The Indo-Pacific debate

29 May 2018

In this special double-feature podcast, we hear from Rory Medcalf, David Brewster and Denise Fisher about how the Indo-Pacific concept could shape the future of Asia.

Is it time to say farewell to the Asia-Pacific? In recent years the idea of an ‘Indo-Pacific’ has swept through foreign policy circles all throughout our region. Yet despite its growing popularity in Canberra, Washington, New Delhi and Tokyo, the new mental map is not without its critics.

On this special Policy Forum Pod, we play you a public lecture by Rory Medcalf on Indo-Pacific strategy and what the concept means for Australia. We then take the discussion further with David Brewster and Denise Fisher, where we dive into the wheres, whys and what-ifs of the Indo-Pacific. Listen here.

Rory Medcalf is the head of the National Security College at The Australian National University. His professional background involves three decades of experience across diplomacy, intelligence analysis, think tanks and journalism.

David Brewster is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Security College, Australian National University and a Distinguished Research Fellow with the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne. He writes widely on Indian strategic affairs and maritime security in the Indian Ocean region.

Denise Fisher is Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for European Studies. She is a former senior Australian diplomat who has served as Australian Consul General in Noumea, High Commissioner in Zimbabwe, and Political Counsellor in Washington.

This week’s podcast is divided into two parts. The first half is a public lecture recently delivered by Rory Medcalf at Crawford School of Public Policy: Mapping our future: towards an Indo-Pacific strategy for Australia. That event was co-hosted by Policy Forum and the National Security College.

For the second half of the podcast, Policy Forum’s Maya Bhandari continues the Indo-Pacific conversation with expert guests David Brewster and Denise Fisher.

One of the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific is defining exactly what it is. For Brewster, it’s a concept which reflects the convergence of the strategic dynamics of the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean.

“That’s primarily driven by growing interactions between East Asia and South Asia – primarily between China and India but involving a number of other countries, in the economic space, the political space, and the strategic and military space,” Brewster says.

“That is reflected largely in the maritime realm, more than in the land. We have this concept which is basically both a functional and geographic concept. It’s a functional concept to the extent that it talks about these growing economic and strategic interactions, but between two previously separate geographic spaces.”

In looking at how the Australian Government defines the term, Fisher says that our idea of what the Indo-Pacific should encompass is quite blurry.

“The best I can make out is that it’s ‘India plus most of the Asia-Pacific’. In our [Foreign Policy] White Paper we talk about Japan, the US, Indonesia, the ROK at one point, even Vietnam,” Fisher says.

“It doesn’t seem to me that we’re clear in this. When you look at our strategy for furthering it, the situation becomes even less clear.” She referred to the White Paper talking about engaging major democracies in bilateral and small groups and asked where that left China, adding that a fluid definition was not good enough.

It’s also a conceptual change that is going to be difficult for many people to come to terms with.

“Any new concept which changes the way we look at the world… is going to ruffle some feathers,” Brewster says. “Previously set ideas or set mental categories are changed, and suddenly it forces both large powers and middle powers to look at the world quite differently.

“The United States, of any of the Western countries, has actually been fairly hesitant about the concept, and that reflects the Washington dichotomy between East Asia and the Middle East, in American foreign policy circles, which is being challenged by this concept.”

Even putting the conceptual questions aside, there remains the practical challenge for policymakers of formulating an Indo-Pacific strategy.

“I would come back to the changing definition of foreign policy,” says Fisher. “In the good old days, we could talk about the two pillars of foreign policy: defence and trade. “Now we’ve got a situation where foreign policy is more complex… Even within defence, for example, we no longer talk about defence, we need to talk about security policy. This encompasses all things like cybersecurity, the transnational issues of terrorism and even climate change.

“Looking at the Indo-Pacific, we’ve talked a lot about whether it’s maritime or not, [but] there are broader dimensions… We need to be sure that when we’re talking to India, we talk not just about naval power, but all these other elements as well.” So will we see the Indo-Pacific start to replace the Asia-Pacific over the years ahead? Brewster says that these changes can happen very quickly.

“No one heard of Southeast Asia until 1943 – the term did not exist. And yet now it seems to us to always have been there and an obvious thing. Similarly, with Asia-Pacific, it was not a concept really until the 1970s and 1980s, and now it’s almost a ubiquitous part of the way Australia sees the world.

“If a concept of a region makes sense, in both economic, and strategic and any other terms, then it will be adopted… That’s the weird thing about regions: once they are adopted as part of their mental map, people just assume that they’re obvious and they have been around forever.”

Policy Forum Pod is a production of Crawford School’s Policy Forum website. The podcast is available on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, and wherever you get your podcasts. Got feedback for us on this pod? Tweet us @APPSPolicyForum or find us on Facebook.

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