Australia’s view of the Indo-Pacific concept

Written By: David Brewster

This article explores Australia’s adoption of the Indo-Pacific concept in light of its strategic challenges.  For several decades the idea of the Asia Pacific as Australia’s region has provided a foundation for a successful strategy for providing security and economic prosperity for Australia.   But growing strategic interactions between the Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres, driven by China’s growing economic, political and military power and India’s emergence as a major regional power, now requires a broader concept of Australia’s region. This article concludes that the concept of the Indo-Pacific as a region provides Australia with an opportunity to develop a more cohesive national strategy that better integrates its strategic imperatives to find security in a stable and prosperous neighborhood.

Australia’s role in building the “Asia Pacific” as a region

Before considering the implications of Australia’s approach to the Indo-Pacific, it is necessary to understand its previous approach to the “Asia Pacific” as a region. Since its establishment in 1901, Australia’s strategic perspectives have been primarily directed northwards, towards potential threats emanating from northeast Asia and through the Southeast Asian archipelago. Australia has long seen itself as principally a Pacific Ocean state. European settlement of the Australian continent from the early 1800s was largely focused on the fertile southeast. As a result, the three major cities in the southeast of Australia, Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, represent almost 50 percent of Australia’s population, and altogether the eastern states and territories constitute more than 80 percent of Australia’s population. Through the latter part of the twentieth century, Australia’s key economic, political, and strategic relationships in the region—including with the US, Japan and China—were all in the Pacific Ocean, or in current parlance, in the “Asia Pacific.”

The Australian continent straddles the Indian and Pacific Ocean and, indeed, it has by far the longest Indian Ocean coastline of any country. But only a small proportion of Australia’s population lives on the western side of the Australian continent, and its political, defence and security relationships in the Indian Ocean are relatively undeveloped.

Australia’s longstanding strategic focus on the Pacific lay behind its past enthusiastic support for the idea of the “Asia Pacific” as a way of defining its region. The idea of the Asia Pacific has been one of the most important mental maps for Australia over the last several decades, forming an almost ubiquitous part of Australia’s thinking about the world. However, despite its ubiquity, the idea of the Asia-Pacific as a region is a relatively recent one, and one that was intentionally constructed. The concept of the Asia Pacific was initially pushed during the 1970s and 1980s by countries such as Japan and Australia, who feared a possible US disengagement from East Asia in the wake of its defeat in the Vietnam War. Both countries wanted to better bind the United States with what they hoped would become a politically stable and economically vibrant East Asia.

Although principally driven by economic opportunities, for Australia, the idea of the Asia Pacific has always had a strong underlying security element – that of keeping the US engaged in Asia as a benign offshore balancer and the main security provider to the region. The concept of the “Asia Pacific” also gave Australia an opportunity to bind itself closer to East Asia as a “Pacific” nation, if not necessarily an “Asian” one. These motivations remain compelling. Australia has successfully used the concept of the Asia Pacific as a region to tie itself much more closely to East Asia, helping Australia to find security in a more prosperous region.

Although the concept of the Asia Pacific included the United States, it did not include India or the great majority of other Indian Ocean littoral states. Consistent with the boundaries of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping, Australia’s mental map of the Asia Pacific never extended to South Asia or beyond. This mental dividing line between the “Asia Pacific” and “Indian Ocean” regions reflected late twentieth century understandings of the relative lack of strategic interactions between those two theatres.

The development of a clear “mental map” of the Asia Pacific as a cohesive space considerably helped Australia to establish unified, whole-of-government policies towards that region. Australian policymakers also have a clear mental map of the Pacific islands, which has been an important driver behind the development of unified policies towards that sub-region. For decades, Australia has also pursued a clear and comprehensive southern strategy including the Southern Ocean and Antarctica (over which it has territorial claims of more than 40 percent of that landmass) that has successfully de-securitised that space through emphasising peaceful environmental and scientific cooperation with other interested states.[i]

But, in contrast, Australia has not yet formulated a comprehensive strategic view of the Indian Ocean region.[ii] Its mental map of the Indian Ocean has long been in the nature of an essential trading highway connecting Australia with the Persian Gulf and Europe rather than a region in which Australia should be developing key partnerships. But the Indian Ocean region is becoming increasingly important in Australian strategic planning. Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper assessed that the Indian Ocean would have greater strategic significance in the period to 2030 and would eventually join the Pacific in terms of its centrality to Australia’s maritime strategy and defence planning.[iii] Similarly, the 2016 Defence White Paper, notes that “The Indian Ocean has become an important focus for Australian strategic policy in recent years,” and that it is also likely to become a more significant zone of competition among major powers[iv]. Other official statements[v] also stress the importance of the Indian Ocean region but none of them provide a useful road map for Australia’s engagement in that region.

Consequences of the Indo-Pacific construct for Australia’s regional strategy

The “Indo-Pacific” strategic construct, in which the Indian and Pacific oceans are seen as an increasingly interdependent strategic and economic space, is fundamentally changing the way Australia thinks about its broader region.[vi] Among other things, it is spurring the development of a more cohesive and unified regional strategy having regard to Australia’s competing strategic imperatives.

As noted, traditionally, the Pacific and Indian Oceans have been seen as largely separate strategic spheres. East Asia and the Pacific operated with one set of economic, political and security dynamics, and South Asia and the Indian Ocean with another. Strategic interactions between the two theatres were relatively limited, partly reflecting the limited economic, political, and military reach of important countries in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Until recently, China, Japan and South Korea had little political, economic or security presence in the Indian Ocean region and India had little presence in the Pacific.

But this is now changing, led by the expansion of the economic and security interests of China, Japan and other East Asian states into the Indian Ocean and India’s growing role in the Pacific. As a result, it is no longer sufficient to put the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean theatres in separate boxes in understanding major power interactions, especially in the maritime realm. There was a growing realisation among many Australian strategic thinkers that Australia needed a more unified strategic perspective of the long Asian littoral that stretches from Vladivostok to the Persian Gulf.

Shinzo Abe may have been the first regional leader to talk about the idea of the Indo-Pacific when he talked about the ‘confluence of the seas’ in an address to the Indian Parliament in 2007, but Australian officials have been among the most enthusiastic promoters of the concept.  Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper represented the first official adoption of the Indo-Pacific region by any country, when it noted what it called, “the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic arc” which Australia must concern itself with, with Southeast Asia lying at its center.[vii] Indeed, in retrospect, it seems obvious that Australia, sitting between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, should understand the long Asian littoral in unified strategic terms.

The adoption of the Indo-Pacific as Australia’s self-identified strategic space has significant consequences for Australia’s future interactions with that space. First, it can help provide a better understanding of Australia’s likely role in any future confrontation between China and the United States and its allies and partners. Second, it can better frame the scope of Australia’s relationships with key regional security partners such as Japan, France and India.  Third, the identification of the Indo-Pacific as Australia’s region can help in the development of a unified regional security strategy, principally focused on the maritime realm. Fourth, an Indo-Pacific strategy can be used to provide a conceptual basis for the development of broader relationships with countries in the Indian Ocean. Fifth, an Indo-Pacific strategy can help prioritise Australia’s allocation of defence resources between its commitments in the Middle East and commitments towards its closer neighbourhood. Each of these consequences will be discussed in turn.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific allows us to better understand Australia’s future strategic role in the region. Australia has an important role in the Indo-Pacific strategies being pursued by the US and other countries such as Japan, India, and France, which are all seeking to address the challenges caused by China’s rising power. Decades ago, Australia had the good fortune of finding itself on the geographical periphery of the Cold War. Then, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies was focused on central Europe, the North Atlantic, and Northeast Asia. The Indian Ocean and South Pacific largely lay on the periphery of that confrontation. Although Australia found security through a close security alliance with the United States, it was able to avoid becoming a member of an integrated military alliance in the nature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) or the US-Japan alliance. Its position, far from key areas of potential conflict between the superpowers, meant that Australia was also able to avoid hosting foreign military forces on its soil in any significant numbers.

In contrast, future rivalry between China and the US and its allies and partners will involve Australia much more directly. The Australian homeland is also under threat, if likely not through conventional military means. In recent years, China has attempted to project power directly into the Australian homeland through cyberattacks, trade threats, efforts to control the large Chinese diaspora and (largely ineffective) attempts to interfere with domestic politics.[viii] These developments have raised the stakes considerably for Australia and has provoked a sharp response from the Australian government. The Australia-China bilateral relationship is now at its lowest point in more than 50 years.[ix]

Importantly, Australia’s geographic position at the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans means that it, along with countries such as Indonesia, will act as a gatekeeper for the movement of trade and military forces between those theatres. A US naval analyst described the geographic positions of Australia, Japan and India vis-à-vis China as like a “baseball diamond”, where Australia is the “home plate” while Japan and India are first and third bases.[x] Australia’s geography and other strategic characteristics mean that it will likely play a much more active role in any potential future confrontation with China, as compared with the role it played during the Cold War. The hosting of a US marine contingent to Darwin may be the harbinger of the stationing of significant US naval and air forces on Australian soil, potentially including a revived US ‘First Fleet’.[xi] This would assist the United States to rapidly swing naval and air forces between the Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres. Australian analyst, Andrew Carr, has called the use of Australia by US forces as a base to project power into Asia the “MacArthur Model” (by analogy with the US use of Australia during the Pacific War), in contrast with the somewhat different US-Australia relationship since that time.[xii] Australia may soon see the return of the MacArthur Model as a security partner of the United States.

Australia’s status as a significant regional military power, with small but sophisticated armed forces, a powerful navy, and—importantly—a historical willingness to project power at long distances, also makes it an attractive security partner for many countries. The shift in Australia’s strategic perspectives from one focused (separately) on the Asia Pacific and the Middle East to a more unified view of the Indo-Pacific also has some crucial implications for Australian relationships in the region. A more unified understanding of Australia’s area of strategic interest affects Australian perspectives on its other alliance partnerships in the Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres. In recent years, Australia has moved to develop a closer and more direct security relationship with Japan, which includes enhanced cooperation throughout the Indo-Pacific, including in Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. Australia and France have also been enhancing their security relationship with an eye to how they can contribute to each other’s security across the Indo-Pacific.

The shift in Australian strategic perspectives to the Indo-Pacific has particular implications for its approach to the Indian Ocean. Some important security challenges in the Indian Ocean, particularly the security of vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) across it, need to be approached through understanding the dynamics of strategic competition among major Indo-Pacific powers. There is a significant likelihood that a major interruption to the SLOCs in the Indian Ocean would be connected, directly or indirectly, to developments elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. This means that in many cases, a localised response by Australia would be inadequate. In addition, Australia may be in a better position to approach new security challenges in the Middle East/West Asia with support from or coordination with other security relationships within the Indo-Pacific region, such as India. Australia may find that India could be a valuable new security partner in that part of the world.

Thus, the Indo-Pacific concept can be used to give greater coherence to Australia’s defence strategy. Since the official adoption of the Indo-Pacific concept in the 2013 Defence White Paper, Australia’s defence strategy has been understood to be a national maritime strategy[xiii] undertaken in a predominantly maritime environment.[xiv] This has important implications for the allocation of defence resources. Maritime security now receives the lion’s share of defence funding, and the Australian navy is now undergoing its biggest recapitalisation since at least World War II.

Further, by combining the Indian and Pacific Oceans into a single maritime zone, the Indo-Pacific concept calls for a systematic strategy of responding to threats against Australia’s interests across the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. Thus, for example, the ongoing rebalancing of the Australian naval fleet from its east coast towards Fleet Base West near Fremantle, Western Australia, which in coming years will include most of Australia’s new submarine fleet and the forward deployment of Australia’s new air warfare destroyers, should not merely be measured by Australia’s strategic needs in the Indian Ocean. The strategic value of Fremantle port should not be understood by its location on the Indian Ocean, but rather due to its relative proximity to much of the Indo-Pacific littoral compared with major ports on Australia’s east coast. Enhanced use of Fremantle makes considerable sense for enhancing the ability of the Australian Navy (and potentially also US fleet units based there in future) to quickly swing naval resources between the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres. The ability to quickly swing resources between the Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres will become increasingly vital for Australia and its regional partners.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific also provides a useful framework for approaching Australia’s strategic relationships with India and other Indian Ocean states, which may be profoundly different from Australia’s past approach to countries in that theatre. The development of the Australia-India relationship in recent years reflects not only a recognition of shared interests between the two countries in the Indian Ocean but also much more broadly across the Indo-Pacific. That supports the idea that the two countries should be seeking out potential areas for security cooperation, and particularly maritime security cooperation, in the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific concept also provides some valuable pointers for the geographic allocation of Australia’s defence resources. The huge size of the Indian Ocean creates real dangers of the diffusion of its limited resources if Australia was to pursue ocean-wide engagement indiscriminately. Accordingly, Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy will likely force it to place a particular focus on countries in the eastern half of the Indian Ocean, such as India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.[xv] Several countries in the eastern Indian Ocean could be the source of significant security risks such as violent extremism, political instability, or large unregulated population movements, as well as significant economic opportunities. Those risks and opportunities will increasingly require Australian agencies to give Southern Asian/Bay of Bengal states such as India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh no less priority in engagement than is currently given by Canberra to many ASEAN countries. Nevertheless, Australia will also need to continue to politically engage in the western Indian Ocean in conjunction with the US and strategic partners such as India, France and Japan.[xvi]

The development of substantive security partnerships with India and other key states on the southern Asian littoral would represent a significant departure from Australia’s past approach. Previously, Australia would frequently deploy military forces from Australia to the Middle East, transiting Indian Ocean waters secured by the British or US navies without much regard for the countries lying in between. But Australia’s future defence presence in the Indian Ocean region will increasingly involve a greater continuum of regional relationships. The current reduction of the Australian naval presence in the Persian Gulf/northwest Indian Ocean from a more or less full-time presence to the deployment of a frigate for six months per year is allowing the Australian navy to re-allocate resources to the eastern Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and South Pacific. This was demonstrated by the 2019 Exercise Indo Pacific Endeavour which involved the tour of the largest Australian fleet to South Asia since at least World War II.[xvii]

The redefinition of Australia’s key strategic space will likely require Australia to juggle with several regional concepts such as the “Asia Pacific,” the “Indo-Pacific,” the “Indian Ocean,” and even the “Eastern Indian Ocean”, each of which may be useful for different purposes. Despite its name, the “Indo-Pacific” does not provide an all-encompassing and exclusive framework for Australia’s engagement across the entire Pacific Ocean or Indian Ocean theatres. This means that Australia will need to work with several regional concepts at the same time and will also need to be comfortable in working with partners that have different geographic conceptions of the Indo-Pacific, reflecting their own location, history and strategic needs. India, for example, has a much greater focus than Australia on the security of the western Indian Ocean and East African littoral, for obvious reasons.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific does not involve a simple agglomeration of the entire Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres, which makes little sense. From Australia’s perspective, it would not be meaningful or practical to combine the entire Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres, including the space from, say, Peru to Madagascar. Rather, the Indo-Pacific must be primarily understood as a functional rather than just a purely geographical concept involving sharp lines on a map.

Conclusion

As a huge country with a relatively small population, Australia has long struggled to meet the strategic imperatives it has regarded as essential to its defence and security. For more than a century, its need to support its great power allies, its desire to help build a secure region, and its imperative to defend the continental homeland have been undertaken in a relatively disaggregated manner. Australia’s defence forces have frequently found themselves whipsawed between commitments in the Middle East, West Asia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, the Pacific, and Australia’s northeast maritime approaches.

Australia’s changing conception of its principal region, from the Asia Pacific to the Indo-Pacific makes considerable sense in understanding and responding to various regional security challenges. There are several potential consequences of Australia’s identification of the Indo-Pacific as its principal strategic space. One is in highlighting Australia’s likely role in future rivalry or confrontation between China and the US and its allies. Australia’s location between the Pacific and Indian Oceans makes it an important piece of real estate in any future conflict that spans both those oceans.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific is also a valuable framing device for Australia’s relationships with key regional security partners such as Japan, France and India. It will increasingly find itself working with so-called “like-minded” security partners on a pan-regional basis.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific will also help Australia develop a unified regional security strategy which is principally focused on the maritime realm. The Indo-Pacific prioritises the importance of the maritime realm and the littoral states of the Asian continent, and tends to de-emphasise continental concerns.

The Indo-Pacific also provides a valuable conceptual basis for the development of broader security relationships with countries in the Indian Ocean. For most of its history, Australia has given little priority to security relationships in the Indian Ocean. The relative decline of US naval predominance will force Australia to build more productive security relationships in the Indian Ocean region, beginning with India and other selected states on the southern Asian littoral.

Finally, the concept of the Indo-Pacific will help to prioritise the allocation of Australia’s defence resources across the extended region. In particular, it can be a valuable tool in juggling Australia’s military commitments in the Middle East with its commitments towards its closer neighbourhood.

In some ways, the concept of a “region” might be seen as the drawing of arbitrary lines to divide indivisible landmasses and oceans. But our “mental maps,” the way we carve up the world around us into useable pieces, can have significant consequences for the real world. Australia’s adoption of the Indo-Pacific as the principal guide towards its strategic space will likely have significant consequences for Australia’s strategic interactions with the world around it.

Author Brief Bio: Dr David Brewster is Senior Research Fellow, National Security College, Australian National University.

[i] David Brewster, Australia’s Second Sea: Facing our Multipolar Future in the Indian Ocean, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2019.   https://www.aspi.org.au/report/australias-second-sea-facing-our-multipolar-future-indian-ocean

[ii] Sam Bateman and Anthony Bergin, Our Western Front, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2010, p.20.

[iii] Australian Government, Department of Defence (2009), Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, Commonwealth of Australia, para 4.43.

[iv]Australian Government, Department of Defence (2016). Defence White Paper 2016, Australian Government, paras 292-3.

[v]Australian Government (2012), Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, Australian Government, p.236; Australian Government, The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee (2013). The importance of the Indian Ocean rim for Australia’s foreign, trade and defence policy, Australian Government.

[vi] See generally, Rory Medcalf, Contest for the Indo Pacific: Why China won’t map the future (Melbourne: La Trobe University Press, 2020).

[vii] Australian Government, Department of Defence (2013), Defence White Paper 2013, Australian Government

[viii] See generally, Clive Hamilton, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Melbourne: Hardie Grant, 2018).

[ix] Tony Walker, “Timeline of a broken relationship: how China and Australia went from chilly to barely speaking”, The Conversation, 9 December 2020. https://theconversation.com/timeline-of-a-broken-relationship-how-china-and-australia-went-from-chilly-to-barely-speaking-151567

[x] Satu Nagao (ed.), Strategies for the Indo-Pacific: Perceptions of the U.S. and Like-Minded Countries, Hudson Institute, 2019, p.19.

[xi] Salvatore Babones, “US should station a new First Fleet on our northern coast”, The Australian, 15 December 2020.

[xii] Andrew Carr, “Re-examining the Australia–US alliance (part 2): the Menzies and MacArthur models” ASPI Strategist, 25 February 2019. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/re-examining-the-australia-us-alliance-part-2-the-menzies-and-macarthur-models/

[xiii] Australian Government, Defence White Paper 2013, para 3.32.

[xiv] Australian Government, Defence White Paper 2013, para 2.9.

[xv] David Brewster, ‘New maritime governance and cooperation arrangements in the eastern Indian Ocean: challenges and prospects’, in Jivanta Schoettli, Maritime governance in South Asia and the Indian Ocean (World Scientific, 2017).

[xvi]David Brewster, “Australia can’t continue to divide the Indian Ocean in two” Lowy Interpreter, 19 February 2020.  https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/australia-can-t-continue-divide-indian-ocean-two

[xvii] Ankit Panda, “Royal Australian Navy Task Group Arrives in Sri Lanka for Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2019 Exercises” The Diplomat, 18 March 2019.

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Published by David Brewster

Dr David Brewster is Senior Research Fellow, National Security College, Australian National University.

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