ASPI’s decades: Asia–Pacific to Indo-Pacific

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

ASPI – THE STRATEGIST – 24 May 2021|Graeme Dobell

Among strategists, geography is used in an effort to refine Australia’s strategic thinking and impose hierarchy and order on Defence spending and structure.

Yet in the first decades of the 21st century the geographic calculus was bedevilled by fundamental shifts in power.

As much else changed, so did Australia’s sense of the world around its continent, transformed by a shape-shifting, expanding sense of region.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Australia helped build an ambitious geographic construct, the Asia–Pacific. Then that Asia–Pacific model gave way to an even larger defining geography, the Indo-Pacific.

India’s growing importance had to be acknowledged, China’s systemic effects had to be calculated, Japan’s security evolution embraced, and the traditional concentration on Indonesia and ASEAN had to be affirmed and made central to the expanded understanding.

Just as geography is remade by tectonic forces, geopolitics and geoeconomics remade the policy frame to adjust to China’s rise, India’s arrival and America’s relative decline.

Kevin Rudd’s Labor government that won office in 2007 set to work on a new defence white paper, and when the policy was delivered in May 2009, geography was in the title: Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific century.

ASPI’s Rod Lyon and Andrew Davies wrote that while media reporting of Labor’s policy statement tended to focus on the hardware acquisition (‘And that is not surprising—there is a lot of it.’), just as important was a ‘significant re-positioning of Australia’s declaratory strategic policy’ and ‘a firm geography-based line’ amid the shifting sands of the Asia–Pacific:

That emphasis on geographical determinism is reinforced in the White Paper’s acknowledgement that, while Australia has four major strategic interests—a secure Australia, a secure neighbourhood, a stable Asia–Pacific and a rules-based global order—only the first two of those interests will actually shape the Australian force structure. Given that, one could be forgiven for wondering why the power balance shifts in the wider Asia–Pacific engendered by the rise of China are given so much prominence elsewhere in the document. Indeed, there seems to be something of a disconnect here. If developments in the wider region are not force structure determinants, why the emphasis on a larger fleet of long-range submarines with strategic strike capabilities? The revival of the Defence of Australia strategic orthodoxy suggests a narrowing of Australian strategic policy focus under the Rudd government.

In one sense, the white paper was ‘ground-breaking’, then–ASPI executive director Peter Abigail observed:

It was the first public policy statement by a US ally that attempted to come to terms with the power shifts underway in the Asia–Pacific and raise questions about the durability of US strategic primacy. It lifted what had been academic, commentarial and officials’ discourse into the realm of declared policy and, therefore, attracted quite a bit of attention, particularly in Beijing and Washington.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Davies and Mark Thomson considered the regional ‘state of flux’ and saw two broad futures—the key unknown was whether economic cooperation or strategic competition would take precedence:

The optimistic possibility is that Asia will evolve into a region in which cooperation trumps strategic competition—something akin to how Europe operates today. The more pessimistic possibility is that strategic competition will grow into mounting tensions and that Asia will face the same bleak prospects that Europe did a century ago.

When Lyon mapped the ‘strategic contours’ of Asia’s rise in 2012, he couldn’t separate those two futures of competition or cooperation. The region faced a strange blend of both— what business calls ‘coopetition’. Lyon noted transformational change, characterised by two interlinked phenomena: ‘the relative decline of US power in Asia, and the “return” of Asian great powers to the international system’.

Within that coopetitive Asia–Pacific, the principal structures of the regional security order—the existing contours of reassurance and deterrence—were starting to fray, Lyon wrote:

[A]s multipolarity grows in Asia, regional perceptions of US primacy are becoming more blurred. That blurring weakens the interlinked systems of reassurance and deterrence that underpin the current order. As Asian coercive power grows—and coercive power is the power to intimidate as well as the power to do actual physical harm—the region as a whole is entering a new era of reassurance worries.



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