On 27 July 2018 the Perth USAsia Centre hosted Dr Thomas Wilkins for a private roundtable luncheon to discuss foreign policy approaches to the “Indo-Pacific” regional construct. Dr Wilkins is a Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of Sydney, and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. The program featured an introductory presentation by Dr Wilkins, followed by a discussion with Centre stakeholders conducted under the Chatham House Rule. The following is a breakdown of the key issues discussed at the roundtable.
The Indo-Pacific construct?
Dr Wilkins opened the discussion by mapping the evolution of the regional constructs used to describe Australia’s geographic place in the world. The previously entrenched ‘Asia-Pacific’ construct had occupied the strategic thinking of government officials and academics into the current decade. According to Dr Wilkins, the ‘Asia-Pacific’ construct was still a more accurate regional title to describe the contemporary state of Asia’s regional architecture and economic flows. However, the Indo-Pacific construct has been advanced by policymakers to capture expectations for how the region will evolve in the future, particularly by bringing re-emerging India into the map.
Dr Thomas Wilkins, Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of Sydney and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs at the Perth USAsia Centre roundtable luncheon.
Dr Wilkins deconstructed the manner in which the ‘Indo-Pacific’ can be viewed as a framing reference to describe an emerging ‘region’, and/or as a strategic construct to guide a suite of defence and security policies. Without a mature regional architecture to bind countries, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct currently lacks the institutional clarity of the ‘Asia-Pacific’. There is also uncertainty over how the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. (‘the Quad’) is likely to evolve. The Quad is linked to the recent U.S.’ adoption of the Japanese policy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, but it is still uncertain as to whether this framework is intended to be inclusive or exclusive. It remains an open question whether this ambiguity will work in favour of or against the broader adoption of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a regional construct.
Adapting regional foreign policies
In the ensuing discussion, it was asserted that the Indo-Pacific as a regional construct was a fluid and evolving concept. Its principal purpose is as a framing device to describe the global convergence of economic and strategic power among Indian and Pacific Ocean countries:
- For Australia, the evolution of Indo-Pacific construct was strategically beneficial, as it repositions Australia from the Southeast end of the Asia-Pacific zone to the fulcrum point of the Indo-Pacific zone (along with Indonesia and other ASEAN nations).
- For Japan, the maturation of the Indo-Pacific as a regional construct was a diplomatic win for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has led the most active post-World War II Japanese foreign policy since his second coming as Prime Minister for the second time.
- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heavily reinforcing the construct at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, which suggests that the Indo-Pacific is becoming further entrenched in the region’s diplomatic language.
- However, some countries and institutions in the region had not yet fully embraced the concept, including ASEAN, China and South Korea.
Members of the roundtable drew a distinction between the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a regional construct on one hand, and the integrated strategic and security policies between the US, its alliance partners and fellow liberal democracies in the region on the other. This distinction – which is often overlooked in popular and policy debates – means that the Quad does not perfectly equate with the Indo-Pacific, nor is the Indo-Pacific solely design to enable the Quad. Indeed, at present the Quad is simply a dialogue that has met three times (at ‘officials’ level), and is yet to become a key piece of the regional security architecture.
Roundtable participants expressed optimism that the Indo-Pacific as a regional construct would further entrench itself over time. As the dynamism of the region continued, and the flow of trade and investment across the two oceans increased, the Indo-Pacific would continue to mature from principally a maritime security and strategic construct to an economic one. As the diverse countries of the region developed and become further economically interconnected, this would be reflected in global institutions and in the maturation of the regional architecture. This would enable a broader acceptance of and understanding of the Indo-Pacific.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.