The Indo-Pacific concept has become a useful organizing principle for a wide range of nations seeking to manage and balance Chinese power. This is not automatically about excluding China from the regional order, but about incorporating China into a regional order where the rights of others are respected, while balancing against China when those rights are not. The Indo-Pacific idea recognizes a two-ocean strategic system of connectivity and contest, a maritime, multipolar region centered on Asia but not exclusively Asian.
The Quad and AUKUS are strong manifestations of balancing strategies in the Indo-Pacific. However, the challenge now for their member states is to reconcile these exclusive balancing arrangements with the more inclusive approach advocated by ASEAN and the EU. This will require nations like Australia to be more effective at articulating why AUKUS serves the interests of many partners. At the same time, EU nations will need to openly acknowledge why balancing and deterrence postures may be increasingly necessary in a world where China-Russia collaboration threatens stability at both ends of Eurasia.
The diplomatic storm of the Australian-British-American technology pact called AUKUS has become a familiar story. It involved Australia’s sudden abandonment of the program with France’s Naval Group to build a fleet of advanced diesel-electric submarines. Instead, in September 2021, Australia announced an extraordinary agreement with the United States and the United Kingdom to acquire nuclear-powered vessels, either the US Virginia-class or UK Astute-class SSN.
The French government cried betrayal and deception over the termination of a contract that reflected a wider strategic partnership. Australia insisted it was simply pursuing the best military capability to protect its national interests in response to growing threats from China. The mistrust will be slow to subside. But deeper ocean currents were revealed. For another character in this drama was something called the Indo-Pacific. This is a word barely heard in international affairs just a few years earlier, but now a powerful diplomatic mantra, a term with many useful meanings, including a code for what to do about a powerful and assertive China.
Also in September 2021, 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 strategic grouping, widely seen as a diplomatic balance to China. 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’. This program has continued into 2022, with Quad leaders convening again at short notice in March of that year to maintain momentum on the public goods agenda while also managing differences over responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The leaders reiterated that the primary focus of the Quad should remain the Indo-Pacific.
The main contest for the Indo-Pacific is of course the struggle between China and other powers for strategic influence and domination. But now there is a second contest for the Indo-Pacific: a competition between different interpretations of this regional concept as a basis for external policy. Canberra’s diplomatic activism has effectively propagated the Indo-Pacific as a unifying idea. Australia has become the centre of a family feud in which different democracies are preaching their own versions of the creed. France defined its outcry over the sunken submarines deal, not in the crude business terms of the global arms trade but as a regretful ‘lack of consistency’ in efforts to uphold shared interests and values in la région indo-pacifique. After all, on the very same day as the AUKUS bombshell, the European Union, long accused of ignoring the tense geopolitical realities of Asia, had released its own ‘strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’.
For Indo-Pacific democracies such as Australia, Japan and India, it is welcome that the EU is taking a renewed interest in the region, and that it is embracing a two-ocean framework. However, there is a risk that the European focus on multilateral diplomacy, inclusiveness and non-confrontation sidesteps the hard question of what to do if China has other ideas, with its growing coercion of Taiwan. Moreover, China’s support for Russia, ahead of and during the Ukraine invasion, suggests that EU countries will not permanently be able to overlook the question of whether China poses a systemic challenge globally rather than just a regional threat to resident powers in the Indo-Pacific.
In the 2020s, European policy ambitions in the region should be informed by the need to maintain an order where power is tempered by principles, where the rights and interests of all nations are respected, and where short-term commercial imperatives do not obscure strategic balance or democratic values. At that same time, there are risks of excessive expectations. European nations will have difficulty sustaining their Indo-Pacific strategies if those detract from addressing problems close to home — especially the Russia threat — and if a key measure of success in the Indo-Pacific becomes the projection of military power. What does this mean in practice? It means taking a multi-layered approach to regional engagement, and in particular not letting the whole game rise or fall on any one dimension of activity, particularly military commitment. The trend towards European force projection into Indo-Pacific waters is welcome, from the regular French presence to the 2021 UK carrier strike group (with Dutch and American elements) and the separate voyage of a German frigate.
However, the biggest and most sustained difference Europe can make to the Indo-Pacific dynamic is likely to lie in an aggregate of non-military contributions. Although Europe’s strategic weight remains substantial, we can only anticipate that a relatively small proportion of it will ever be allocated to Indo-Pacific contingencies for any sustained time. On the other hand, European diplomatic reputation and credibility is strong in this region, marked for instance by high levels of trust from Southeast Asian elites. Concerted diplomacy – especially in support of rules, normal and international law – along with strategically directed development assistance will help bolster the resolve and capacity of small and medium powers to safeguard their own sovereignty in the face of blandishments or coercive signals from Beijing.
‘AUKUS, the QUAD and the EU: Inclusive and Exclusive Visions for the Indo-Pacific’ — Commentary by Rory Medcalf — Italian Institute for International Political Studies / ISPI.