and analysts as to its utility and even its reality. With the US and Australia adopting the Indo-Pacific as official regional frameworks and events in the region increasingly making the Indo-Pacific a reality, it’s high time to assess the emergence, strengths, and drawbacks of such a formulation. These dynamics bear major implications for Australian international policy in the Asian Century: do we engage with an ‘Asia-Pacific’ or an ‘Indo-Pacific’ (each as different conceptions of Asia)? For Australia, an Indo-Pacific re-orientation broaches fundamental, long-term questions about our place and posture in twenty-first century global politics. To understand where such a movement might take Australia and what it offers, it is important to first know how it became ‘a thing’.

The Indo-Pacific includes the Indian Ocean and parts of Asia, particularly the West and South, in Australia’s framework in a radical way. The 1961-65 edition of Australia in World Affairs justified Australia’s historical disengagement from its West by saying that the Indian Ocean does ‘not constitute an obvious natural region’ only possessing ‘historical unity’ through Britain’s brief period of dominance. Australia’s attention was pulled West with the establishment of a Soviet naval presence in the Indian Ocean, but again in the 1976-1980 Australia in World Affairs it was dismissed as an area of ‘largely unrelated subregions’. It wasn’t until then-Defence Minister Kim Beazley’s 1994 ‘Look West’ defence strategy that the Indian Ocean (though not the Indo-Pacific as a whole) prominently featured in our policy framework. As Australian foreign policy and strategic reasoning has been historically dominated by an East Coast mindset, it is unsurprising that prominent Western Australian politicians have most often drawn attention to the opportunities and challenges on Australia’s Western flank. Most recently, this has included Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith as key proponents of the Indo-Pacific.

Nevertheless, Australia’s standing in and understanding of Asia has been a defining theme of Australian foreign policy scholarship, with very real implications for policy. Andrew O’Neil writes that ‘Over the past four decades, the issue has not been whether Australia should engage with its own region, but rather what form that engagement should take.’[i] The Indo-Pacific concept has been an axis of debate in policy circles, particularly championed in Australia by analysts at the Lowy Institute, but only latterly become the paradigm for Australian strategic thinking. As recently as the 2012 Asian Century White Paper – a watershed in Australia’s international outlook – Australia’s region was defined as the Asia-Pacific with an awkward tag-along of India. This indeterminate formulation was an understandable result of the slow evolution of Australia’s international engagement and symptomatic of the inadequacy, even as of 2012, of Australia’s conceptualisation and engagement with Asia.

That inadequacy can begin to be remedied by a whole-of-Asia, whole-of-government Indo-Pacific policy understanding of Asia in the Asian Century. Two pivotal Australian conceptualisations are put forward by Anthony Bubalo and Rory Medcalf (formerly) of Lowy. Bubalo proposes a horizontal Asia and Medcalf develops the Indo-Pacific concept. The May 2013 Defence White Paper recognised the necessity of realignment by emphasising how an Indo-Pacific Arc would shape future policy. However, considerable work still needs to be done to integrate such an approach across Australian government policy in business and diplomacy as much as a nascent strategy. The Indo-Pacific concept is one that yields the opportunity for Australia to remove itself from its reputation as a country ‘within’ but not ‘of’ Asia as a ‘definition of Asia that automatically includes Australia.’

Image credit: Stratfor

Australia’s preoccupation with a ‘vertical’, North-facing Asia-Pacific has meant that Australia’s policy stance (with a lingering hangover) has historically not engaged with the whole breadth of Asia. It has impeded Australian strategic and commercial engagement to the extent that we must now play catch-up. In a limited Asia-Pacific frame, Australia will more than ever be challenged by balancing the ‘Asia-Pivot’ of the United States of America, Australia’s primary ally for whom our strategic significance will increase, and the emergence of India and China as stronger strategic and commercial players and partners in the region. Australia’s key, but historically neglected, interests and opportunities to its West have precipitated a readjustment that permits growing relevance within Asia while still aligning with the strategy of our main alliances. This is the Indo-Pacific.

Fortunately, the emergence of an Indo-Pacific conception of Australia’s policy outlook inherently strengthens and broadens Australia’s role for the Asian Century in most spheres. It places Australia in a ‘horizontal’ Asia that automatically includes both Australia as well as West and South Asia (historically not Asia, according to Australian policy) in the greater Asian region, with greater opportunities for all. Talal Yassine, an eminent Australian businessperson and head of Council for Australia-Arab Relations, suggests we ‘go North, turn left’ such that Australia can fully engage these opportunities in West and South Asia in an ‘inner triangle of interest’ (compared to an outer triangle with the UK, US, and Europe). Particularly in diplomatic and economic spheres, such forward-thinking in the Indo-Pacific will serve Australia’s interests well into the future.

However, there are lingering and justified doubts about the usefulness of the Indo-Pacific. Emerging dynamics present a variety of unaddressed strategic opportunities and threats as Australian government, business and society increasingly seek to connect with Asia. Most notably, the continuing importance of clear and narrow prioritisation for defence strategy is a principle to be heeded, whether in the Indo- or Asia-Pacific. This principle is challenged by the appealing idea of a broad Indo-Pacific composed of disparate, diverse subregions yawning from East Africa to East and North Asia. The Indo-Pacific is undeniably taking form as a viable and dynamic region. However, it needn’t undermine core interests or strategic focus on potential flashpoints closer to home or to the North. Indeed, the diversity of the region may focus Australia’s concentration on this sound principle in strategic policy rather than detract from it. In most spheres outside defence, the Indo-Pacific promises big for Australia’s international clout, particularly in trade, economics, and diplomacy.

Due to the Indo-Pacific’s immense diversity a creative combination of limited multilateral (‘minilateral’) and bilateral engagement with various subregions will be the best strategy for engagement. Australia’s influence in key multilateral fora presents opportunities for the effective implementation of the Indo-Pacific concept in Australia’s international policy. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), an underused multilateral forum of which Australia was a founding member, as much as APEC and ASEAN are Indo-Pacific fora which present platforms for Australia to gainfully and meaningfully engage a broader Asia than it has historically. By implementing a holistic Indo-Pacific conception of Australia’s position in Asia, looking West and acting strategically in our own interests Australia can strengthen both longstanding alliances and deepen newer partnerships in the region.

Notwithstanding challenges, the Indo-Pacific integrates and draws Australia into its region in an unprecedented and natural way. Even as it raises new, broad-based strategic and security challenges it presents great opportunities for Australian economic diplomacy and international engagement. Australia will best manage the opportunities and threats presented by the integration of the Indo-Pacific by radically redefining its conception of Asia, and thereby, its conception of itself within Asia.

William Bullock Jenkins is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

[i] Andrew O’Neil, ‘Regional, Alliance and Global Priorities of the Rudd-Gillard Governments’ in James Cotton and John Ravenhill (eds.), Middle Power Dreaming: Australia in World Affairs 2006-2010 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2012), 273-289 at 275.

Image credit: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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