The Indo-Pacific: what does it actually mean?

Authors: Nick Bisley, La Trobe University, and Andrew Phillips, UQ

The ‘Indo-Pacific’ has arrived. Australian, Indian and US analysts and policy makers increasingly favour the concept over more traditionally East Asia-oriented constructs to characterise Asia’s evolving strategic geography.

Evidently a key principle informing Australia’s forthcoming defence white paper, the Indo-Pacific concept appears to highlight important changes to Australia’s security environment. Yet there has been virtually no debate about what precisely the term means, whose interests it serves and the significant risks as well as opportunities involved in uncritically absorbing the concept into Australia’s strategic lexicon.

Indo-Pacific boosters invoke two main developments to justify the term. The first is the expanding maritime interests and naval ambitions of India and China, which potentially portend a growing strategic competition that will pull together the formerly separate domains of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Second, economic linkages — especially East Asia’s voracious demand for Middle Eastern hydrocarbons — have enhanced the Indian Ocean’s importance as an ‘energy superhighway’, binding together the fates of societies on the littorals of both oceans and broadening the relevant strategic geography of states formerly focused only on their immediate regions.

More than just a neat catch phrase capturing these emergent strategic realities, the Indo-Pacific carries an implied set of political purposes and policy imperatives that help explain its growing appeal. For Australian and Indian Indo-Pac enthusiasts, the concept foregrounds both countries’ supposed strategic centrality in ways that more-established constructs (such as the Asia Pacific) do not. In particular, the idea provides a means to convey Australia and India’s strategic utility to Washington and to present their security needs as if they were vital to American interests, binding the United States to the region at a time when the US commitment to an expansive regional vision is under considerable budgetary pressure. An Indo-Pacific orientation additionally provides Canberra with a coherent rationale for further upgrading its bilateral relations with India and other regional partners (such as Indonesia), as well as justifying Australia’s increased Indian Ocean regional engagement on the eve of its chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation.

Citing these considerations, Indo-Pac enthusiasts naturally present the idea as an unqualified improvement over existing alternatives. Yet any change in strategic geography necessarily implies risks as well as opportunities. In particular, the very thing that makes the Indo-Pacific so appealing for its Australian advocates — that it makes the country a more important and geographically central ally to the United States — also opens Australia up to new and potentially costly responsibilities. By making Australia more important to the United States, Canberra invites understandable expectations from Washington that it will do more, pay for more and assume a far more visible role in propping up American primacy, particularly in the Indian Ocean region. Leading-edge indicators of what additional commitments to a more Indo-Pacific-oriented ANZUS might entail include ongoing discussions about increased US naval access to HMAS Stirling, as well as proposals to station a US drone base in the Cocos Islands. Considered in isolation, such proposals are unlikely to invite concern. But seen through the lens of a United States increasingly keen to share the burden of maintaining regional order with ‘deputy sheriffs’ old and new, they potentially foreshadow a more demanding and obtrusive alliance.

At least in its most prominent articulations, the Indo-Pacific idea is also bound up with an exclusionary vision of regional order in the Indian Ocean. Indian and American supporters of the concept frequently emphasise the need to contain the growth of Chinese naval influence in the Indian Ocean, effectively penning China in to the East Asian littoral. Viewed from Beijing, the idea of the Indo-Pacific consequently appears to be to keep the United States in, lift India up and keep China out of the Indian Ocean. Unsurprisingly, the Indo-Pac concept has thus received a frosty reception in China, and a too-eager embrace of the idea by Canberra risks further building competition and contestation into the emerging regional order.

We are right to search for new concepts to make sense of a rapidly changing strategic landscape, and we are indebted to Indo-Pacific advocates for contributing to this debate. But we need to be sure that the Indo-Pacific concept gets the strategic landscape right, that it illuminates more than it obscures, and that Australian policy makers are fully aware of the significantly expanded risks and commitments that an enlarged Indo-Pacific conception of Australian regional security interests may bring with it. By dialling up Australia’s alliance commitments to 11 and potentially alienating our largest trading partner, the Indo-Pacific doesn’t resolve Australia’s strategic dilemmas, and may even make them worse. New concepts are needed, but hard thinking about their utility and downside risk is also critical if Australia is to successfully navigate the strategic hazards of the Asian century.

Professor Nick Bisley is Professor of International Relations and Convenor of the Politics and International Relations Program at the School of Social Sciences, LaTrobe University.

Dr Andrew Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Strategic Studies at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. 

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