Australia in the ‘Asia-Pacific’, ‘Asian’ or ‘Indo-Pacific’ Century: Great, Greater, and yet Greater-still Expectations?

Ben Moles

“Sometimes the wildest notion, the most apparently impossible idea, takes such a firm hold of the mind that at length it is taken for something realisable… More than that: if the idea coincides with a strong and passionate desire, it may sometimes be accepted as something predestined, inevitable, foreordained, something that cannot but exist or happen!” Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has recently slipped into the lexicon of Australian policy makers et al, in quiet supplement to the ‘Asian Century’ and the ‘Asia-Pacific Century’ that went before that, with relative ease and with little questioning as to what this semantic shift actually means and achieves. But is there very much utility, from an Australian perspective, of defining ones region and thus strategic interests in such increasingly broad terms?

There are some at Australian International Policy think-tank the Lowy Institute, a long term advocate of the term, that certainly believe so. However, this could be more in keeping with Lowy’s mandate to promote Australia Internationally- with the term placing Australia in the spotlight and geographic centre of these two oceans and vast region, cementing Australia’s identity and role as a potential key actor in this emerging epoch- and there is nothing particularly wrong with wanting to do that; yet I would suggest that there is limited utility in defining Australian interests so broadly. We should remember that ‘it is wise to look forward yet foolish to look further than one can see’. With two definitive Australian Government White papers to be released over the coming year, ‘The Asian Century White Paper’ and the ‘2013 Australian Defence White Paper’, I wonder how our region and strategic interests will be characterised and to what extent this dictum will be remembered.

The ‘Asia-Pacific Century’, ‘Asian Century’ and now seemingly ‘Indo-Pacific Century’ are terms that have been introduced to the common vernacular and superseded to define ‘our’ region and Australia’s place within it. I find this problematic on two fronts: on both temporal and spatial planes.

On a temporal level a Century is an attractive quantifier of time because it allows for the acceptance and acknowledgement of much to do whilst dangerously allowing for much time in order to set about doing it. Looking ahead too far fosters complacency, detracts from the sense of urgency required to ‘get the ball rolling’ now, and distracts one from the opportunities that currently exist under our noses- an inescapable problem with looking too far ahead is that you miss the extant opportunities, and risks, in front of you. Furthermore, we are acutely aware of the problems inherent in trying to make predictions regarding the short-term future (<5-10 years), so why continually look so far ahead?

Spatially or geographically: if you accept the broad concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, and there would be many that would fall at this first hurdle, it would be hard to refute the importance of what happens both on land and within the maritime domain encapsulated by its vast boundaries (from the shores of East Africa to the western seaboard of the United States). However, what is of primary importance when defining our own region and area of strategic interest is our ability to influence and shape what happens within that region, an ability to shape those interests and create favourable outcomes.

Australia has grappled for many years now with both defining what it wants and determining how it can achieve it within our near-neighbourhood, a recognised necessary-evil to overcome raised by Donald Horne as far back as 1964 in ‘The Lucky country’ and more recently by Michael Wesley in 2011 in ‘There goes the neighbourhood’(in which Wesley also defines Australia’s region as ‘Indo-Pacific). If we cant decide what we want and how we can exert influence in-order to achieve it within an area at relative close proximity to us, I wonder how do we then plan to project it further afield in accordance to our increasingly greater defined areas of strategic interest as characterised by the moniker ‘Indo-Pacific’?

There are three primary factors important to determining where Australia’s actual ‘general’ region of strategic interest is and what our strategic interests should be and they are: geography, capacity and will. Geography is an absolute and pertains to where we are and whom and what is within proximity to us. Capacity relates to who we are and what we have. Will is what we want- and to a certain extent how much we want it. Finally, the realisation of limitations imposed on us by these three factors, geography, capacity and will, should determine what we can do and where we can do it, or what our region of strategic interest is (and its limits) and what our strategic interests are (and there limits). Factoring these variables into our strategic calculus, we can then rationally and realistically recognise what is possible and thus set about achieving it, through the converging of both means with ends.

Key to exerting influence and creating favourable outcomes is presence and presence credibility. Two core tools that enable states to project this successfully are reflected in both the strength of their diplomatic representation (and overseas presence), and military strength and capabilities (including actual and perceived ability to have and sustain overseas presence). Geographically characterising and increasing Australia’s strategic region to the wide expansive theatre of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ would require quantum shifts, on both these fronts, in both will and capacity; two things that prima facie under the current environment look unlikely to happen.

Australia, on comparative global terms, is diplomatically under-represented sitting 25th out of 34 OECD states on a comparison of overseas diplomatic networks. DFAT’s budget remains modest and despite recent gestures made in the right direction, looks set to remain so for the foreseeable future. With deep cuts to the Australian defence budget, debate rages on as to defining the ADF’s core capabilities and what we want and expect the ADF to do with them; a shrinking defence budget shouldn’t precipitate increasing expectations on the ADF and increasing the perimeters of the region within which we expect it to successfully and credibly operate.

It is sometimes a far easier endeavour to determine what something isn’t rather than what something actually is. Australia, as much as we might like it to be, certainly isn’t an ‘Indo-Pacific actor’ nor is the ‘Indo-Pacific’ our strategic region, what is lies much closer to these shores; there is clearly still confusion and a need to determine and define exactly what that area is. In addressing this question and in seeking an answer we must assess and consider our geography, capacity and will, recognise our limitations and remember and heed the advice: that it is indeed wise to look forward but foolish to look further than one can see. In so doing, we might discover that the answer, and it might very well begin with Indo…, sits under our very noses.

Ben Moles completed his Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute. An edited version of this post appears here on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s ‘The Strategist’. (bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

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One thought on “Australia in the ‘Asia-Pacific’, ‘Asian’ or ‘Indo-Pacific’ Century: Great, Greater, and yet Greater-still Expectations?

  1. Pingback: A few observations in relation to my piece yesterday and the released Australian Defence White Paper today. | International Security Discipulus

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