Rory Medcalf

Rory Medcalf


In a recent piece for The Diplomat you mentioned a term: The “Indo-Pacific.” Could you please define this term and explain its significance to our readers who maybe unfamiliar with it.

The Indo-Pacific, or more precisely Indo-Pacific Asia, is a credible new way of defining the global center of gravity in economic and strategic terms. It includes the United States and is focused on Asia’s key powers, especially China and India.  This is a principally maritime strategic environment in which the acute dependence of major East Asian nations plus India on seaborne energy and resource supply lines features prominently. Those sea lanes extend across the Indian Ocean to Africa as well as to other parts of the Indo-Pacific littoral, notably Australia, helping to make this an integrated strategic system. Of course, this definition is still a work in progress, and some security challenges like North Korea’s nuclear weapons and rocketry will remain at one level sub-regional, even though it still engages the interests of Indo-Pacific giants like China and the United States.

But it is really quite striking that the United States, Australia, India and some other countries have become increasingly comfortable with thinking and talking in terms of Indo-Pacific in their policy pronouncements in recent years, and this makes sense to those of us in think tanks who have been advocating for the Indo-Pacific concept for some time. The big challenge now is to socialize the concept with China, which may see its own role diluted in this wider strategic context but which is in fact the quintessential Indo-Pacific nation, owing to its energy dependencies and active, far-flung diplomacy and security interests. Indo-Pacific is not code for containment, but some in Beijing will need convincing of this.

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You have recently commented about the importance of India-Australia relations. Over the next 10 years, what issues do you see defining this growing partnership? What challenges could limit cooperation?

Within the Indo-Pacific, one of the key relationships to watch is between India and Australia, including in the context of both nations’ closer ties with the United States and their ambivalence about China. These two very different democracies are starting to find all sorts of commonalities and mutual interests, from a highly complementary energy relationship — Australia digs and exports, India desperately needs — through education, labor, defense and security. For the first time since Indian independence in 1947, this relationship faces no fundamental obstacle to trust and growth, as my co-chair on the Australia-India Roundtable dialogue, C. Raja Mohan, has pointed out. We are moving past the nasty phase in 2009-10 that involved misperceptions and policy lapses over the safety and welfare of Indian students studying in Australia. Indians are beginning to realize what a dynamic, open, and multicultural country Australia is, and the great prospects Australian institutions hold for educating India’s huge number of aspiring youth. A few outdated misperceptions about supposed “White Australian” racism linger, of course, but these are receding. For Australia’s part, we need to acknowledge there are pockets of prejudice in every country. Meanwhile, the key political obstacle — an Australian ban on uranium sales to India — is becoming a thing of the past, with both sides of Australian politics now supporting exports in principle. There may yet be bumps ahead. Australia will need to work hard to compete with other suitors’ for India’s attention. And there are serious constraints on India’s ability to engage with any foreign country and forge real strategic policy, owing to the gross underfunding of India’s external policy bureaucracy. These could slow things down but I anticipate progress in Indo-Pacific maritime security dialogue and cooperation, perhaps even with third countries such as Indonesia and, in time, possibly Japan or the United States. And this in turn will need parallel reassurances towards China.

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