On Wednesday 8 April 2020, the Perth USAsia Centre hosted Professor Rory Medcalf
, Head of National Security College at the Australian National University for a private virtual roundtable to discuss his new book, Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future.
Convened under Chatham House Rule, the roundtable offered an opportunity for members of the PerthUSAsia Centre community to engage with Professor Medcalf on the pressing issues facing Australia as strategic competition in the region intensifies.
Professor Medcalf has been instrumental in developing and popularising the use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. His book approaches the region with a long view, tracking how the regional order has evolved over history and how it may develop into the future. The book utilises ‘maps’ – both cartographic and cognitive – to capture how the region has shifted over time as a multipolar maritime Asia. This defines the region as a two-ocean system, geographically bounded by the Indian and Pacific Oceans with Australia situated at the centre.
The core message of Contest for the Indo-Pacific
that the regional order is currently returning to multipolarity. This serves as a corrective to the narrative that the Indo-Pacific has historically been China-centric. While China has been a key player, it has not been central to the regional order, nor will it be the hegemon in the future.
Discussion in the roundtable addressed China’s outward ambition and disruption in the region as a primary strategic concern. Furthermore, concern was raised over the unpredictability of US presence in the region under President Trump. Professor Medcalf’s book seeks to tackle these issues, addressing how Chinese power can be managed and how the region can cope with US unreliability.
Participants recognised Chinese perceptions of the Indo-Pacific construct as a containment strategy. It was noted that the while title of Professor Medcalf’s book engages with that narrative, its principal message is not regarding China’s debated position in the region, but rather finding a strategic balance point that is amenable to all players.
It was discussed that the future of the region is likely to be multipolar in character, discouraging hegemony and encouraging networks. It was noted that middle players such as Australia, Japan, India and Indonesia will emerge as power-centres in the Indo-Pacific. As the regional order evolves, these players can articulate policy in a multipolar setting to set limits to Chinese power and reach a strategic settling point.
Although it was emphasised that the book should not be shoehorned into the current circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak, concerns were brought up about the virus and its regional implications. Fears were raised that India and Indonesia will be the worst hit – both economically and democratically – by the pandemic. This is concerning for Australia as its relationship with the two regional players has been a crucial basis for Australian foreign, strategic and economic policy.
In the midst of COVID-19, it is important for Australia to sustain its recent efforts at building stronger diplomatic relationships with these countries. Australia has the opportunity to play balancing role in moderating the resentment that will eventuate towards China in the medium to long term over the outbreak. Diplomatically, Australia can extend assistance to smaller regional partners, such as Papua New Guinea in recovering from the pandemic, lest its credibility as a good international citizen be tarnished. Furthermore, Australia should seek to keep momentum in its strategic relationships with its regional partners such as India in the maritime domain.
While popular discourse casts China as a threat to the regional order, Professor Medcalf’s book offers an optimistic long view of the region as one that will become increasingly multipolar to find a stable modus vivendi with China.
This roundtable coincided with a virtual book launch
with Professor Medcalf and Perth USAsia Centre’s CEO, Professor Gordon Flake.