Is the Indo-Pacific just a geographic region, or something more?

20 December 2018

The Australian Government’s use of the terms ‘Indo-pacific’ and ‘rules-based-order’ have come under question at the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) meeting held recently in Perth.

CSCAP is an international non-governmental (Track-2) organisation with a focus on security issues in the Asia Pacific, with 21 member countries from across the broad Asia-Pacific region.

The organisation’s Co-Chair, Professor Anthony Milner of the Australian National University (ANU), said the meeting brought particular scrutiny on the use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’.

“The Australia Government uses the term all the time and it makes good sense as a geographic framing concept,” Professor Milner said.

“The trouble is that it means different things to different people.

“For the US and Japanese, there is an emphasis on a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific, which some read as being anti-China – and as suggesting democratic, ideological aspirations.

“Many see it as the redefining of the region to dilute the role of China.”

Professor Milner said the issue was further complicated by talk - in Indonesia, for instance - of the Indo-Pacific becoming the basis of a new regional architecture.

“Are we about to have a push for some kind of Indo-Pacific institution?

“That causes a bit of anxiety for the people who want to protect ASEAN institutions, including the East Asia Summit, which brings all the Southeast and Northeast Asian leaders together with the leaders of the U.S., Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.

“The ASEAN-led institutions are far from perfect, but in a sense they are the one thing that holds the region together. “Also, if ASEAN is not to lead, who would lead? Creating a new regional institution might provoke contest rather than new collaboration”.

Equally complicated is the term ‘rules-based order’. Professor Milner said it makes sense for Australia to promote a rules-based system, but again there is confusion.

“Some suspect that a liberal rules-based-order means an American order, created largely under American influence. It is also argued that as power shifts toward China and other Asian states, the actual rules may need to be adjusted.

“The rules-based order remains problematic,” he said.

Professor Milner said that if the Australian Government is going to continue highlighting these terms, regional Track-2 discussions, such as the CSCAP-led one in Perth, help us to gauge regional actions.

“What we learn at these events can assist us to formulate such concepts as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and the ‘rules-based order’ in more effective ways”.

The Australian arm of CSCAP was established by the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and its members include former and current officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Defence, and other government bodies – as well as Members of Parliament, academics, media representatives, and senior executives from Australian industry.

The recent CSCAP meeting in Perth was attended by more than 40 regional participants – and included also Kim Beazley (Governor of Western Australia), Julie Bishop MP (former Foreign Minister), and Stephen Smith (former Defence and Foreign Minister).

It was led by the Co-Chairs of the Australian CSCAP committee, Ric Smith (former Secretary of Defence) and Professor Anthony Milner.

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