- An Australian Vision of the Indo-Pacific and What it Means for Southeast Asia
The concept of the Indo-Pacific plays a role of growing importance in the way the world is coming to terms with China's power and assertiveness. This concept serves two related purposes: an objective definition of an Asia-centric strategic and economic system, spanning a two-ocean region and replacing the late-twentieth-century idea of the Asia-Pacific, and the foundation for a strategy of incorporating and diluting Chinese power within a multipolar order reflecting respect for rules and equal sovereignty.1 No one country or strategic thinker can lay claim to the rapid emergence of this concept. In fact, the Indo-Pacific is not such a new idea, with precursors of pan-Asian maritime connectivity going back to pre-colonial times. Moreover, a sense of this revived regional construct emerged through a process of interaction among policy establishments and strategic thinkers in a number of nations, including Australia, India, Japan, the United States and Indonesia, in the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
It is notable, however, that Australia has been the most prominent and active proponent of this concept. Australia was the first country to formally introduce the Indo-Pacific as the official definition of its strategic environment in 2013. This has consistently been reaffirmed since, and elaborated in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper that provides a vision for Australia's international relations. It is fair to say that the Indo-Pacific is now bipartisan orthodoxy in Australia. A likely change to a Labor government in 2019 is unlikely to shift this perspective. [End Page 53]
Some critics of the Indo-Pacific idea assume that it is essentially a "made-in-America" concept designed with the principal purpose of containing or at least balancing Chinese power. In fact, a closer look at Canberra's version of the Indo-Pacific, most formally articulated in the Foreign Policy White Paper, suggests it has some authentically Australian characteristics, such as its encouragement of agency and cooperation among smaller and middle powers. This places it within the tradition of Asian engagement and creative middle power diplomacy as espoused by Australian Labor governments in decades past. Moreover, such a reading of Australia's "new" Indo-Pacific strategy makes it suited for convergence with the imperatives of partner countries in Southeast Asia, and indeed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a whole. Diplomatic developments in 2018 have reinforced the potential for Australia and ASEAN to work together on an inclusive Indo-Pacific concept that provides an alternative to both China-centric and U.S.-led versions of regional order.
Understanding the Indo-Pacific Idea
What is the Indo-Pacific? It treats as a single strategic system what were hitherto seen as two very separate Asian regions: East Asia, centred on China and lapped by the Pacific Ocean, and South Asia, centred on India and abutting the Indian Ocean. A strategic system can be understood as a set of geopolitical power relationships among nations where major changes in one part of the system affects what happens in the others. In this sense, the Indo-Pacific can be understood as a maritime "super-region" with its geographical centre in Southeast Asia. None of this should be mistaken as some kind of effort to reduce the centrality of Asia in regional conceptions. The Indo-Pacific is a region with maritime Asia at its core. The Indo-Pacific concept underscores the fact that the Indian Ocean has replaced the Atlantic as the globe's busiest and most strategically significant trade corridor. The powerhouse economies of East Asia depend acutely on oil imports across the Indian Ocean from the Middle East and Africa.
The reality of an Indo-Pacific region has been brought about by a confluence of economic and strategic factors. A principal driver has been the rise of China and India back to their pre-colonial status as great trading economies and powers that have become increasingly outward-looking in their economic and military affairs. The Indo-Pacific power narrative is however not only about China and India. The region involves the...