The Indo-Pacific concept that now lies at the heart of Australia’s foreign policy assumes that it will. It is founded on the belief that as America’s position in Asia fades, India will step forward to help balance and contain China’s power and prevent it from dominating countries like Australia.
So the Indo-Pacific concept is not just a new way of reading the map. It is a vision of Asia’s strategic and diplomatic future. It imagines that countries right across a vast region stretching ‘from Hollywood to Bollywood’ will stand united and work together to contain China.
Not surprisingly, many find the idea appealing. It crops up all the time now in policy speeches in Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and even, sometimes, New Delhi. Rory Medcalf’s new book, Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China won’t map the future, offers the most comprehensive and engaging argument for it yet.
In early March, both the Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, and her Labor Party counterpart, Penny Wong, appeared together to launch Medcalf’s book in Canberra. That says a lot about how eager both sides of Australian politics are to convince themselves and the rest of us, that the Indo-Pacific concept is the answer to the challenge of China.
But it all depends on India — the key to the Indo-Pacific’s strategic heft. With its huge population and economic potential, India alone can develop the power to match China and contain its ambitions. So if the United States pulls back, as it seems destined to do, India will have to take the lead in the Indo-Pacific push back against Beijing.
The question, though is whether India is willing to play that role. Of course India will vigorously oppose any Chinese ambitions to dominate India itself or its neighbourhood in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. But will India care much about what China does in East Asia and the Western Pacific?
This is where the Indo-Pacific concept embodies a critical and highly questionable assumption. By presenting this vast swathe of the earth as one integrated region, it assumes that India and China will both eagerly compete with one another across its entire expanse. If so, India would willingly commit itself to prevent China dominating East Asia.
But that is most unlikely, because neither China’s interests nor India’s are spread equally across this huge slice of the globe. China’s interests are much stronger in East Asia and the Western Pacific, while India’s are stronger in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Each of them has a huge imperative to stop the other intruding strategically into its own backyard, but neither has anything like the same motives to intrude strategically into the other’s backyard.
That means India is unlikely to challenge China’s strategic ambitions in East Asia and the Western Pacific, as long as China doesn’t challenge India’s equally powerful ambition to dominate South Asia and the Indian Ocean. If China keeps out of the Indian Ocean, India will stay out of East Asia and the Western Pacific.
Medcalf argues that China is already active in India’s backyard, with its massive Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and its support for India’s arch-rival Pakistan. But these have been low-risk, low-cost gambits while India has been relatively weak. The stronger India becomes, the stronger Beijing’s incentives to avoid a direct strategic contest in New Delhi’s backyard which it cannot win.
What gains could China expect from continuing to provoke India in this way as India’s power grows? It is unwise to assume that China will do us all a favour by making such an elementary strategic mistake. And if China agrees not to meddle in India’s backyard, why would India be foolish enough to meddle in China’s? Without India’s interference, China’s ambitions in East Asia would face little effective opposition.
The reality is that, rather than India leading a grand Indo-Pacific coalition against China, it is more likely to cut a deal with China to divide the wider Indo-Pacific region up between them. India will then have an unchallenged sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, and China will have the same in East Asia and the Western Pacific.
This would put Australia in a very interesting position, as one of the countries that lies on the boundary between them. That offers Australia important opportunities to maximise its independence from both the Asian behemoths by playing them off against one another — a bit like the way Mongolia juggles China and Russia.
But it means Australia faces a much more complex, demanding and lonely diplomatic and strategic future than it would have if Medcalf’s enticing vision of the Indo-Pacific somehow materialised instead. The Indo-Pacific concept is so popular in Canberra and elsewhere precisely because it is so reassuring. It is an invitation and an excuse to assume that Australia’s worries about its future in Asia will be solved by other countries, especially India, without much effort of its own. It is the old, familiar story of Australians expecting a ‘great and powerful friend’ to look after it. Australia should be so lucky.
Hugh White is Emeritus Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.
A version of this post originally appeared here on The Australian Financial Review.