Australia, the United States and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

22 Mar 2018
Australia, the United States and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

On 26-27 February 2018, the Perth USAsia Centre and the US Embassy in Canberra hosted a Conference on Australia-US Indo-Pacific strategy at the University of Western Australia.  The two-day program included a public event on Tuesday 27th February, in which a panel of four distinguished speakers spoke to an audience of business, industry and scholarly leaders on the US Administration’s policy for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

Listen here: Walter T. Douglas Keynote Address on US-Australia and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

Walter T. Douglas, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, opened the event with an overview of recent developments in US strategy for the Indo-Pacific. The Hon. Kim Beazley, Distinguished Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre, then offered an assessment on US capacity to project power in the region.  Professor Chikako Kawakatsu Ueki of Waseda University and Ambassador Shyam Saran, former Indian Foreign Secretary, then joined for a panel discussion moderated by Professor Gordon Flake.

“The Trump Administration is particularly focused on the Indo-Pacific right now, we believe it to be the most consequential part of the globe this Century.” - Walter T. Douglas

US Strategy for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific
In November 2017, at the APEC CEO Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, US President Donald Trump shared the Administration’s vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.  President Trump described “a place where sovereign and independent nations, with diverse cultures and many different dreams, can all prosper side-by-side, and thrive in freedom and peace.”  At the forum in Perth, Deputy Assistant Secretary Douglas expanded on the Administration’s vision for the Indo-Pacific and its ensuing policy.
Mr Douglas explained the US’ geographic construct of the Indo-Pacific region stretches from the west coast of India to the west coast of America, or ‘Bollywood to Hollywood’.  This framework was adopted by the US to embrace the re-emergence of China and India as major powers, and to support the rise of Southeast Asia.
As articulated in the recent National Security Strategy and subsequent National Defence Strategy, the US envisages a region that enables the free movement of goods, services, people, capital and ideas, in a stable and rules-based institutional environment.  US policy to support this ideal is to work with allies, partners and friends, to strengthen regional institutions, deepen regional relationships and remain actively embedded in regional activities.  Addressing concerns regarding US commitment to the Indo-Pacific, Mr Douglas emphasised the importance of President Trump’s record near-two week visit to the region in late-2017 and stated, “We have never gone away, we have never left and have no intention of leaving.  We are part of the geography out here.”
Mr Douglas stressed that the principles of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” must be underpinned by an inclusive rules-based order.  These rules of the road are needed to endorse the fact that might does not equal right, and sovereign nations large and small should be able to contribute to the region’s advancement and properly safeguard their interests.  Mr Douglas championed Australia, a longest-standing US ally, as a committed and effective partner in the region, whilst also commending other allies and partners in the region for their contribution to regional development.

Prosecuting the Strategy: Maintaining a Favourable Balance of Power in the Indo-Pacific

“I look at what the American Defence establishment talks about.  That is where the rubber hits the road [on US National Security and Defence Policy].  That is what determines the capacity of the United States to engage its relationships and what sort of calculation you can make about what sort of options are available to American statespersons.” - The Hon. Kim Beazley AC

The Hon. Kim Beazley provided a granular analysis on the aforementioned US strategy, as it relates to military and defence arrangements.  Mr Beazley suggested that US military policy was not to control, constrain or contain the military movements of foreign powers in the Indo-Pacific, but simply to ensure a favourable balance of power. 
Mr Beazley quoted from the synopsis of the US Department of Defence’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which states “a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favourable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order.”  He defined holding a favourable balance of power as meaning a regional theatre situation in which US capability, in technological, deployment and operational terms, maintained a competitive edge over key military rivals.
Mr Beazley advocated that this strategy wholeheartedly worked for, and would advance, Australia’s regional security interests.  Quoting again from the Strategy, “A free and open Indo-Pacific provides prosperity and security for all.  We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.”  Mr Beazley commended US Defense Secretary James Mattis, stating his retention in the US Administration was essential for a continued focus on the Strategy’s tenets and its successful prosecution.
Mr Beazley also argued that the military operating environment in the Indo-Pacific is becoming ever more complicated, as power becomes more diffuse and dispersed.  Particularly, he expressed concern that China’s strategic ‘landing point’ is looking less likely to resemble the status quo vision of Deng Xiaoping, as the Chinese Communist Party further concentrates party control over the state and becomes more activist in its foreign policy.  Mr Beazley contended that an essential precondition for the U.S maintaining a favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific is the sustainability of the US military budget which, while recently increased, will test US fiscal capacity.

Rising Powers in the Indo-Pacific: Contested Spaces and Converging Interests

“There is no other option than to have a rules-based order.  Whether we succeed or not is dependent on how much cost we are willing to pay.” - Professor Chikako Ueki

Following the two keynote addresses, Professor Gordon Flake convened a panel discussion of Mr Douglas, Mr Beazley, Professor Ueki and Ambassador Saran.  This expanded the analysis beyond the role of the US, asking panellists and the audience to contextualise the transformative changes in the region by mapping how the Indo-Pacific construct has developed over time.  Professor Flake stated that over the last three decades, strategic thinkers have ceased identifying India as solely part of South Asia, Japan as part of East Asia, Southeast Asia as its own independent region and Australia as part of Oceania.
Professor Flake argued that with India projected to become the second largest economy in the world and Indonesia the fourth, becoming major regional powers alongside the US and China, there is an unprecedented convergence of economic and geopolitical power in this part of the world.  This development is best captured through the adoption of the broader Indo-Pacific construct.  Ambassador Saran noted that while examining the region through such an extended geographic lens was not new to India, it is now becoming more common amongst its regional partners.
There was consensus on the panel that as the Indo-Pacific becomes more contested and disrupted, the path forward is to organise regional relations in accordance with the established system of ‘rules-based’ laws and norms.  Professor Flake noted that in June 2017, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered the keynote address at the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, in which he advocated that the post-World War II global architecture of laws and norms must be preserved.  According to Prime Minister Turnbull, “We must commit to the principle that respect for the rules delivers lasting peace …if we are to maintain the dynamism of the region then we must preserve the rules-based structure that has enabled it thus far.”
With respect to China’s regional ambitions, emphasis was placed on the importance of peacefully and effectively managing the often divergent policies and interests of China and other nations of the Indo-Pacific.  It was stressed that every growing power needs to be given space to expand its reach and safeguard its interests, as well as have a growing say in the rules governing activity.  However, actions by any one power in unilateral contravention of established laws and norms disturb regional stability.  Professor Ueki declared a vital calculation had to be made by all countries in the Indo-Pacific as to what would be the cost of non-compliance with the rules-based order.
Panellists noted the democratic values of Australia, the US, India, Japan, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea enabled an alignment of values as well as interests.  However, Mr Douglas stressed that that a rules-based Indo-Pacific order was not an exclusionary order limited to these states.  Mr Beazley went further, arguing the principles of the rules-based order are “not a set of Western values”, but a “common sense” architecture of trading and security arrangements.
During questions, audience members asked about China’s re-emergence and the implications for Indo-Pacific stability. Professor Flake noted that without China, the unprecedented region-wide economic expansion of recent decades would not have been possible. As people and nations in one region rise to prosperity, there is inevitable competition over territory and resources.  However, panellists agreed that with open dialogue, abidance by the rules and a focus on shared interests, a peaceful balance can prevail.  As Ambassador Saran argued:

“This is a region of a cluster of major powers…it means therefore that there are many more points of interaction in this crowded space.  Now these points of interaction can become points of contention, or they can become points of cooperation.” Ambassador Shyam Saran

Read here: The Australia-US-Indo-Pacific Strategy Recommendations Report


Hugo Seymour
Hugo Seymour
Research Analyst
Hugo Seymour is the Research Analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre. He develops content and publishes on Western Australia and Australia's engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.
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