Australian policy makers and strategists have recently embraced the so-called "Indo-Pacific" as a geopolitical construct to guide foreign and security policy (sometimes referred to as "Indo-Pacific strategy" - IPS). The concept was outlined in both the 2016 Defence White Paper and 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and has prominently featured in the speeches of policy makers and the accompanying think tank/academic discourse. But it is not just limited to Canberra; Tokyo, under its "Free and Open Indo Pacific" (FIOP) and New Delhi under its “Act East” policy have championed the concept, and the US has too endorsed it in its own 2017 National Security Strategy. Of course, this has predictably raised the ire of Beijing, which is naturally excluded from the concept, and which is concerned that any kind of quadrilateral security cooperation between these states is aimed at its "containment". But despite its current prominence in Australian strategic designs, policy makers have been less clear about what the concept actually means and what it actually entails. This situation replicates the experience of Australia's earlier initiative under PM Kevin Rudd to launch an "Asia Pacific Community" to great fanfare first, then scramble to fill in the details and explain it to stakeholders retroactively. Let us examine the actual and potential content of the IPS and look at various ways of interpreting it from an Australian perspective.
First, the obvious raison-d’être of the IPS is for Australia to strengthen cooperation with India, at least in part as a counterweight to China; a desire long-held in some quarters of the strategic community in Australia, and with well-placed advocates in Canberra. India as a "strategic partner" of Australia (as well as Japan and the US) is seen as a vital "balancer" to the inexorable rise of China at the heart of East Asia. Of course, India is a willing participant in re-centering the region around a greater role for New Delhi as it seeks to manage its prickly relations with the Middle Kingdom. This also fits closely with Japan’s apparent objectives, and is potentially manifested through the on/off notion of a "Quad" uniting Australia, Japan, the US and India into closer strategic cooperation (revived in 2018, after a ten-year hiatus). These countries together affirm their desire for a "stable and rules-based order" including freedom of maritime navigation and international law – an implicit rebuke to those that seek to revise international structures through coercion and unilateralism. To a degree this is a belated push-back against the dynamic initiatives unleashed by China in Eurasia, including the BRI, AIIB, and SCO to name but a few, much of which have occurred whilst the US had been preoccupied with its ill-fated war against terror in the Middle East. This situation was supposed to be rectified under Obama’s "rebalance" policy from 2011, but this policy was torpedoed by the Trump Administration’s abrogation of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) agreement in 2017. Even absent a US leadership role due to the "America First" focus, Canberra, Tokyo, and New Delhi have forged ahead. Despite the vehement protestations by the Australian government that it is "not about China", for all the parties leading the concept it evidently "is about China". However, it is also more than this. The Indo-Pacific region is faced by a plethora of non-traditional security challenges, such as piracy, terrorism, climate change and natural disasters, for example. A more proactive role for Australia and its partners on this front will surely prove beneficial, as was earlier demonstrated through the successful quadrilateral HD/AR response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. So, it is not "only about China".
Second, for Australia, the IPS is another attempt at "relocating" Australia in the region - or rather "relocating the region to Australia". In other words, redefining its "geostrategic setting" at the nexus of these two great Oceans. Australia has typically been a champion of the "Asia-Pacific" descriptor for Asian regionalism which includes actors that are peripheral (Australia, New Zealand) and external (the US), alongside the East Asian core countries (and which Japan has historically also supported). Now, Australia with its vast continental territory straddling both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, seeks to find a new and more prominent role in a newly-defined region (notably, Australia's transcontinental railway is called the "Indian-Pacific"). This will allow Australia to leverage greater economic and strategic roles for itself, according to its advocates.
Third: what are the prospects for this new "region"? Efforts to fill-out the concept from the perspective of Australia and its partners focus upon the overarching strategic elements indicated above, but whether this is viable remains to be seen. If, as is intended, South East Asia generally, and Indonesia specifically (which has its own ill-defined "Global Maritime Fulcrum" concept) can be brought on board in addition to the "quad" powers, the concept may become better defined and resourced. Yet, Japan in particular has concentrated on substantiating the economic dimension of the concept – seeking to tap the supposedly vast trading potential of a region extending to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and harness it to its position in Pacific Asia. However, according to studies seen by this author the potential is far less than anticipated mainly due to a woefully inadequate local infrastructure, and may prove little more than a distraction from the booming East Asian and Eurasian regions. Additionally, regions are in need of effective multilateral institutions and as yet no specific organizational architecture exists to operationalise/unite the Indo-Pacific. Though a range of overlapping institutions do include its core proponents, for example the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) (in which Australia and India are members and Japan and the US dialogue partners) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), (which includes Australia and India, plus several SEA states), these are not as well developed as the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region. This relative lack of institutional architecture potentially impedes the realization of meaningful IP regionalism.
Fourth, as expected, there is little acknowledgment of the long and distinct history of the Indian Ocean region, making the concept smack of a "new discovery" externally imposed by Australian policy-makers. Of course, India and others inhabiting this vast Oceanic littoral are acutely aware of historical regional dynamics and already engaged deeply in transnational networks with their roots in the past (for example Arab trading networks, the Portuguese empire, and the British-Indian Raj). In this sense the attempt by Australia and India with aid of "outside powers" such as Japan and the US, can be seen as an imposition of an artificial construct for ideological/geopolitical purposes, rather than a "natural" or organic process of regionalism. This mirrors the painstaking efforts of Australia, Japan, and the US to successfully (re)define East Asia as the "Asia Pacific" in the 1980s onwards, and harness it to their political purposes.
Lastly, there is the prospect that it could amount to little more than rhetoric reflecting a common vision of close allies and partners that have sought to strengthen cooperation in order to deal with the rise of China. The wholesale appearance of the term "Indo-Pacific" replacing "Asia Pacific" in government white papers after the (temporary) ouster of PM Kevin Rudd and its full-scale adoption by the current Liberal-Coalition government in its own discourse and policy statements suggests a "rebranding". Some terms get stale in politics and by repackaging them politicians can appear to be innovating. In International Relations parlance such attempts to reshape political discourse are referred to as "speech acts". This is currently reflected in the analogous efforts to enunciate an “Indo-Pacific Century” as an ideological halo for the strategy, just as Rudd did with his talk of an "Asia-Pacific Century" around 2009.
In conclusion, the "Indo Pacific" still lacks coherence as a concept for Australia (and its partners) and so far little concrete substance has emerged. Like the BRI it has come in for serious criticism. Given the difficulties experienced in the past with tying New Delhi to Australian/Japanese/American visions and objectives in the region, and India's rather slower than predicted rise to preeminence, a little skepticism at this point is warranted. For Australia (as well as Japan, India and America) its actual resources and capabilities are limited, and its efforts to project its power and influence perhaps rather over-ambitious. This is why it has engaged Japan, India and the US as stakeholders in this enterprise. But expanding the scope of Australia's engagement in order to nominally strengthen its position may actually result in a dispersion and dilution of its influence in the Asia Pacific and its all-important Northeast Asian core. Let us also remember that China also has a historical pedigree (the voyages of Zheng He) and present designs on the Indian Ocean, with its "string of pearls" (ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Burma) as egression points for Central Asian resources tied to the BRI. As a result, it seems a new area for competition and geopolitical rivalry has begun to emerge.