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Australia urged to look to the Indo-Pacific

Published 16 Jun 2020
Bethany Latham

We need to keep China in perspective and also turn our attention to India and other nations to our west, says Professor Rory Medcalf.
He stressed this point on May 25 during an AIIA Queensland webinar in which he introduced his new book: Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future.
Professor Medcalf, pictured above, who currently heads the National Security College at the Australian National University, is well known for his high media profile and extensive professional experience, having worked in diplomacy, academia, journalism, and intelligence analysis over the past three decades.
The first argument his book advances is that it is in Australia’s interests to stop limiting ourselves to merely being part of the Asia Pacific, and instead to further embrace our westward connections to the Indian Ocean, as part of the greater Indo-Pacific region.
Professor Medcalf says China and its immediate surrounding region have rightfully gained the attention of Australian leaders and policy makers. But he warns it would be a mistake to focus solely on our far-eastern neighbours.
His reasoning is that as India and other powers to our west have begun to emerge more over the past few decades, presenting themselves as important actors in our system, they have caught the attention of Beijing.
As a result, Chinese interest, influence, and even military power have spread to this part of the world. Moreover, India has gained the attention of many other Asian nations as a valuable trading partner, and it is these connections reaching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, through trade and commerce, that have solidified the Indo-Pacific as the new strategic environment Australia must focus on.
He addresses this while highlighting our use of language to describe the world around us, and how that can in turn affect our perceptions. The “mental maps’’ we use to categorise certain areas into regions or continents can change and shift depending on who you ask. For this reason, Professor Medcalf says these maps are not natural, but political, and have been used, and misused, to influence policy and decision making for hundreds of years. Through this lens, we can see that the “Indo-Pacific’’, which started as a purely descriptive geographical term, is taking on a new form, and a new meaning, backed by the changing political tides.
Another important factor in this discussion is the changing nature of our world, in terms of our level of connectivity, which is higher than ever before. Professor Medcalf suggests that we must come to think of contagion not just in a medical sense, as we have become all too familiar with recently, but also in terms of the contagion of political instability, and crisis. In modern times, no country can remain truly unaffected by the actions of others.
However, we can also use this connectivity to our advantage, in order to partner with more countries to work against the factors causing destabilisation in our system. In particular, Professor Medcalf says, we must work together to overcome Beijing’s coercive power. There is a persisting notion that China has always been the dominant power in the region throughout history. Professor Medcalf argues that while China was certainly important and influential, we must not overlook the other strong connections that exist within the region, particularly those between India and South East Asia, with the exportation of Hinduism and Islam still prominent today. European colonialism in the area has also shaped the relationships between these nations, breaking ties that had existed and building new ones in their stead. In turn, the pushback against colonialism has seen new connections established in the area, as the idea of a pan-Asian partnership began to form.
The crux of Professor Medcalf’s argument, and his suggestion for the future of Australian foreign policy, is that we should actively work towards a multilateral regime in the Indo-Pacific, with nations such as Australia, Japan, Indonesia and India well positioned to flourish in such an environment. This goes hand in hand with resisting China’s over-extension, which he proposes will benefit everyone involved, including Beijing. He believes that Chinese international influence has reached its peak, citing the flaws in the country’s governmental system as well as the Belt and Road Initiative. Overall, he argues that we must keep our perspective when it comes to China, and start to recognise that the rising superpower is only one element in a much larger, more complex system, which holds many other opportunities for building diplomatic ties. Moreover, using these ties we can mould our region into a multilateral space for the advantage of many nations.