Still, the sudden announcement of a nuclear substitute was a rude surprise, prompting cries of betrayal and the recall of French ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.
Deeper ocean currents had been revealed. A common thread to all the talk was something called the Indo-Pacific, a term barely heard in international affairs just a few years earlier, but now code for what to do about China.
“The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures,” said Prime Minister Morrison at the AUKUS launch. His British counterpart explained the new three-nation partnership as “working hand in glove to preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific”.
President Biden declared “the future of each of our nations – and indeed the world – depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead”. Days later, the leaders of the so-called Quad countries – America, Australia, India and Japan – convened in Washington for their first in-person meeting of this important new grouping.
With a less confronting agenda than AUKUS (spanning vaccines, technology, environment and infrastructure) they committed to “a region that is a bedrock of our shared security and prosperity – a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is also inclusive and resilient”.
But all was not well within the tent. Canberra’s diplomatic activism had propagated the Indo-Pacific as a unifying idea. Now, Australia was at the centre of a family feud in which different democracies preached their own versions of the creed. France expressed its outcry over the sunken submarines deal not in the crude terms of the global arms trade, but as a regretful “lack of consistency” in upholding shared interests and values in la region indo-pacifique.
On the same day as the AUKUS bombshell, the European Union had released its own “strategy for co-operation in the Indo-Pacific”.
The European approach was high sounding, but its plea for multilateral diplomacy, inclusiveness and non-confrontation sidestepped the hard question of what to do if China had other ideas, especially with its coercion of Taiwan.
By October 2021, tensions were escalating across the Taiwan Strait, with Chinese bombers making sinister daily air shows in skies it contested with the self-ruling island. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was declaring that “the course of the Indo-Pacific, the world’s fastest-growing region, will in many ways shape the course of the 21st century”. That included the increasingly real possibility of catastrophic war.
The Indo-Pacific is a place, an idea and a wave sweeping global diplomacy. Many powers and international groupings now invoke this term to define how they are rising to the China challenge.
In early 2021, the new US administration of President Biden hit the ground running with a policy of “competitive coexistence” with China.
This was underpinned by strengthened engagement of diverse allies and partners. Thus President Biden’s first international summit was with fellow leaders of the Quad. This theme of Indo-Pacific solidarity was developed further a few months later in the Cornwall summit of the Group of Seven (G7) and its new democratic partners, Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) subsequently warned that China posed “systemic challenges”.
How to blunt China’s bid to dominate the vital Indo-Pacific region – in security, economics, technology and values, and amid the aftershocks of COVID-19 – was now a first-order question in global diplomacy.
The Indo-Pacific answer is a practical reimagining of the world map to suit the problem and the times. It reframes an Asia-centric region to reflect growing connectivity and contest across two oceans, driven in substantial part by China’s expanding interests and influence.
This vision explains and encourages the balancing and dilution of Chinese power through new partnerships across collapsed geographic boundaries.
In a global discourse dominated by Beijing’s transgressions and triumphalism, or simplistic narratives of US–China bipolarity, the Indo-Pacific idea offers a useful alternative. It is about incorporating a more powerful China into a regional order where the rights of others are respected, and counterbalancing that power when those rights are not.
My book Contest for the Indo-Pacific has been described as a manifesto for this Indo-Pacific idea. The first edition was published in early 2020, just as COVID-19 was starting to spread across the globe. Much has changed in the subsequent two years of upheaval. But the Indo-Pacific idea has emerged tempered and true.
No plague truce
The global storm of COVID-19 and its impact on gathering great-power rivalry was not readily foreseen. My original analysis was over-optimistic in identifying a future pandemic as an opportunity to rebalance the world’s relations with China towards co-operation. In 1348, the bubonic plague brought a seven-year pause in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France.
There has been no plague truce in the long struggle of our era. A pattern politely described as “assertiveness” underwent a step change towards confrontational “wolf warrior diplomacy”.
Had the moment arrived for some confident execution of Chinese grand strategy? Or was this more a manifestation of anxiety, shaped by awareness that the window to lock in relative gains would close, as China’s demographic, environmental, financial, political and strategic constraints hit home?
Or had China’s rampant nationalism become an unavoidable function of its internal repression, less strategy and more pathology? Rather than the careful implementation of a grand plan, perhaps we are seeing traces of a political autoimmune disease, where the Chinese Communist Party’s hyper-defensiveness runs out of control, every germ of foreign criticism a trigger for counterproductive reaction in an empire of hurt feelings.
Whatever the cause, China accelerated its bid for dominance: a sphere of instability and pressure against not only Taiwan but Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Britain and much of Europe, even little Lithuania.
No wonder a growing number of nations have sought new ways to band together in protection of their interests and principles.
Middle players make a move
A core theme of my book is the agency of middle players – not China, not America – in mapping the future. The spread of the Indo-Pacific concept was a quiet achievement from years of activist diplomacy by these powers, notably Australia and Japan.
Now Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan are renewing their efforts to engage America as a security provider. These same powers and many others are continuing to strengthen themselves while also weaving a diplomatic web of new connections, however Lilliputian this may seem at first.
Part of the logic of these middle players banding together was to guard also against American unreliability under Trump. But the coalition building has not abated with the return to a more internationalist United States; instead, it is providing fertile ground for Washington’s re-engagement, demonstrating to America that its allies are increasingly interested in building their own united front.
This makes eminent sense at a time when American leadership and credibility is under such strain, from Russia’s war threats against Ukraine to the tragic aftermath of withdrawal from Afghanistan. Washington may well be serious about a long game of rivalry with China, but this will require new levels of burden-sharing with partners.
Thus the new spirit of self-help among Indo-Pacific allies, to influence the balance of power and forcefully defend national interests if stability fails.
Australia is expanding its warfighting capabilities – missiles, satellites, warships – amid warnings from Mr Morrison that the era is starting to feel like the 1930s: “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly”.
Rather than isolating or subduing the middle players, China’s actions have bolstered their resolve to seek common cause with one another, while building domestic resilience and keeping the door open for engagement on terms of mutual respect.
Australia, India and Japan continue to strengthen bonds with each other and in the Quad with America. In 2020, Australia and India finalised a “comprehensive strategic partnership” reaching beyond maritime security into cyber, critical technologies, supply chains and infrastructure.
Australia and Japan have committed to military access arrangements, allowing their forces to use each other’s bases. Plus there is new collaboration on cyber, advanced technologies, critical minerals, supply chains, pandemic response and strengthening third countries through aid and training.
Indo-Pacific security co-operation has gone global. A few years ago, Indonesia led the 10 member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in devising an “Indo-Pacific outlook”, a policy of inclusiveness, coexistence and respect for maritime rules across this vast region.
France was the first European power to redefine its strategy as Indo-Pacific, back in the 2010s. Despite the AUKUS rupture, France insists its attention will stay on this region, where it retains territories, citizens and military presence.
Meanwhile, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and the European Union have released Indo-Pacific policies to reframe their diplomacy in support of democratic values and a peaceful, rules-based order, while still hedging somewhat to preserve what commerce and other co-operation they can salvage with China.
Western nations are backing this up with shows of military presence, notably the 2021 deployment of a British aircraft carrier strike group through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Taiwan has endorsed the Indo-Pacific in its so-called New Southbound policy. South Korea is starting to do the same in its New Southern policy, regaining confidence in its American ally and looking beyond the Korean Peninsula to sea lanes on which its economy is even more acutely dependent than China’s. New Zealand and Canada are reframing their foreign policies through an Indo-Pacific lens.
Most prominent among the new partnerships is the Quad. In March 2021, the first Quad summit recast the grouping’s agenda around public goods: co-operation and capacity in technology, vaccines and climate policy. A second summit at the White House reinforced this plan, including a vaccine rollout predicted to reach 2 billion doses in 2022. All this was hardly hawk talk, and undercut the theatrics of fulmination that Beijing has used to claim it was being threatened by an “Asian NATO”.
The Quad is becoming a core for larger coalitions. As Biden promotes renewed partnership among democracies worldwide, there is scope to coordinate overlapping groups, including the Quad, the Five Eyes (the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand), the new AUKUS trio and the G7.
For all the gloom and disruption of the early 2020s, the Indo-Pacific idea should be about building islands of trust and co-operation, in an era when global institutions are under intense strain yet standing alone is not enough.
Professor Rory Medcalf is head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. This article is based on an extract from the updated edition of his book Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future, to be released by Black Inc. on February 1.
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